Friday, August 31, 2012

Kids and Crime

By Jenny Hilborne, author of mysteries and thrillers.

One of my college assignments was to argue one side of a difficult social issue. FOR or AGAINST. I was instructed to show no support for the other side, regardless of my personal beliefs and opinions. This was a tough challenge, made tougher by the issue I chose and one I think about a lot: the appropriate form of punishment for pre-teen and teenage killers. I personally know someone whose adult brother was killed by a teen.

The research into the issue was sickening. Most of us know about the horrific 1993 slaying in England of two-year-old Jamie Bulger by 2 ten-year-old boys, and we all know about Columbine in 1999. In 1991 seventeen-year-old Kevin Nigel Stanford raped and stabbed a woman repeatedly during a robbery, then shot her in the face and back of the head so she couldn't testify against him.

Some kids are psychotic. Evil. Some commit worse crimes than adults and receive lighter punishment. Their age protects them. Society seems to protect children more than ever before.

This post, however, is not about my essay (which can be found on Scribd for anyone who wants to read it), but about using children in our crime novels. Even with all the atrocious school shootings and other crimes we read about committed by minors, as a writer, I'm careful about using children in my novels, especially as the victim. I don't enjoy reading about child abuse in works of fiction, but it's a sad fact that it happens and, if it's integral to the story, I'll read it. It likely won't prevent me from reading other works by the author.

It's shocking to read true crime of juveniles who assault or murder someone with a deadly weapon, and also of child victims abused by people in positions of trust. In works of fiction, I often wonder if and when it is acceptable to use children in crime, either as the villain or the victim. 

Recently, I read a crime fiction novel about child abuse and kidnapping and, while it was difficult to stomach, it touched on some very important points, areas the general public might not always understand, such as why the kidnapped and abused child might not try to escape. 

In my first book, Madness and Murder, my opening scene handles the sentencing for a child murderer. I worried when I wrote it, especially the later chapters about the atrocities inflicted on the child. I felt sick about those and worried how readers would react. The scenes were an important part of the story and they belonged, however, justifying it didn't make it easier to write a child murder into the novel.

Crime against anyone is unacceptable. Crime against women and children seems worse due to the vulnerabilities of both, yet both women and children can be very cruel and equally as capable of committing heinous crimes themselves. Readers: how do you feel about reading crime fiction books using children either as the villain or the victim? Does it prevent you from picking up other works by the author?

Writers: Do you worry about readers reactions to your crime stories where children are involved in the crime, especially if the child is the victim? Do you have a hard time reading it as well as writing it?


  1. I can't read books that focus on crimes against children, and generally I don't write about children as victims, perpetrators, or protagonists.

    But in The Sex Club, the victims were young, because at that time, I felt that teenagers would be the victims of abstinence-only sex education, and they were. The age of the victims is a reason one editor gave for passing on the book, even though she loved it. But I think that was an excuse, because we see books with children as victims all the time.

    As for whether they should be punished as adults, it depends on many factors, and we have to decide each case individually.

  2. Jen, I'll read about child abuse if I trust the author enough to give me justice by the end of the book. As far as children who are killers, I do tend to think there must be some kind of pathological bent to them, either sociopath or psychopath. I can't decide whether they should ever be tried as adults - no matter how "mature" a kid acts, there's still some developmental lag between a 10-year old and a 20-year old.

    We know, developmentally, empathy is the last thing we get on our path to maturity, and it's the one thing killers lack.

  3. I won't read stories where bad things happen to children, but I LOVE stories where children are in peril but save themselves. Can we say "wish fulfillment"?

    I like stories with child perps if the victim is a villain. LET'S KILL UNCLE by Rohan O'Grady is one of my favorite books ever. :)

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

  4. As a former teen librarian, I can say that books with teen villains were hard to avoid. Although these teens were seldom killers, a few actually committed murder.

    Yes, difficult to read, but as the field of YA literature grows, especially dystopian fiction for teens (such as THE HUNGER GAMES), there's more and more of this.

  5. Very well-written, thought-provoking post, Jenny. I'll just address the issue of children as victims.

    I read fiction for enjoyment and entertainment, so if I read on the back cover about children being beaten, raped and murdered, I'd reject it in favor of a different book, as the topic would be too disturbing for me to choose to read. It's bad enough reading about real-life cases of child abuse or watching it on the news.

    I had an author who chose to show a sadistic gang rape of a 16-year-old girl, with very graphic details, including blood and screaming. I strongly suggested the author depict the scene off-stage or have someone tell someone else about it, rather than showing it in real time. The author toned it down a bit but didn't move it "off-stage." It bothered me, but it was their decision to make. As it turned out, it bothered some readers, too.

    If the torture, rape, and/or murder of a child is somehow necessary for the story, why not just give as few details as possible, enough to get the idea across? That shows more sensitivity on the part of the author, I think, and more kindness to the reader - and will sell more books. Most of us read fiction for entertainment, after all. I know if an author shoves all the horrible details in my face, I probably won't finish the book, and certainly won't be buying any more of their books.

  6. I don't have a problem writing or reading books with children or women as victims. Our fiction portrays real life and in real life, these things, as awful as they can be, do occur.

    I think what matters is not necessarily the topic but the context and the manner in which it's handled. My latest novel, The Lion, the Lamb, the Hunted, deals with a child who went missing quite a few years back. My protagonist, Patrick, is at the same time struggling to deal with his abusive childhood while he investigates.

    What makes the subject matter tolerable--as heartbreaking as it is, I think--would be that the two scenarios play against one another and move Patrick toward a new and better understanding of himself and kidnapping.

    I think we can tolerate a lot when the purpose is to create good, character-driven stories.

  7. What about "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold? The story is written from the point of view of the child who is murdered. It was made into a film. The sadness of it all is what drives the story.

  8. As with any sensitive subject, I believe it's the author's approach and the significance the event or characters are to the story. Gratuitous sex or violence is never going fly for me. An unusually heavy handed approach to gore probably wouldn't work either.

  9. I agree with you totally about the author's approach to it, Peg. That makes all the difference.

  10. I agree with Marian. I think that's one of the reasons I liked the very odd book, "Room".

    I stopped listening to an audio of a book by one of my favorite thriller writers because it had a scene about harming an animal. One issue seems to follow the other.
    Don't harm a kid or an animal.

  11. Really great post, Jenny. It depends on the author for me. Lisa Gardner has a few books dealing with this, but she handles the subject masterfully. I'm actually in the process of planning a trilogy that will touch on the idea of whether or not kids can be born evil, and I'm being very careful about what I "show" regarding the kids.

    I don't like reading graphic scenes against anyone, but as a mother kids are especially hard. However, like others have said, it DOES happen. For me it all depends on the skill of the writer.


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