Leave Them Kids Alone*

As this is posted, it’s 90 years since the tragic end to the Lindbergh kidnapping case, when Charles Lindbergh, Jr. was found dead. That abduction and murder captured the public interest, and there was an outpouring of anger at the killer and sympathy for the parents. In fact, there was so much pressure for a conviction that some experts have wondered whether Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was executed for the murder, was actually guilty. Certainly his wife and others protested his innocence.

But it shouldn’t be surprising that there was so much outcry. This was a case involving a small child, and that sort of case has a special urgency. People have an instinct to want to protect the most vulnerable, so they get especially upset when something happens to a child. Think of all of the other news stories you’ve read involving a child as the victim, and you’ll see a pattern.

It’s also arguably true in crime fiction. And, no, lest you worry, I’m not going to do a list of books in which fictional children are killed. I will say, though, that many readers do not like children to be badly harmed or killed in the stories they read. It’s one thing for, say, a child to get lost. That’s upsetting, but as long as the child is alright in the end (even if injured) readers can accept it as part of the plot. That plot point can even build tension. In fact a major part of the tension in Denns Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone comes from the fact that four-year-old Amanda McCready has gone missing. PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro are hired to see if they can find out what’s happened to the girl, and as the plot unfolds, the suspense is maintained as readers want to know whether Amanda will be alright. There are other books like that, too.

That said, though, for many readers, a line is crossed if a child suffers or dies. Interestingly enough, a crime novel in which a child is a long-ago victim doesn’t seem to fall in the same category. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take and Elly Griffiths’ The Crossing Places both have plots that involve children who died long ago. That suits the stories, and there aren’t grisly details of the deaths, either, so, for many readers, it doesn’t have the same awful impact.

There are also novels in which children have what you might call a rough start (they’re sent to social services, or in some other way face obstacles). Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has that sort of background. It’s discussed in more than one of the Bosch stories, and it’s clear that Bosch has had some difficult times. But the details aren’t grisly. Most importantly, Bosch has survived into productive adulthood. He may have his issues, even scars, but he’s made a life for himself. When those stories or backgrounds are done well, readers don’t seem to put them in the same category as stories where children are badly harmed.

Why do crime fiction fans have such an aversion to stories where there’s harm to children? I’m not a psychologist, but one possibility is that children are vulnerable, and it’s in our species’ interest to care for them. So, it’s natural for us to be repulsed when that doesn’t happen. There’s also the fact that many readers are (grand)parents themselves, and they identify closely with fictional caregivers. We don’t want to imagine something terrible happening to our (grand)children, so the images conjured up in certain books hit too close to home, as the saying goes.

The same thing seems to be true of readers’ reaction to books in which animals are harmed or worse. Again, I don’t intend to list novels where that happens. Suffice it to say that, for many readers, that’s enough to send a book to the DNF pile. Readers can accept it if a pet is injured and needs veterinary care. But many won’t tolerate pets suffering or being killed. There are plenty of crime fiction fans who don’t have a problem if several people are killed (so long as it fits with the plot, etc..). But let a cat or dog or other pet become a victim, and that’s too much.

Why is it that readers have such strong feelings about fictional animals? One possibility is that many readers have pets themselves. They can identify with a character who’s lost an animal, and that sense of connection can be overpowering. It may also be that, like children, animals are vulnerable. Perhaps readers don’t like the idea of the most vulnerable being victims, or perhaps it’s an instinct to protect. Some readers also see a basic unfairness when those who can’t fight back become victims. Whatever the reason, readers feel a very similar aversion to fictional children and fictional animals being harmed or worse.

Of course, not all readers feel this way. But for those who do, it’s an interesting part of our psychology. On the one hand, crime fiction fans know that, in the books they read, someone’s likely to get killed. Possibly more than one someone. Some fans of the genre wouldn’t much enjoy a novel where there wasn’t at least one murder. On the other hand, these same fans do not want to see children or animals as victims. For those readers, that’s a step too far.

What do you think? Why is there such a distinction for crime fiction fans between a fictional adult getting murdered, and a child or animal? Do you make that distinction? If you’re a writer, how do you handle this in your work?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.


14 thoughts on “Leave Them Kids Alone*

  1. Very interesting post, Margot, and I do agree that we feel much less comfortable when children or animals are hurt – I struggle to read about either. I think you’re correct to identify their vulnerability and the fact that as a species we need to protect them. I wonder, too, if there’s a sense that this would be just too exploitative? I know there has to be a victim and something at stake to interest the reader, but that’s easier with a nasty adult victim. To paint a child as deserving of death is just somehow wrong…

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    1. You have a really well-taken point, KBR, about how exploitative it is when children or animals are hurt. It does feel very wrong, and perhaps it’s because a big part of us knows that it’s unfair, if I can put it that way. As you say, crime fiction implies a victim, but if it’s an adult, it doesn’t feel so – is the word unequal? – to the reader. I’d say that’s probably especially true if the fictional victim is a nasty person. In any case, I think most of us, like you, find it very difficult to read about harm coming to the most vulnerable.

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  2. What a fascinating topic, and you chose great examples – I was starting to think of a book, and you would have it in the next line… I don’t know the answers, but it is strange – so many of us love a good crime story, all kinds of gruesome, but we have our lines we don’t like to cross, and that is children.

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    1. Thanks, Moira. You’re right that it is an odd juxtaposition of attitudes. Crime fiction lovers enjoy novels in which people are killed. We don’t mind reading about weapons, forensic details, and so on, provided they’re not gratuitous (and remembering we’re all different in taste). But there are lines we don’t cross, and children and animals are that line for a lot of people.

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  3. Interesting question, and I certainly fall into the category of not liking child or animal victims, though as you point out, it depends how long ago the child died. The only thing I can think is that we feel they don’t deserve it. I often say the reason I prefer Golden Age to contemporary crime fiction is that, as a generalisation, the GA authors made sure their victims were nasty people whom no one would miss, or elderly people whose death always seems more sad than tragic. Contemporary crime fiction seems to want to harrow us, and they often use innocent victims to do that – children or young, vulnerable girls and occasionally boys. Personally I prefer to be entertained than harrowed, though I don’t want to examine too closely why my brain finds any kind of murder entertaining! 😉

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    1. Thanks, FictionFan! I have to say, I agree with you when it comes to child/animal victims. Except in very unusual situations (like a child who died many years ago, as you mention), I don’t like those plot lines, either. And you make a very strong point that it may have to do with the fact that we don’t see them as deserving such a fate. I’m glad you mentioned the way GA authors handle such things. There are some excellent books where young people die, but they’re adults, not children. Maybe that’s what makes those novels appealing to those of us who prefer to leave children and animals out of it. Hmm….you ask a question I’m not sure I want to ask of myself: why do we find fictional murder entertaining. I mean, I write the stuff, so what does that say about me? 😉

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  4. It’s probably tougher to read about children as victims, but there is definitely an appetite for it, if you look at the attention that some real life cases receive regarding missing children. One in particular springs to mind, it just isn’t going away. Is it exploitative or just fiction mirroring real life? From a personal POV I prefer reading books about robberies, cons, heists etc where a death or murder is a consequence of things turning sour as opposed to a murder mystery per se. I do read them as well though. It’s hard to avoid them really!

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    1. You’ve got a good point, Col; people do eagerly follow those sorts of cases in the news. And that’s a really interesting point: is a story about children-as-victims exploitative or does it reflect real life (since it does, sadly, happen in real life)? I suppose you could make a case either way, really. We’ve all got different reading tastes when it comes to crime fiction. There’s some excellent stuff out there about something going sour and ending in death, and it can be compelling. Murder mysteries have their appeal, too, of course (I know I love ’em). It’s good that the genre is so diverse!

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  5. Interesting post, Margot. I must admit that I have a horror of reading books where children are killed or go missing. As you rightly pointed out, it is being a parent that has made me abandon such books at times.

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    1. Thank you, Neeru. I know what you mean, too, about the impact of being a parent on what we read and enjoy. The same is true for me, really ; I do not like books in which children are badly harmed or killed. And the fact that I’m a parent (and now a grandparent) is an important part of the reasons why.

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  6. Margot: I appreciate your careful examination of the issues of the killing / hurting of children and animals. Looking at the real world, criminal law does not generally punish murderers based on the age of the victim. There are vulnerable men and women as well as children. There is less punishment for killing animals than killing people. In the end, as I read crime fiction, I neither seek out nor avoid mysteries by the nature of the victims. I am keeping track this year of the sex and relative age of murder victims. I am curious to see where my reading takes me.

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    1. Thanks, Bill, for your thoughts on this. You are absolutely right that adults can be vulnerable; there are certainly examples of vulnerable adult victims in real life and in crime fiction. And I’m glad you brought up the fact that the age of the victim doesn’t generally determine punishment under the law. I’ll be very interested in what you learn about your reading this year, and what sorts of fictional murder victims you encounter.

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  7. Two of the best books I’ve read in recent years (slightly pre-Covid) would be about kidnapped children. Both by author Simon Wood. The first was Paying the Piper and the second was sort of a sequel, Saving Grace Both are white-knuckle rides and have you guessing till the end. Not going to issue any spoilers, but you won’t be disappointed if you decide to read them. 😉

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    1. Thanks for the suggestions, Lyn. Stories like that, where children are at risk, really are all the more suspenseful because of the high stakes involved. I think that adds to the sense of urgency.

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