Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Children in Crime.

The other night I watched the pilot episode of a new TV drama series about an ex-cop with a photographic memory. It wasn’t a great show, I won't go into it except to mention that the idea of ‘memory’ was explored through flashbacks to the murder of the heroine’s sister when they were children. The image of the little girl lying dead in a puddle, her mouth open and water seeping in, was repeated throughout the episode as the heroine flashed back to the unsolved crime.

Although the show vanished from my consciousness as soon as the credits rolled, the image of that dead kid sat in my stomach for days like a batch of bad prawns. I was angry about it, I wanted to scrub the image from my mind. I felt manipulated.

Why? It sounds on paper like the show could have worked, right? A unique memory problem helping a character deal with her traumatic past, a la Memento? Okay, yes, but due to the show's lackluster writing and bare-bones story development the haunting of my brain felt cynical and cheap. It was as though everything hung on that one device, that one dead child.

Is this ‘memorable’ television? The viewer is disturbed by the image of the child, the camera wandering over the little body again and again and again. It creates an effect that lingers, he or she may even mention it to others (the way I tell others about the Stephen King story that’s been stuck in my mind since I read Full Dark, No Stars). Maybe the next person turns on the show next week, also sees the kid, also feels ill, says something to some friends and now, how 'bout that, we have an audience.

I guess I’m assuming, because this is network television, that it was not a writer telling a story from his or her heart (although 'The Rememberer', the short story upon which the series was based, may well have been), rather that the primary consideration was ratings. Hence the anger. There was no point to beating me around the head with that image; they were just after my eyes on the advertisements.

My churning gut got me thinking about the role of children in crime stories. What is it that hits us so hard? Is it their inherent defenselessness in real life? (I think this is the case with depictions of animal cruelty, which is why I so loved Dennis Lehane’s short story 'Animal Rescue' in Boston Noir. I was prepared to be horrified and instead I found an odd, gentle love story with a cracker of a twist. Go read it.)

What about stories where the kids are the perpetrators? Where I grew up--and in a thousand places just like it--kids did petty crime: smashing up empty housing estates, lighting fires, breaking and entering, shoplifting and pocket picking, selling pot and pills, gang bashing and rumbles, sexual assaults, torturing animals (and other kids) with firecrackers and air rifles, and those are just off the top of my head. I’m not celebrating this, just telling you how it was, and is.

There are some great stories with child characters who walk--and cross--the line between victim and perpetrator. I’m thinking of the kids in The Wire. The little boy in Fresh. Looking forward to Toomelah, from writer/director Ivan Sen. But where is this line between helpless victimhood and psychopathic criminality, and how do we know where on the scale to place our youngest characters without doing them (or the reader) an injustice?

Many fiction writers deal with this moral dilemma by leaving children out altogether, by depicting a wholly adult world and letting the gruesomeness and violence flow between ‘consenting adults’. At most, the characters may be parents protecting their families. There's nothing wrong with this choice but story worlds can easily become rarefied, homogenous. Without children, something important is missing. The best stories take place within communities, they give us special access to them, and the word 'community' implies a spread of ages, from babies to elders. (The word is used these days to mean pretty much any group with something in common, but as the great swordfighter Inigo Montoya once said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”) The adults-only approach works for short fiction, but sooner or later a kid is going to wander into a longer work and ask for attention, maybe some chocolate, a bedtime story.

What I want to know is:

a) If we want to write lifelike communities, how do we integrate the young in a non-exploitative way?

b) As a writer, how do you gauge whether the image or character you’re using is exploitative?

c) As a reader, how much is too much?

d) When it comes to children in crime stories, who does it well, and how?

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