It’s not easy being a ‘tween or a teen. On the one hand, these young people are still children. On the other, they’re experimenting with being adults, and very often want to be seen that way. There’s a lot of pressure (social, economic, and other pressure, too) to grow up. So it’s little wonder that young people ‘try on’ adulthood, even when it doesn’t work out well. Crime fiction is full of examples of characters like this. Here are just a few.
Agatha Christie wrote several characters who are experimenting with adulthood. One of them is fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, whom we meet in Dead Man’s Folly (there are lots of other examples; I had a hard time choosing just one!). Her parents are (to her mind) old-fashioned, and won’t permit her to wear makeup. Her mother, in fact, says,
‘You’re a decent girl…and you wash your face with soap and water until you’re a lot older than what you are.’
Marlene doesn’t agree, and manages to sneak cosmetics and perfume into her home. She puts them on at the local convenience store if she’s going into town. Her family isn’t wealthy, but she has a way of finding out people’s secrets. So, she gets the money for those things from ‘presents’ people give her in exchange for her silence. That habit proves fatal when she finds out something about someone who’s willing to kill to keep that secret. Her body is discovered during a Murder Hunt at Nasse House in Nassecomb. Hercule Poirot has been invited to the event, and he slowly finds out who the killer is, and how Marlene’s death is connected to a disappearance that happens on the same day.
In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police) has a challenging case on his hands. Sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi has gone missing from the residential school she attends. The trail leads to Los Angeles, where Chee finds the girl – until she goes missing again. This case turns out to be related to another Chee is working: the death of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s moved to the Reservation. Margaret and the dead man were distant kin, so Chee is sure that her trip to Los Angeles has something to do with Gorman, and so it turns out to be. Throughout this novel, we see that Margaret has taken on a lot of adult responsibilities, even though she’s still a child in a lot of ways. She has to grow up fast, and she turns out to be quite strong and resourceful.
Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses begins as the South London police receive an odd anonymous letter. In it, the writer confesses to the murder of an unidentified man whose body was found on the tracks at an underground station. The story then goes back in time to 1966 South East London. It’s a time of Mods, Rockers, and a lot of social and sexual experimentation (to say nothing of the music). Teenage sisters Madeline ‘Midge’ and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Dolan want nothing more than to be a part of the cultural, musical, and fashion scene. They’re what used to be called ‘good girls,’ and their mother intends to keep things that way. But they’re fascinated by it all. One day, they finally wangle permission to go to the Palais Royale on a Friday night. Their mother insists that their cousin Jimmy take them and bring them back, and the girls accept that condition, since Jimmy is ‘cool.’ That Friday night, Jimmy takes the girls to the dance hall, and at first, all goes well. That night changes everything, though, and ends up having an impact on the whole family for the rest of their lives.
John Hart’s The Last Child introduces thirteen-year-old Johnny Merriman. He’s been devastated since the disappearance of his twin sister Alyssa a year earlier. It hasn’t helped matters that his mother Katherine has been left mentally and emotionally fragile. His father Spencer has left the family, and Johnny feels very much responsible for taking care of Katherine. He is also determined to find out the truth about Alyssa. At a time in his life when most boys are doing schoolwork (or skipping school), spending time with friends, and so on, Johnny has taken on adult responsibilities. One day, he’s down by the local river when a man’s body hurtles off the bridge over the river. The man dies, but not before he gives Johnny a cryptic clue:
‘I found her…the girl that was taken.’
Johnny’s convinced the man is referring to Alyssa, and puts a plan into action to find out what happened to his sister. Detective Clyde Hunt investigated Alyssa’s disappearance, and also feels a responsibility to find her (or at least, her body). He also feels a sense of duty to try to keep Johnny safe if he can. He knows, though, that Johnny won’t be dissuaded. Sometimes awkwardly, he and Johnny work together to find out the truth.
David Whish-Wilson’s True West is the story of seventeen-year-old Lee Southern. As the novel begins (in 1988), he’s heading to Perth in search of a new life. He’s driving a truck he hopes to use to rescue stranded motorists, so he can earn some money. He’s good at taking care of himself, since his father raised him to have strong survivalist skills. But those skills may not be enough. For one thing, Lee is trying to outrun a gang called the Knights, who may very well have a score to settle with him. For another, he doesn’t know at first (but soon finds out) that the tow business he wants is already controlled by some dangerous people who have no intention of letting him take any of their profits. So, they make him ‘an offer he can’t refuse.’ Now, he has to try to stay alive, to say nothing of finding a place to live and some legal employment. Lee has to cope with all of this at a time when a lot of teens are planning for university, or working their first part-time jobs, or experimenting with love and sex (sometimes a combination of all three).
Many of us think that young people should have the chance to grow up more slowly, to be children longer, and to wait until they’re adults to take on adult roles and responsibilities. But that’s not how it works out sometimes. There are lots of examples of this sort of plot line in crime fiction. I know you’ll think of more than I could.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen.
6 thoughts on “She’s Got the Grown Up Blues*”
As I read the post I thought of Jacob Barber in Defending Jacob by William Landay. At 14 Jacob faces some serious growing up when he is charged with murdering a school classmate. An excellent book but uncomfortable for a father who raised two sons and is a defence lawyer.
Defending Jacob is a really good example of what I had in mind about growing up fast, Bill. Facing the justice system can be wrenching enough. Having to face it as a teen like that must be even more awful. I can see why the book made you uncomfortable, no matter how well it’s written. Books like that do raise important questions, and to me, that’s part of their appeal.
Poor Marlene! She was definitely playing with fire. Great examples here, Margot!
Thanks, Elizabeth! And yes, Marlene most definitely was in over her head, and taking risks she didn’t even know she was taking.
There’s a very good book, well-known briefly but forgotten now: I Start Counting by Audrey Erskine Lindop. it is narrated by a teenage girl who is trying to navigate her way through the life around her – and then the crimes start. Is it someone she knows? It is a very clever and disconcerting book, and also does a great job of giving a voice to the teenager. It was made into a film starring Jenny Agutter. Book and film were both late 60s.
That does sound like a compelling read, Moira. I’ll admit, I’m not familiar with it, but I can see how that might be unsettling. And I give a lot of credit to an author who can create a believable, interesting teenage voice. That’s not easy to do!