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.