Most of us have private things in our histories – even secrets – that we don’t necessarily want to share with others. And when those ‘others’ are our children, it may be especially important to us to keep those things to ourselves. There are all sorts of reasons for which parents don’t always tell their children all the details of their histories. Sometimes it’s because those details are embarrassing. Sometimes it’s because knowing the truth could be hurtful. And sometimes, it’s because parents want their children to have a certain image of them, and that image would be damaged if the truth came out.
Whatever the reason, there are plenty of examples in crime fiction of parents who want to keep things from their children. And there are examples of children who are just as determined to find those things out. It makes sense, too. Not only is that realistic, but it’s also a solid source of interest and conflict in a novel.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s novella Dead Man’s Mirror, Hercule Poirot is summoned to the country home of Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore. It seems that Chevenix-Gore believes that someone is stealing from him, and he wants Poirot to find out the truth. At first, Poirot doesn’t want to look into this matter, as he’s not pleased about Chevenix-Gore’s highhandedness. But he agrees to go. Shortly after his arrival, though, Chevenix-Gore is shot. In the beginning, it looks very much like a suicide. But there are little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise, so Poirot starts to ask questions. He soon learns that more than one person might have wanted to kill the victim. One of the people involved is Chevenix-Gore’s adopted daughter, Ruth. In the course of the story, we learn something about her past – something that no-one has told her. And it plays a part in the story.
Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar introduces readers to the Hillman family. Ralph and Elaine Hillman have sent their son, Tom, to Laguna Perdida, a residential school for ‘troubled youth.’ When Tom goes missing, the school’s owner/director, Dr. Sponti, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy. As they’re discussing the case, Ralph Hillman comes to the office, and says that Tom’s been abducted, and he’s had a ransom demand. Archer goes back to the Hillman home to see what he can do to help. Soon enough, though, he learns that this is not a case of a wealthy family being extorted for money. There’s something more (and darker) going on here. And when it comes out that Tom may have gone willingly with the people who have him, it’s even clearer that this is a different sort of case. Archer perseveres, despite the hurdles he faces, and finds out the truth. It turns out that one important factor here is a set of secrets that Tom’s parents have kept from him.
John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a Bangkok-based member of the Royal Thai Police. His mother, Nong, is a former bar girl who’s now embarked on a new career. Sonchai and his mother are close, and he treats her with respect. She loves him, too, and cares very much about him. But there’s one thing that she won’t tell him: the name of his father. Sonchai is half farang (foreigner), so he knows that his father is not Thai. But he doesn’t know the man’s name or background, and his mother won’t share that information with him, at least at the beginning of the series. It’s one of the few real sources of tension between them.
In Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, we meet twelve-year-old Steven Lamb. He lives with his younger brother, Davey, his mother, Lettie, and his grandmother, Gloria. They’re not well off (‘though they’re not desperate), and on the surface, you’d think it was a normal, working-class family. But it’s not. Nineteen years earlier, Lettie’s brother (and Steven’s uncle), Billy Peters, disappeared and never returned. Despite a thorough search, Billy was never found – not even a body. Lettie’s and Gloria’s way of coping with the devastation has been silence. They don’t discuss Billy or the events of that time. Steven knows a few things about what happened, and about his uncle, but not much. The adults in his life have tried, in their way, to protect him, but you could almost say that it’s had the opposite effect. Steven is almost obsessed with wanting to know what happened to his Uncle Billy. He’s learned that a man named Arnold Avery most likely abducted and killed Uncle Billy. He’s hoping he can get Avery to tell him where his uncle’s body is. So, he decides to contact Avery, who’s in prison for other child murders. The two begin a suspenseful exchange of letters, which Steven does his best to hide from his family. In the end, that exchange opens up some very old wounds, and opens up some of the silences in the family.
And then there’s Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass. In that novel, pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman returns from London to her native Auckland. With her, she brings her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ While Yossi and Roi are eager to start over again in Auckland, Claire’s been very reluctant. She doesn’t want her family’s past dug up, and she wants to protect Roi, in particular, from her own past. Soon enough, we see why Claire’s so concerned, In 1970, seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips went missing and never returned. Claire’s father, Patrick, was accused of abduction and murder. He was even tried and convicted. But there was never enough evidence to sustain the conviction on appeal. So, he was released. Still, plenty of people think he’s guilty. When a hospital case thrusts Claire into the media spotlight, the old case comes up again, and now Claire wants desperately to hide it all from Roi. In the meantime, Roi wants to know more about her own background. Claire’s told her that her birth father was a Māori man with whom Claire had a brief affair, but nothing more than that. Now, Roi would like to find out more, and get to know her Māori family. And she’s as determined to get her answers as Claire is to protect her from them.
There are plenty of reasons parents might not want to share everything with their children. Sometimes, keeping things quiet is the right choice. Other times, it’s not. Either way, it makes for an interesting layer of character or source of tension in a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Eels song.