Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives?

The myth about being young and in school is that those are supposed to be carefree years. And yet, the reality is that the school years can be very traumatic. Even for students who get along with others well, and do well academically, there’s still a great deal of pressure, especially as one gets older. If you combine that with the fact that many schools are more or less “closed communities,” with the same people spending hours each day together, you’ve got a crucible for tension and stress. After all, there’s the academic pressure, the social pressure, and the fact that many people may know each other’s secrets. All of this makes for a very believable context for crime, so it’s not surprising that some well-written crime fiction has used the school as the setting.

There’s an example of this in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Priory School. In that adventure, Thorneycroft Huxtable, founder and principal of the ultra-exclusive Priory School, asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate the disappearance of ten-year-old Lord Saltire, son of the Earl of Holdernesse. Huxtable doesn’t want any scandal attached to his school, so he wants the boy found and returned as soon and as quietly as possible. At first, it seems that Heidegger, the German master, must have kidnapped Saltire. He disappeared on the same night that the boy did, and he wasn’t particularly well-liked. Besides, Saltire apparently left of his own accord, so it’s not likely that he left with a stranger. Soon, though, Heidegger’s body is found, while the boy is still missing. So Holmes and Watson have to look elsewhere for the kidnapper.

Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night also takes place in a school setting, although of course, this time, it’s a university. In that novel, successful crime novelist Harriet Vane is asked back to her alma mater, Oxford’s Shrewsbury College, to attend the college’s “gaudy night,” or reunion dinner. Harriet’s not sure of her reception, since she gained some notoriety from her trial for murder (Strong Poison). Still, she agrees to go and is pleasantly surprised by the warm reception she gets. She returns home after the reunion, and not long afterwards, receives a letter from the Warden of Shrewsbury, asking for her help in finding out who’s behind a growing scandal at the college. Someone’s been sending terrible anonymous notes, writing obscene graffiti and vandalizing the school. Harriet agrees to go, and spends the next few months at the college, ostensibly doing some research. Eventually, Lord Peter Wimsey comes to the school to help Harriet find out what’s behind these events. Even so, matters at the school get more and more serious, and Harriet herself is attacked and almost killed. Finally, she and Wimsey discover who’s been responsible for all of the damage. It turns out that someone at the college is bearing an old grudge and is taking revenge.

There’s also a very interesting “school setting” story in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons. That’s the story of some terrifying events at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. The summer term is beginning, and the students have just arrived at the school. Late one night, Grace Springer, the new games mistress, is shot inside the newly-constructed Sports Pavilion. At first, her death seems like a “personal” murder, since she was not well-liked, and since she had even commented on her knack for finding out people’s secrets. Soon, though, another mistress is killed. Then, it’s apparent that there’s more going on at Meadowbank than spite. One of the students, Julia Upjohn, makes an important connection between the deaths and some other mysterious events going on at Meadowbank and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate.

Andrew Nugent’s Soul Murder tells the story of some chilling events at exclusive St. Isadore’s, an Irish boys’ school. Most schools have school traditions, and one of the most popular at St. Isadore’s is the middle school boys’ midnight barbecue. The boys sneak out late at night to see if they can get away with having an outdoor feast under the nose of their house master. In keeping with this tradition, one night, a group of boys under the supervision of house master Maurice Tyson sneaks out of their dorm for their feast. When they’re done, they sneak back in, only to find out that their house master has been killed and his throat slashed. Superintendent Denis Lennon and Sergeant Molly Power are sent in to investigate. At first, the school Headmaster, Derwas Fisher, says that he thinks Tyson was killed in a bungled attempt to kidnap wealthy French student Bertrand Laporte. That theory seems to hold up when Laporte is, in fact, abducted after he returns to France. But then, another master is murdered, and the detectives’ attention is once again focused on St. Isadore’s. It’s then that they learn about a former student who had committed suicide the year before after accusing some of the staff of molestation. In the end, that suicide is connected to the murders and to some very dark secrets that people at the school are keeping.

Sometimes, school trauma lasts long after school days are over, and that, too, can lead to murder. That’s what happens in The Killing Club, co-written by Michael Malone. Jamie Ferrara is a New Jersey police officer. Ten years ago, she was a member of a high school group that called itself The Killing Club. The group had put together a Death Book, in which they’d written down the names of people they didn’t like, and ways they wanted to kill those people. Then, tragically, one of the members of the group committed suicide in a way described in the Death Book, and the group broke up. Now, the group has reunited for the funeral of another member who’s died. Then another death occurs, and Ferrara realizes that these deaths all have to do with the Killing Club and with the frightening incident of ten years earlier.

Rita Mae Brown’s Pawing Through the Past has a similar theme of high school trauma. In that novel, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, Braun’s sleuth, is helping to plan her high school class’ twenty-year reunion. Several members of the class receive a cryptic note saying, You’ll never get old. No-one pays much attention to the note, as everyone thinks the note is someone’s idea of a joke. Then, when the class gathers for the reunion, Leo Burkey, who was the class Don Juan, is shot. Later, Charlie Ashcraft, who was also notorious as a ladies’ man, is also shot. Now it’s clear that someone is targeting members of Harry’s class. Harry investigates, and soon uncovers some traumatic secrets that class members have been keeping. It turns out that the murders are related to a long-ago series of incidents, and that someone’s been waiting for twenty years to get revenge.

There’s a rather similar theme in Mark Richard Zubro’s Another Dead Teenager, featuring his sleuth, Paul Turner. Jay Goldstein and Frank Douglas are both successful, well-liked high-school athletes. They aren’t in trouble with the law, and they both come from well-off, powerful families. They are also both brutally murdered. At first, there seems no reason for their deaths. They‘re not part of a gang, they aren’t on drugs, and they haven’t made any apparent enemies. Turner, who’s a Chicago police detective, and his partner, Buck Fenwick, are put on the case, and under an immense amount of pressure to solve the case as quickly as they can; the boys come from powerful families who have quite a lot of clout. As Turner and Fenwick investigate, they find that the murders have little to do with the boys themselves. Instead, the murderer is getting revenge for a long-ago trauma suffered in high school. I won’t say much more about this book now, as you’ll find out more when the alphabet in crime fiction community meme I’m taking part in reaches the final stop on its tour of the alphabet : ).

There are many other stories of murder centered on school life that I haven’t the space to mention here. Crime fiction that’s centered on a school can be especially gripping, because the victims are often young people. Even when the victim isn’t a young person, the atmosphere of school can be a very fitting context for a murder. Schools bring a number of disparate people together for many hours of the day. They can breed competitiveness, jealousy, fear, and worse. That’s partly why I use the school setting for my own Joel Williams series. What’s your view? If you’ve read novels that take place at a school, which are your favorites?


  1. Rita Mae Brown's "Pawing Through the Past" is a great example of involving a school/students in the plot. Stories done in this fashion work great. The plot involves students but only after they are adults with some background glimpses of them as students.

    I'll have to check on "The Killing Club," it sounds very interesting.

  2. Mason - I agree completely : ). Novels that tie in past events and the present can give the reader a real perspective on the characters. It's a fascinating look at how our past affects us...

  3. When I read Joanne Harris' Gentlemen and Players I thought the school was a character in the book - it seemed to play such an important role in the lives of the students and teachers and, because it's an exclusive school that only certain people can attend, even in the lives of those who don't attend it but want to. The child of a former porter at the school feels so much anger over what went on there that they are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to wreak revenge many years later.

    My own school and university experiences are not nearly as dramatic as those depicted in crime fiction.

  4. Bernadette - I know exactly what you mean about the school almost becoming a character, too. Especially an ultra-exclusive school really does take on a personality of its own, doesn't it? That's just as true for those who attend, and are embued with the school's culture as it is for those who are "on the outside." You've given me some good "food for thought."

    I didn't have really dramatic school experiences, either. Of course, I met my husband while at university, so my experience there was life-changing... : ).

  5. I shy away from intense school-setting novels. I've read several and they always make me really uncomfortable, maybe because my own school years were so difficult. I was shy and my family moved every 5 years. It seemed like it would take me that long to make friends, and then we'd move & I had to start over. I hated school, from kindergarten when I was afraid of making a mistake, to my senior year in high school, when I couldn't wait to get out.

    But I'm reading Sherlock Holmes now and loving it. Can't believe I've never read it before. I'll pay attention to the story you mentioned, and yes I'll stick it out & read even that one.

  6. Karen - I'm sorry that your school years were so hard. Those years are so important and can be so difficult! It's interesting, too, isn't it, how our experiences affect the way we choose what to read. I knkow that mine do, too. And I'm glad that you're loving the Sherlock Holmes stories. They were my first experience reading crime fiction, and I've never looked back. Hopefully, you'll like The Advnture of the Priory School, too.

  7. My two years at a public high school were the most traumatic of my life. I assume that's why I shy away from stories about teenagers, although sometimes I don't realize until I'm well into the book that there are flashbacks of teen years and then it's too late. On the other hand, my two years at a private girls' prep school were among the happiest of my life. You just never know.

  8. There was an Elizabeth George that was an investigation of a school crime...great novel. Of course, now I can't remember the name of it! :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  9. Barbara - You are so right! You really never do know whether school will be a good or bad experience. A school can be the most well-regarded, beloved school, and there can still be students who have horrible experiences there. The opposite, too, can happen. I'm glad at least that your years at the private school were so good. I find it so interesting, too, how our memories of school (and other aspects of our lives, too, of course) affect the way we think about what we read. I know of several people who won't read certain kinds of books because they're "too close to home."

    Elizabeth - Oh, thank you for reminding me of Well-Schooled in Murder! That's one reason I so much enjoy it when you good people leave me comments; you always think of novels I've left out! That was a terrific story.

  10. One interesting example is Was it Murder? by Glen Trevor, aka James Hilton, who is better known as the author of that classic Lost Horizon. Not a great mystery, but not bad, either.

  11. Martin - Thanks : ). I didn't know that Hilton also wrote mysteries. I liked Lost Horizon, of course, so I shall have to check that out.

  12. I prefer old school stories because if the setting is modern it always reminds me that far too many school children are unhappy, scared, being bullied etc. and if they want to go away, they don´t really have a say. I liked learning something, but the recesses were often like being in a jungle where you had to stay clear of several dangers (especially spiteful girls) until the bell rang and you would be safe again.

  13. Dorte - Oh, you are so right about what school is like for many children. As you say, for some children, recess and lunch time are war zones. For others, it's the opposite. They do well enough socially, but academically they suffer, so for them, lessons are the war zone. I think it's easy for adults to forget how stressful school can be. Maybe writers of more modern school stories just address that kind of thing more than did writers of older school stories, but you're right; today's stories can be unflinchingly brutal.

  14. I agree, school can be an awful time for children and teenagers. I remember when I was at school, and being told or hearing that phrase you highlight, Margot "your schooldays are the best days of your life" how I desperately hoped it was wrong! And it was. (The best days of your life are when you can make your own choices about what you do!).
    I know so many people who had or who are having an unhappy time at school.

    I don't mind reading novels about it, though it does bring it back into focus rather a painfully sometimes, both my own experiences and those of my two daughters and my stepdaughter. A few recent examples I have read that I can recommend:

    The Reunion by Simone van der Vlught
    Missing by Jane Casey
    The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson - really a very unusual and excellent book - not really about a school until the end, but jolly good. The first half is set in Venice and is about a young tutor. Very atmospheric and great plot. My review has been in the queue at Euro Crime for a very long time! But if you want to check it out, I read it initially becuase of a review at It's a Crime, by CrimeFic Reader.

  15. Maxine - I always hoped, too, that the best years of my life weren't going to be the school years. Thankfully, they weren't. Of course, my university years were very good ones. I came out of them with some wonderful friends, an education, and oh, yes, a husband : ).

    You're right, though, that those years can be brutal! I'm so glad that you highlighted those books, too. I would have included The Reunion, but I haven't read it yet; folks, you can read Maxine's terrific review of that novel here. You can read another very fine review of the novel by Dorte at DJ.s Krimiblog here. Rhian at It's a Crime... does, indeed, have a fine review of The Lying Tongue, too; folks, you can check it out here.