Animals as Symbols

Last year, I read a crime novel by John Hart called The Last Child, which is a grim tale of child abduction, paedophilia and murder; the sexual abuse is skated over, but the violence isn’t. I previously enjoyed the author’s Redemption Road which was very dark, so I knew his style.

Incidentally, The Last Child is now being touted as the first in a series featuring protagonist 13-year-old Johnnie Merrimon, who rather hijacked the story, making the lead detective look like a plodding irrelevance. My British copy doesn’t mention that it’s the first in a series, so I’m guessing that reader feedback prompted this move, for Johnnie Merrimon is a believable and charismatic character. Any writer of MG/YA would do well to read about his search for his abducted twin sister and missing father—even if they don’t normally read crime novels.

Image result for John Hart The Last Child,

The cover shows two menacing crows, which initially made me groan, as it seems as if every other crime novel has a cover with crows wheeling around the sky, even if they don’t feature in the story. John Hart does include crows as a symbol of dread and death, as well as a false clue in how an antagonist mispronounces the word ‘crow’.

As a creature crows have appeared in myth, legend and literature countless times. For one thing, they’re eerily intelligent birds, able to remember peoples’ faces and how they were treated by them, but reading The Last Child made me contemplate how to handle the animals who appear in my crime novel series for their roles as symbols. For a start, my protagonist detective shares his life with a feral silver tabby, a cat he rescued from a crime scene. Bastet has similar characteristics to his host—something that cat owners might appreciate more than the detective does at the moment.

I’ve also been using seagulls as symbols, for the last story was set in the art colony of Saint Ives, which has a notorious colony of thieving gullsThe antagonist is a murdering art gallery owner, who’s haunted by one gull in particular, which nests on the roof of his property and appears to be following him around, as he sees it all over town. Sinisterly, its yellow beak has a huge blotch of scarlet, instead of the usual small spot, as if it’s been dipping it in blood. Sailors have long held the belief that seagulls and seals are the reincarnated souls of drowned sailors.

It’s always surprised me when authors don’t include any animals at all in their stories, especially if it’s located where there’d be flocks of birds and herds of wild and domestic mammals. Some writers frequently mention wildlife, such as Henning Mankell in his Swedish Detective Wallander series, in which his hero often sees hares around the town of Ystad, sometimes hitting one in his car. The behaviour of the hares reflects the detective’s state of mind.

Have you used animals as symbols in your stories?

Are there any books you’ve read which use creatures well?

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