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The Child Who Reader’s Guide

By Simon Lelic

The Child Who by Simon Lelic


Questions and Topics for Discussion

Leo Curtice is an undistinguished, small–town lawyer who rarely handles cases more glamorous than drunk and disorderlies. But that all changes when Leo answers a phone call and finds himself with the biggest case in his law practice’s history: the sexual abuse and murder of an eleven–year–old girl by a twelve–year–old boy. Leo agrees to represent the accused, Daniel Blake, without realizing just how dramatically his life, and the lives of his wife and daughter, will be changed as a consequence.

The murder of a popular young girl arouses a furious bloodlust in the community. The grisly details of Daniel’s unprovoked attack—the young victim is anointed by the local paper as “the people’s princess”—leads everyone to conclude that the boy is pure evil. Everyone except Leo Curtice. To Leo, the boy seems scared, timid, shy, hardly like a killer at all—certainly not the example of wickedness incarnate, as even Leo’s fellow lawyers seem to think him. Moving Daniel from the police station to court, the police convoy is attacked by a mob in a terrifying scene that presages the anger and potential violence Leo and his family will have to endure as long as Leo is Daniel’s solicitor.

Indeed, Leo’s fifteen–year–old daughter Ellie is harassed at school; she and her mother, Megan, are spat on at the supermarket; and Leo starts receiving threatening notes. Ellie and Megan implore him to drop the case, but Leo persists, having formed a tenuous bond with the boy. He’s determined to discover why Daniel acted as he did—what would make a twelve–year–old boy commit such a heinous crime?— and how Leo can help him.

When Leo calls in his psychologist friend Karen to examine Daniel and question his mother and stepfather, some unsettling facts about Daniel’s history come to light: several trips to the emergency room when he was just an infant and suspicion of sexual abuse. Based on these findings, Leo is hoping to enter a plea of diminished responsibility. But his case—and his life—are derailed when his own daughter goes missing and it becomes clear, at last and too late, that Leo should have heeded all the warnings he ignored.

The visceral power and moral complexity of the novel forces readers to engage in some deeply perplexing questions: Is Leo right in representing a child murderer even when doing so endangers his own family? Does knowing that those who commit violent acts have themselves been victims mitigate their responsibility? Is vengeance ever justified? How should children be treated in the legal system? What role does the press play in whipping up the emotions of a community?

With great narrative skill and a keen sense of both the most instinctual and the most subtle human emotions, Simon Lelic has written a modern tragedy—a masterpiece of moral fiction that is all too frequently paralleled in the real world.


Simon Lelic has worked as a journalist and currently runs his own business. He was born in Brighton, England, in 1976 and lives there with his wife and three children. He is the author of A Thousand Cuts, which won a Betty Trask Award, was a New York Times Notable Crime Novel and was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award as well as the Macavity Best First Mystery Novel Award.

Q. Leo mentions the change in English law that lowered the age of criminal responsibility. What prompted this change? Do you agree with this change?

The change Leo refers to was more a technical adjustment than anything else, largely in response to public horror at the James Bulger murder—a toddler who was killed by two ten–year–old boys. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 abolished the presumption that under–fourteens in England and Wales did not know the difference between right and wrong. Basically, before this date the onus was on the prosecution to prove that a defendant over the age of ten could make this distinction. Since then, courts in this country have assumed that, if you are ten years old, you know exactly what you are doing.

Despite repeated and continued calls for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised, there seems to be no political will to bring England into line with the international standard. The age of criminal responsibility varies from state to state in the United States, I believe, but it is generally higher than in England. Fourteen is a more typical benchmark in Europe; in some countries it is as high as eighteen.

In England, we remain intent on criminalizing young children, as our response to the recent riots has shown. In 1993, Prime Minister John Major said, “Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less.” It is a maxim, unfortunately, we seem to have adhered to ever since. To our shame, I would argue—and to society’s cost.

Q. In your acknowledgments, you mention a number of books that informed your research for The Child Who. To what extent does your novel reflect or draw upon actual cases, the murder of James Bulger, for example?

I did a lot of research into the James Bulger murder, as well as, for example, the case of Mary Bell. The book is not a novelization of real events—far from it—but there are certainly scenes, incidents etc that tie closely with things that have actually happened. More important, from my perspective, are the thematic consistencies. The Child Who is set post–1998 (see previous question), because I wanted the story to take place at a time existing legislation applied, but the issues that came to the fore in 1993, for example, remain very much alive today. If anything, in terms of our attitudes to justice and rehabilitation in this country, I feel we have in many respects gone backward—the abolition of the doli incapax principle (that a child under fourteen does not know right from wrong) being a prime example.

Q. Were you consciously referencing Robert Frost’s poem of accusatory parental grieving, “Home Burial,” when Megan keeps saying “don’t” to Leo, and Leo thinks to himself: “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t” (p. 275)? Why is it that the death of a child so often drives the parents apart?

That’s really interesting. It certainly wasn’t a conscious reference—which isn’t to say it wasn’t, on some level, deliberate! Writing The Child Who was difficult for me in many ways. As a parent, it forced me— over an extended period—to dwell on subjects no parent ever wants to have to think about. The death of your child, for one thing. Also, what can happen when we, as fathers and mothers, fail. Either event,

I can imagine, must feel like the end of the world: a clichéd phrase, perhaps, but the only one I can think of that comes close to conveying the magnitude of emotional trauma the loss of your child, in particular, would evoke.

Q. At times, the novel reads like a Greek tragedy, where the audience knows more than the hero about what fate has in store for him. Why did you decide to have the narrative unfold in shifting time frames, allowing the reader to know more than Leo does about the consequences of his actions?

I suppose the reader does know more than Leo, but only in very general terms. They know that Leo’s actions will haveconsequences, but not how, exactly, until the end of the book—when Leo, too, discovers the truth. My main reason for splitting the narrative was to offer a more direct insight into Megan’s thoughts. The third–person narrative, in the present–day strand, follows her; in the “historical” strand, it follows Leo. I felt the book, given that it is essentially about family, needed this balance.

Q. You paint a pretty damning portrait of the Exeter Post, its journalist Tim Cummins, and the freelance “snapper” Archie. Why do you think the British tabloid press has become so demonized?

I think anyone who has followed the news in the United Kingdom recently—in particular, the ongoing (at the time of writing) Leveson Inquiry into press standards—would probably agree that the tabloid press (or sections of it, to be fair) has brought any demonization upon itself. Boundaries of ethical behavior have been eroded. More than that: they have been completely ignored. But there is a danger, in my view, of an overreaction too. The British press is one of the most rigorous and ferocious in the world. On balance this does us, as citizens, more good than harm, I would say.

Q. How has your work as a journalist influenced your fiction?

It has influenced the way I write, certainly. Good journalism requires brevity. You learn, as a journalist, to write succinctly; to never use two words when one will do. My writing style, in my novels, is fairly lean, I would say—and I think that’s a direct result of my training and former profession.

As to what I write, I suppose the subjects I choose tend to chime thematically with current affairs. I don’t consciously scour the headlines looking for ideas, but two of my three novels—A Thousand Cuts and The Child Who—arose from stories I’d read or heard about in the media. The third, The Facility (to be published in the United States by Penguin Books later in 2012), came to me from a different direction, but evolved in the writing to incorporate numerous themes that relate to the so–called war on terror. If a story doesn’t, for me, have a sense of “newsworthiness,” it is unlikely to survive the writing process.

Q. In what sense did you want readers to understand Leo’s inability to move on from his father’s death, which is mentioned several times in the novel, to be affecting his behavior toward his family?

Grief moves us in strange, often incomprehensible, ways. Leo is clearly struggling to overcome the loss of his father, but also to make sense of his own life. He spends his professional days, as he puts it, “mopping up the spillage from the high–street bars”—dealing with a parade of drunk and disorderlies in a way that feels to him like sitting in traffic. Leo’s father was proud of his son’s profession, but until his involvement with Daniel, Leo cannot comprehend why. The case is immediately and obviously something more, which is enough in itself initially to spark Leo’s involvement. The deeper he gets, and the greater the impact on Leo’s family, the more it becomes for him a question of trying to do what is right. His father, latterly, plays less of a role in influencing Leo’s actions, which is perhaps something Megan does not fully understand.

Q. Could you talk more about the increasing incidence of children murdering children in England? Do you have a sense of why this is happening?

I don’t have access to the statistics, but I would question, actually, whether the incidence of such crimes really is increasing in this country. Violent crime of all kinds is generally becoming less common. The perception that the opposite is true is largely, I think, down to changes in the patterns of reporting. More crime is recorded these days, which is actually a good thing; and news reporting, in the United Kingdom at least, focuses more and more on national stories, not local ones. Hence when someone is stabbed in, say, Manchester, the perception among households in those leafy corners of Hampshire is that knife crime is becoming endemic, and happening right on the doorstep.

On the one hand, the increased visibility of any type of crime is a boon, because it means we are better informed and therefore equipped to try and tackle it—ideally before it happens. On the other, a sense of panic and moral outrage can be hugely destructive, if our only response is, returning to Mr. Major, to condemn a little more. How can this instinct to demonize help anyone?

Q. What are you working on now?

I can tell you that I’m working on something. It’s very early days, though. I’ve never considered myself a superstitious person—I walk under ladders and spill salt with equanimity—but, when it comes to talking about what I’m writing, some instinct or other always stops me from saying too much—at least until the thing is written.

  • Why would Simon Lelic title his novel The Child Who, leaving the sentence incomplete and the gender unspecified?

  • Early in the novel, Ellie asks her father why he didn’t turn down the case of Daniel Blake, with all its attendant controversy and publicity. “You should,” she says. “I really think you should” (p. 28). Why does he accept the case? Why does he think it will be good for his career? Why is he blind to the dangers?

  • Why doesn’t Leo tell his wife about the threatening notes he receives? Why does he persist in representing Daniel even as the danger to his family becomes clear?

  • The initial reaction of virtually everyone to Daniel’s crime is that it was an act of pure evil. The lead investigator calls Daniel “wicked beyond belief” (p. 247). How useful are such terms as “evil” and “wickedness” today? To what extent is Daniel’s crime mitigated, or made comprehensible, by his past?

  • How do Megan and Ellie react to Leo’s increasingly erratic behavior? Does Megan make the right decision?

  • For much of the novel, it seems that Leo has made a terrible mistake in representing Daniel Blake. Is he vindicated in the end? Or would it still have been wiser for him to have acted differently?

  • The magistrate Dale Baldwin–Tovey tells Leo: “It’s never about why. We need to condemn a little more and understand a little less” (p. 136). Yet Leo is obsessed with understanding why Daniel did what he did. Which of these views prevails in the novel—condemnation or understanding?

  • Why does Daniel murder Felicity Forbes? What are the reasons he gives? What are the deeper reasons?

  • Leo asks his fellow lawyers, who have already decided that Daniel deserves to hang: “What’s so contemptible about feeling sorry for him? It doesn’t mean I condone what he did. It doesn’t mean I’m looking to excuse it” (p. 124). How did Leo’s sympathy for Daniel strike you over the course of the novel? Were you able to share that sympathy or did you side with those who reviled Daniel? Did your feelings change?

  • Near the end of the novel, Leo says to Megan: “It’s sounds heartless, probably. . . . But Daniel: what happened to him. It will help. In the long run. I won’t let it not” (p. 301). How does Leo plan to turn what happened to Daniel into something that will help others?

  • How surprising and satisfying is the resolution of the novel?
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