For most of us, teachers play a powerful role in our lives. They can inspire us, support us, help us excel and push us to be more than we could have imagined. They can also put us permanently off learning and destroy any amount of self-confidence we might have had. In some cases, students spend more time with their teachers than they do with their own families. And really effective teachers get to know their students well, so they also have the capacity to offer a lot of insight into students. It’s pretty safe to say that teachers can be very influential people. Little wonder, then, that teachers figure as much as they do in crime fiction.
In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, we get a close look at several teachers, and what’s interesting is that we get to see them not just as professionals but also as people. In that novel, newly-hired games mistress Grace Springer is settling into her position at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school with an international reputation. She’s not particularly popular and she has an unpleasant personality. Still, she knows her job. Late one night, Springer is shot in the school’s new Sports Pavilion and the police are called in. They’ve just begun their work when there’s a kidnapping and then another death. After putting an important piece of the puzzle together, pupil Julia Upjohn visits Hercule Poirot, who’s a friend of one of her mother’s friends. She persuades Poirot to get involved in the case and he travels to Meadowbank. In the end, he finds out the connections among the deaths, the kidnapping, a revolution in a Middle Eastern sultanate and a cache of jewels. There are some interesting discussions in this story about what it’s like to teach and why teachers do what they do. For instance, Eileen Rich, one of the teachers, says this:
“Why does one like teaching? Is it because it makes one feel grand and important? No, no…it’s not as bad as that. No, it’s more like fishing, I think. You don’t know what catch you’re going to get, what you’re going to drag up from the sea. It’s the quality of the response. It’s so exciting when it comes. It doesn’t very often, of course.”
Not all of the teachers at Meadowbank feel the same way, and it’s fascinating to see in this novel how the different teachers and pupils feel about what “counts” as good teaching. Without giving away spoilers, I’ll also just mention that the story also shows us something of these teachers as people, too, with their own lives.
There’s an interesting study of a former schoolteacher in Louise Penny’s Still Life. Jane Neal has retired from teaching in the small rural Québec town of Three Pines. One Thanksgiving morning, she’s killed in what looks like a terrible bow-hunting accident. But Inspector Armand Gamache suspects that Jane Neal was murdered and he and his team begin to investigate. The job of finding the killer isn’t easy, though. For one thing, Jane Neal was a very private person who wouldn’t even let friends into her living room. For another, she was much beloved. There really seems no motive for murder. The closest the police can come is that shortly before her death, Neal had caught some local boys committing anti-gay vandalism and one of them might have decided to take revenge on her. But the people of Three Pines are hiding more than one secret, and Gamache finds that more than one person had a motive for murder. As the story unfolds, we learn about Jane Neal’s warm, caring nature and her interest in her students. It’s an interesting portrait of a teacher painted by those who knew her.
There’s another, much more tragic, portrait of a teacher in Simon Lelic’s Rupture (AKA A Thousand Cuts). That’s the story of newly-hired history teacher Samuel Szajkowski, who walks into a crowded auditorium at his school one hot afternoon and shoots three students and another teacher. DI Lucia May is assigned to the case, and it’s assumed that she’ll just “rubber stamp” the theory that Szajkowski was a fundamentally unbalanced person who just “snapped” one day. The truth, as May soon learns, is not that simple though. She learns that the school has a culture of cliquishness and bullying, and that Szajkowski never really “fit in.” That culture led directly to the tragedies.
And then there’s Martha Gramstrup, better known as Grammy, whom we meet in Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s short stories Grammy (from her Candied Crime collection) and In the Wrong (from her Liquorice Twists) collection. Grammy is a German teacher whose students find lots to make fun of about her until she suddenly starts undergoing some mysterious and inexplicable changes… It’s an interesting look at the way the students’ view of a teacher can be very different from the teacher’s reality.
Because teachers interact with so many different people, they make credible amateur sleuths, too. For instance, Mark Richard Zubro’s Tom Mason is a Chicago high-school English teacher. In Why Isn’t Becky Twitchell Dead?, Mason and his partner, baseball star Scott Carpenter, get involved in the murder of Susan Warren, a student at Mason’s school, when Warren’s boyfriend Jeff Trask is accused of killing her. He’s a believable suspect, since the two had a loud quarrel after a party one night, but Trask claims that he’s innocent. Trask is in one of Mason’s classes and asks Mason to help clear his name and find out who really killed Susan Warren. Mason and Carpenter start to investigate and find that the school serves as a “home” for a drugs ring that involves other students, teachers and even members of the School Board. It turns out that Susan Warren’s death had nothing to do with the spat she’d had with Jeff Trask.
Gillian Roberts’ Amanda Pepper teaches English at Philadelphia Preparatory School (AKA Philly Prep). In Caught Dead in Philadelphia, Pepper’s debut, she gets involved in solving the murder of Liza Nichols, part-time drama coach at the school. One morning, Nichols pays an unexpected visit to Pepper, asking to rest there before going to the school later in the day. Pepper agrees but by the time she gets home, Nichols is dead in front of the fireplace. The evidence points to Pepper, but with the help of Detective C.K. McKenzie, she’s cleared. McKenzie then decides to enlist Pepper’s co-operation to find out who really did kill Liza Nichols and together, the two find out who’s responsible for Nichols’ death and the deaths of two other people.
And then there’s Melanie Travis, who stars in Laurien Berenson’s series. Although the series focuses on Travis’ role as a breeder and later shower of Standard Poodles, she’s a special-education teacher by profession. Throughout the series, we see how Travis works to balance her teaching life, her family life and of course, the cases that she investigates. And sometimes her professional role comes in very handy. For instance, in Jingle Bell Bark, Travis investigates the murder of her son’s school bus driver. And in Hush Puppy, she’s busy helping to plan her school’s Spring Pageant when the school’s caretaker Eugene Krebbs is found stabbed on the school grounds. As she looks into the murder, Travis finds out that more than one staff member had a reason to kill Krebbs, and that someone wants very much for her to keep out of the case.
There are also, of course, several retired teachers, like Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover, who become excellent amateur sleuths. Teachers really are important parts of many of our lives. Do you remember some of your teachers? Which are your favourite teacher characters and sleuths?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Jackson 5′s ABC.