One of the hardest challenges for law enforcement, social service and other professionals to face is working with young suspects and young people who are actually guilty of crimes. On the one hand, a crime is a crime regardless of the age of the culprit. On the other, there are real psychological and other differences between younger people and adults. What’s more, there are many people who argue that if you don’t give juvenile criminals genuine opportunities to make lives for themselves (as opposed, let’s say, to putting them in prison, especially with adults), you create repeat offenders who will probably be criminals for the rest of their lives.
There are no easy answers to these questions, and I don’t claim to have the solution. But young people’s involvement in crime is an important social reality, and so naturally, it comes up in crime fiction too. Space permits me only a few examples, but hopefully they’ll suffice.
In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall takes a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. With her are her husband Captain Kenneth Marshall and her stepdaughter Linda. Shortly after they arrive, Arlena begins a not-very-well-hidden affair with a fellow guest Patrick Redfern. One day she’s strangled and her body is discovered on the beach at Pixy’s Cove, not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel and works with the police to find out who the murderer is. One of the people they interview is sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She disliked her stepmother intensely and as it turns out, doesn’t have a real alibi for the time. So she is a very real suspect for this crime. It’s interesting to note how the police (and Poirot) view her in light of her age. Saying a lot more would give away spoilers, but it’s an interesting treatment of a young suspect.
In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, we meet Trevor Sharp, an Eastvale, Yorkshire teenager who’s having trouble fitting in at school and getting along. To his father’s dismay, he takes up with Mick Webster, who’s been in and out of trouble for a very long time. Although Trevor’s father warns him to stay away from Mick, Trevor doesn’t listen. He and Mick start getting involved in several ‘adventures’ that get them into real trouble. DCI Alan Banks encounters them in the course of a few cases he’s investigating: a voyeur who’s making the lives of the local women miserable; a series of home invasions; and a murder. As Banks and his team slowly follow the threads of these cases, we see how what starts as an adventure, a rebellious act, or an ‘I want to make my mark’ act can spiral out of control.
Kate Morgenroth’s Jude tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy’s who’s been living with his drug-dealer father. Jude is a witness when one day, someone shoots his father. So he’s taken away for his own safety. Later he goes to live with his mother, who’s the local District Attorney. Jude is placed in an exclusive private school. He remains under suspicion for his father’s murder, but the police don’t have enough evidence to arrest him. He knows more than he’s telling, too, but his life depends on his not saying anything. Then one day his new friend Nick dies of a heroin overdose and Jude is implicated. He’s not guilty, but he’s persuaded to plead guilty so as to shore up his mother’s campaign for re-election on an anti-drugs platform. Jude is promised that as soon as the election is over, his name will be cleared. Instead, he’s tried as an adult and convicted. Then, a school friend David Marshall, who’s now a reporter, gets wind of the story. Together he and Jude work to find out the truth about Nick’s death – and about Jude’s own past.
There’s also William Landay’s Defending Jacob. In that novel, fourteen-year-old Ben Rifkin is stabbed to death. Before long, his schoolmate Jacob Barber is suspected and in fact arrested. At first, his father, Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber, doesn’t believe his son had anything to do with the crime. But little by little, pieces of evidence begin to suggest that things are not what they seem. Is Jacob guilty of the crime? If so, what led to it? If not, who’s trying to frame him and why? This novel takes a look at juvenile crime from the legal and the personal perspective.
And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is in prison for a horrific crime. One night, thirteen members of her family were poisoned, and some stabbed as well. Then the house was set on fire. Only Durga survived, and the evidence suggests she may have been a victim as well, as she was tied up and possibly raped. But the police can’t get very far on the case because Durga hasn’t spoken about that night. The Inspector General for the State of Punjab knows that this is an extremely delicate case. Durga is not an adult, so she can’t really be treated as one. And yet, she obviously knows more than she is saying. So he asks an old friend, social worker Simran Singh, to come to the village of Jullundur to interview Durga, work with her and perhaps get her to open up. Simran agrees and makes the trip from Delhi, where she lives. As Simran slowly gets to know Durga, we see that applying the ‘usual rules’ to certain juvenile cases can do more harm than good. We also see that this is definitely not a case of a teenager who ‘just snapped.’
In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police is called to the scene of a home invasion. With him goes probationer Lucy Howard, who’s hoping to get some experience. Tragically, White is stabbed to death at the scene of the crime. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of the juvenile justice system for a long time. Since one of their own has been killed, the police are determined to catch the killer. But they know that to do that, they’ll have to ‘play by the rules’ no matter how much they’d rather not. It complicates matters too that Rowley is part Aboriginal, so the media will be very alert to any perceived discrimination. In this novel, there are some really interesting discussions of the protection provided by the juvenile justice system. There are also interesting questions raised about what kinds of crime young people commit, and at what point one considers them adults.
It’s challenging enough to decide what the best way is to deal with criminals. It’s even harder when alleged or actual criminals are (at least legally) children. I honestly don’t have all the answers. I don’t even know if there is just one answer. But it is a very real issue in real life, and it’s raised in crime fiction too. Which novels that deal with this issue have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pete Townhend’s Rough Boys.