Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Kids 'n Crime

Just musing here about the use of children in crime fiction. Nine times out of ten they're the victims or the ones committing the crime. Ideas that are meant to make the reader shudder or lose their lunch. And yes, I've been guilty of using these devices in my short stories.

I think crime writers are afraid if they use children as the protag, their stories or books would be considered YA instead of adult reading. The truth is, children have a whole different view of the world than adults. Where we see disaster, they're seeing adventure and maybe it's that adventurous spirit that could be lassoed into a story.

Okay, what am I talking about? Take this incident for example. The whole month of July had been nothing but one rainy day after another around here. The creeks were running high and threatening to spill out across the fields and drown the crops. I hear voices outside and look up to see the neighbor kids walking home carrying their inner tubes. Yeah, they'd taken a ride down the creek for about a half mile. Something that in a normal year would be impossible. While all the adults were standing around wringing their hands, the kids found the fun in the high water.

How do you use something like that in a crime story? Best scenario, they witness a murder, maybe a person being tossed off a bridge. Maybe they rescue the victim, maybe they tell what they saw and no one believes them, maybe the murderer chases them cross-lots toward home trying get rid of the witnesses. Of course, it doesn't have to be a murder, it could be a beating, a robbery, any kind of crime that they go floating past. The point here is, who better to witness any kind of crime than one or more kids out enjoying the chaos.

Off the top of my head, I can only think of one book that uses this sort of scenario and that's John Grisham's "The Client". And for short stories, I'm drawing a blank except for the possibility of "Stand by Me" based on a Stephen King short, who's title I can't recall at the moment, and that's not really a crime story.

Thinking about it, there's probably more horror stories written with kids as the protag than crime stories. With horror stories, kids are the most likely candidates to explore the unexplained, or go ghost hunting, or spend the night in a cemetery. Horror as a whole tends to embrace a child's couriosity factor.

So, what do you think? Can a good adult crime short or novel be written using a child as the protag, or will it automatically be tagged as YA and tossed off the editor's desk? If the horror genre can use a child to explore the unexplained, why not the crime genre? The floor is open.


Paul D Brazill said...

'To kill A Mockingbird' and 'The Little Friend' do it very well. And you dod it very well too!

sandra seamans said...

I'd forgotten "To Kill a Mockingbird"! For some reason I never think of that story as crime fiction, though it is in every sense of the genre.

Frank Loose said...

I'm probably off track here, but what jumped to my mind when i read your post was a story by Alice Munro called, The Love of a Good Woman. It is long for a s.s. --- 75 pages --- more a novella, i guess, but is gathered in a collection of short stories.

She uses children to discover a dead body, trapped underwater, and delves into the children's lives before broadening out and spending the rest of the story with adults, exploring a theme of lies and fear.

While not a crime story in the genre sense, it uses a crime as a launching point that resonates. This story is haunting and mesmerizing. But, the children's role is used as set-up, and not as the POV for the whole story.

Barb Goffman said...

Hi, Sandra. I have an unpublished short story with a child as the protagonist. It's a crime story. Definitely not YA. Can't imagine anyone would tag it that way. (And yes, I've sent it out, fingers are crossed for acceptance. If I have good luck, I'll let you know.)

sandra seamans said...

That sounds like a good story, Frank, I'll have to see if I can find it somewhere. I guess what I'm looking for is a story where a kid is the center of it, the detective, so to speak, but in an adult story. I don't want all the cutesy club solves the mystery tropes that Disney pushes. I want the kid to have to deal with the adult world, if that makes any sense.

Good luck with the story, Barbara! And please let us know when it finds a home.

pattinase (abbott) said...

THE CEMENT GARDEN, Ian McEwan. Also in ATONEMENT. But on the whole, you're right.

sandra seamans said...

Do you think it's because readers couldn't or wouldn't believe in a child narrator, Patti? Maybe too unreliable unless it was a children's book?

pattinase (abbott) said...

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHtTIME is already relegated to a kid's book. And it so much a universal story. I think we are too eager to put things in boxes.

sandra seamans said...

I hate that everything is put into a "box". I think that publishers and editors underestimate readers when they think that everything needs to have a tag to be read. I read books and short stories in all the genres. To not read something because it's not your "genre" is rather stupid.

When I write, I write the story that wants to be told, not what I think will sell. That's probably not very professional, but stories are what they are and trying to force them into something else seems wrong to me.