Crime Against Youth:
Mystery Writers' Attacks on Children and Teenagers
The faults are still there, the racism and anti-Semitism — and they make for painful reading now, just as they did for their victims back then. I hope they'll inspire us to examine our own "historical context" for the prejudices we don't know we have.Let the examination begin.
Imagine a young reader, in his early teens perhaps, trying a current mystery. How would he react? Would he stick with the genre and become a life-long mystery reader? Or would he be driven away by the genre's hostility toward youth?
A current trend in mysteries is to demonize youth. In one crime novel after another, we see adolescents raping women, beating the elderly, and terrorizing helpless adults everywhere. Sara Paretsky's Bitter Medicine, Edna Buchanan's Suitable for Framing, and Dennis Lehane's A Drink Before the War are only three examples.
Andrew Vachss is billed as a child-advocate, but he is as guilty as anyone. His novel Strega includes one gratuitous scene with teenagers trying to mug an elderly man, and another gratuitous scene with teenagers assaulting the elderly just for the hell of it. (Both sets of teenagers giggle as they relish their evil deeds.)
Real life is not like this. Police experts say most street thugs who attack the elderly are men in their 30's and 40's. The 1992 National Women's Study found that, while the majority of rape victims are under 18, the majority of rapists are over 25. And researcher Mike Males reports that, "for every violent or sexual offense committed by a youth under 18, there are three such crimes committed by adults against children and teens." But these writers won't let facts stand in the way of a useful stereotype.
And this demonizing is useful. It 'makes it alright' to do anything — no matter how hurtful — to the young. Authors are even happy to demonstrate.
In Robert B. Parker's Double Deuce, the hero goes to his car and finds it surrounded by a group of teenagers. One of them has the audacity to sit on his car. So without saying a word, our body-builder hero batters the youth. None of the teenagers raise any objection, as they, too, seem to agree that a youth who sits on an adult's car deserves a beating. (Later, these teenagers are revealed to be a street gang, which makes their passive acceptance all the more ludicrous.)
In Paretsky's Indemnity Only, heroine V.I. Warshawski roughs up a college student because he is too slow in giving her information. A few paragraphs later, a professor flatly denies her information and even tells her off, yet she never lays a finger on him. Assaulting people Paretsky's age is taboo, so V.I. walks away frustrated, and tells the reader she only wishes she had been more violent toward the student.
In Sue Grafton's "G" is for Gumshoe, the heroine pulls a gun on a teenager because he called her "poopsie". (Imagine a novel celebrating a world in which a black man can have his life threatened for "talking fresh" to a white woman.)
Even the act of raping a child is seemingly sanctioned in mysteries. In Parker's Taming a Sea-Horse, for example, Spenser confronts a man guilty of raping his own daughter for years. Yet our self-righteous dispenser-of-justice sees no need to have this man punished. Even when this rapist starts the obligatory fist-fight, Spenser uses only enough violence to defend himself. (How different Spenser was in Ceremony, where he broke the arm of a peaceful teenager for withholding information.)
In Bloodshot and again in Tunnel Vision, Paretsky's "feminist" heroine confronts men who have raped girls. Not only does she fail to see these men punished, she agrees to protect them with her silence.
Joseph Hanson goes even further. In such novels as Job's Year and The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of, he has tried to convince readers that when an adult rapes a child, it is the child who deserves punishment for tempting the helpless pedophile. "People seem to want to believe that homosexuals are always on the prowl for young boys to seduce," explains this "homosexual" author. "In the real world, as homosexuals know, it is usually the young boys who do the seducing."
How do such books affect readers who will one day sit on juries? Lawyer Andrew Vachss believes the effect can be significant, and he says this is what led him to write his series in which his hero Burke actually punishes child-molesters. For doing this, Vachss is often criticized as a "children's rights extremist." The label tells us little about Vachss. It tells us much about how low our standards have sunk. In Vachss's Hard Candy, we meet a character named Wesley. He helps Burke with a few problems, and then near the end, he visits a high school and guns down random students. When Wesley finally commits suicide, it is portrayed as tragedy. Vachss gives us a few sentimental chapters about Good Ol' Wesley and why we should grieve his tragic end. We are never asked to feel anything for the high schoolers. They don't even have names. But such things escape the notice of Vachss's critics.
After all, which authors do ask us to care about youth? Teenagers in contemporary crime novels, it seems, are never fleshed-out characters but only dehumanized caricatures, too soulless to merit our sympathy and too stupid to merit our respect. Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent was widely praised for its realism and depth of character, but Turow fumbled badly with his college student who says such lines as:
"I mean, do you have like leads, or whatever you call it. Clues?"All this sampled from just three pages of the paperback.
"It turns out that I'm like flunking everything anyhow."
"Civil. That's a word, right?"
"It wasn't the first time I ever like talked to her or anything."
"Did you like know her real good?"
"She like said nothing."
"But like she didn't care."
"Mr. Horgan had to like talk me into going to the funeral."
Yes, there are teenagers in real life who overuse the word "like." There are just as many middle-agers who overuse "basically," but none of Turow's older characters say lines like, "I didn't see her for basically a long time," or "I mean, do you have basically leads, or whatever you call it. Clues?" The older characters' dialogue is cleaned up to look more intelligent. The youth's dialogue is dirtied up and molded into a dialect as fake as the one used by Amos and Andy.
Later, this youth is made to look even sillier when he explains his belief in Rusty's innocence by making a fuzzy statement about karma. Turow may have stolen that from Sue Grafton, whose "C" is for Corpse features a teenager convinced her step-brother is in danger. Her evidence: "The vibes."
Here's an exchange from Hard Candy between Burke and a teenager:
Here's one from Indemnity Only between V.I. and a college student:
"Your mother is beautiful, baby. She looks like the Madonna."
"Oh, Burke!" the kid shrieked. "She's not even blond!"
(It is ironic, though fitting, that when authors ridicule the young as stupid, they often reveal some foolishness of their own. Vachss may be the only man in the world who went through the 80's unaware that Madonna the rock star was a brunette. And Paretsky is surely one of the few authors who could end a line of dialogue with an exclamation point and still think it necessary to inform readers the line was "exclaimed.")
"I'm V.I. Warshawski."
"Veeyai!" she exclaimed. "What an unusual name. Is it African?"
Stereotypes and other cultural cruelties once thrown at blacks, women, and gays are now concentrated on youth, the only minority left that can't fight back. Why do authors feel a need to hate any minority? Paretsky offered this answer in a speech she made on National Public Radio:
For those who feel truly powerless, rage is one way of achieving a temporary sense of self-worth. The ability to punish someone weaker, to humiliate them and make them feel helpless in turn, gives a fragile person a fleeting sense of mastery. ... Rape in real life occurs, not because a man feels sexually attracted by a woman, but because he feels powerless. The only way he can feel momentarily less helpless is to make someone else seem as small and vulnerable as he is in his own eyes. Stories that demean and degrade serve a similar function. ... Writing about such acts, and reading about them, can make fragile people feel more powerful. [Emphasis hers.]Ironically, Paretsky was speaking about — and denouncing — sexist writers, apparently unable to see how her criticisms apply to her own ageist writing.
Writers and publishers who cannot see the immorality of attacking youth should at least recognize its stupidity. If this hostility continues to drive away young readers now developing their life-long reading habits, the genre's popularity will die with its aging audience.
One can already witness mystery's failure to reach the new generations. In every bookstore where I have worked, most of the employees were younger than 30, yet the few who shared my interest in this genre nearly all had gray hair. I was chatting about mysteries once with a 20-something who had worked in bookstores for years and was an avid reader. He had to stop me to ask, "Who's Andrew Vachss?"
"He's kind of a high-brow Mickey Spillane," I told him.
And he asked, "Who's Mickey Spillane?"
Another time, I was at a public library checking out a Paretsky novel. When the young librarian read on the cover "A V.I. Warshawski Mystery," he said, "Oh! I didn't know that movie was based on a book."
The April 6, 1998 issue of Publisher's Weekly quoted one mystery bookstore-owner in Rhode Island as saying, "Most of my customers are 35 or older. I get very few young people or college students, and I'm right near Brown University." Another dispirited mystery bookstore-owner, this one in Colorado, confessed, "I don't think there's any way we can attract younger readers."
In earlier decades, young readers flocked to read the newest adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe. Most carried their enthusiasm for mysteries through their later years and could share this enjoyment with their children and grandchildren. This is how the genre thrived for so long. But throughout the 80's and 90's, young readers learned that if they opened a mystery novel, they risked having their dignity stepped on. They learned to stay away.
But aren't there mysteries, you may ask, specifically for the young? Nancy Drew and whatnot?
Sadly, YA (young adult) mysteries are even worse. The Nancy Drew Files #1: Secrets Can Kill, for example, reveals The World's Smartest Teenager to be no brighter than Inspector Clouseau. It opens with Nancy being threatened to get off her new case. A few chapters later, we find our persistent sleuth driving down a steep hill. She presses the brake pedal only to find that (Should I give it away? All right, I'll give it away.) the brakes don't work! Neither does the emergency brake! She survives the crash, with no brain-damage as far as we are told, yet she is stumped as to how this happened. Only when she inspects the brakes does she figure out they have been (Surprise!) sabotaged.
Worse yet, YA novels present "good roll-models," showing young readers how to subjugate themselves to their elders, no matter what the risk. Someone at the Door by Richie Tankersley Cusick features two adolescent sisters home alone in the middle of nowhere. A strange man appears at their door claiming he has lost his car in an accident and needs shelter for the night. They allow him to stay, despite news reports of a killer on the loose. The next morning, the man decides not to leave, insisting the teenagers need his protection since there is a killer on the loose. Do they insist he leave? No. That would be rude, we are told. So instead, they spend the rest of the novel fretting helplessly until, at the end, they learn he is innocent. The book's message: if you are a teenager, you must put the feelings of adults before your own feelings and even before your own safety. (Heck, it's silly to think about your safety; adults who tell you to trust them are harmless.) Telling youth they have no right to say no to adults is hardly responsible in a nation where three out of four teen pregnancies are caused by statutory rape.
While YA thrillers encourage young readers to trust suspicious adults, they constantly warn youths not to get too close to their peers. Every bookstore's YA section overflows with thrillers in which teenagers are slashed and hacked by their dates, their friends, and their trusted classmates.
FBI statistics reveal that a youth is twice as likely to be murdered by an adult as by another youth. Adults, incidentally, are nine times as likely to be slain by an adult as by a youth. But truth is seldom important to those promoting prejudice.
Not all crime novels are ageist. Some simply ignore young people, leaving them out of the story all together. A few authors include teenagers as minor characters and push no opinion of youth, pro or con. (Works by Elmore Leonard come to mind.) And a very few mysteries could even be described as "youth-friendly," though they are never offered without apologies from the author.
The wildest example is Joyce Carol Oates's Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. The street gang here boldly rebels against ageism, sexism, and other injustices. When a teacher sexually harasses one of the girls, they vandalize his car and harass him into early retirement. They batter a child-molester, they picket to force a pet shop to treat its animals more humanely, and they mug rapists.
But Oates does not portray these acts with the same glorification other authors use in depicting their middle-aged P.I.'s slapping around surly teenagers. Oates depicts these adolescents as both heroines and villains. Their graffiti on the teacher's car includes a racial slur. When they decide to mug rapists, Oates depicts them as cold and manipulative, preying on weak men. The young leader of the gang is a lesbian who takes advantage of naïve or timid girls. And Oates cannot resist stooping occasionally to stereotype and caricature, as when the gang is arrested after stealing a car. The young narrator, stereotypically rejecting any responsibility, describes the arresting officer as "the highway cop that'd caused all the trouble in the first place, chasing us like he did" and complains of being treated "like we were ... actual criminals, car thieves or something."
Nevertheless, Oates is refreshingly honest in depicting the dangers teenagers face, both from other teenagers and from adults. And she is refreshing in her suggestion that it is the adults who should be held to the higher level of accountability.
One other recent mystery that might be described as "youth-friendly" would be Patricia Cornwell's Cruel & Unusual. Here, the series heroine turns for help to Lucy, a 17-year-old computer wiz. Depicting adolescents as technological geniuses is another stereotype, but at least it is not a negative one. And Cornwell gives Lucy the kind of respect and sympathy most authors restrict to older characters. Lucy, for example, can express negative opinions of her mother and other adults without being portrayed as selfish or stupid.
Lucy is shown as unreasonably hostile, at times, but at least her abrasiveness is not her sole characteristic, as it would be in the hands of a lesser author. Rather, it is one aspect of a complex character, balanced by positive aspects. What's more, other authors would suggest all teenagers are hostile, made so by "raging hormones" (which are for teenagers what "penis envy" is for women) or by a society that "spoils" them (In other words, the kids have gone bad because we're not hurting them enough. I think Hitler had the same theory about those ungrateful Jews.). Cornwell, on the other hand, depicts this abrasiveness as being specific to Lucy, caused by an unloving family and a lack of social experience.
When a man questions Lucy's abilities with a computer, she stands up to him. Cornwell does not depict her as thin-skinned or arrogant, but as a capable and self-respecting young woman responding appropriately.
The heroine, Kay Scarpetta, does not always show Lucy the same respect she would an adult, but at least she doesn't pistol-whip the kid for sitting on her car. Kay shows Lucy tolerance and even love.
Cornwell kickin' it with Pres. Bush I
Writing this novel did not ruin Cornwell's popularity. She quickly soared beyond the grasp of the Parkers and Paretskys to become one of the most successful authors of our time. So the problem cannot be pinned on readers. Mystery fans are not demanding this current hatred. Rather, it is the authors and editors who demand we accept it, refusing to offer much else.
Cornwell's success gives hope. Maybe some writers and editors will realize Cornwell became successful, not in spite of her willingness to understand different people, but because of it.