An interesting comment exchange with Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan has got me thinking about boarding school. There are of course all sorts of boarding school situations. Some are exclusive, costly and basically intended for the elite. Others are targeted at other kinds of families. Some boarding school experiences are rich and rewarding; others…aren’t. Just so you know, this post isn’t going to be about the boarding school setting in crime fiction; murders in academic settings such as the boarding school can be absorbing and interesting. They are also the stuff of another post. What I got to thinking about was really the number of sleuths who’ve been to boarding school and how it’s affected them. That experience may not be key to solving crimes, but it does affect the sleuth and therefore becomes part of her or his personality.
In Agatha Christie’s They Do it With Mirrors (AKA Murder With Mirrors) for instance, we learn that Miss Marple was educated at a finishing school in Florence. That’s where she met Ruth Van Rydock and her sister Carrie Serrocold. That friendship has endured for a very long time and that’s how Miss Marple gets drawn into the intrigue at Stonygates, the Victorian home where Carrie lives with her husband Lewis and which has been converted to a home for delinquent boys. The family includes several people related only through Carrie, many of whom either live there or are frequent visitors. Ruth is worried about her sister, mostly because of Carrie’s recent ill health. Although she has no concrete proof that anything is really wrong Ruth thinks Carrie is in danger and asks her school friend to look into the matter. Miss Marple agrees and pays a visit to Stonygates. One day an unexpected visitor arrives: Carrie’s stepson Christian Gulbrandsen. He is supposedly there on school business since he is one of the Stonygates trustees. That night Gulbrandson is shot while he is writing a letter and the letter he was working on goes missing. The most likely suspect is another of Carrie’s stepsons Alex Restarick; he can’t reliably account for his time, so the police pay particular attention to him. But Miss Marple isn’t sure the case is that easy and she continues to investigate. Miss Marple’s time away at school is not key to solving this mystery but it is a connection between her and the case.
Tony Hillerman’s Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn also attended boarding school, but with a different purpose. For a very long time in the U.S., it was believed that the best thing to do for young Native Americans was to send them to boarding schools and teach them ‘how to be White’ so they could assimilate into the larger society. Here in fact is how Leaphorn puts it in Dance Hall of the Dead.
‘…A Bureau of Indian Affairs high school that had a sign in the hall. It said, ‘Tradition is the Enemy of Progress.’ The word was, give up the old ways or die.’
That school experience has had some powerful effects on Leaphorn. He is a member of the Navajo Nation and among his people he’s respected as such. But he is secular. He doesn’t believe in the traditional ways of his people (although he knows about many of them). He has assimilated in many aspects of his life; in fact, he is much more secular than Hillerman’s other major sleuth Jim Chee. For all that though, Leaphorn has respect for what more traditional Navajos believe. He also is pragmatic enough to know that understanding more traditional ways can help him do his job better. And it does. You could even say that Leaphorn’s school experience helps him to be ‘on the outside looking in’ in some ways.
Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow (AKA Smilla’s Sense of Snow) introduces us to Smilla Jaspersen, who was born and raised in her early years in the Inuit community in Greenland. She was then sent to a series of boarding schools, none of which was a good experience. Here’s what she says about it:
‘There have been quite a few boarding schools in my life. I regularly work at suppressing the memory of them, and for long periods of time I succeed.’
As we learn in this novel, she’s been expelled from or run away from a number of schools and it’s not hard to see why. In one school, for instance, none of the teachers spoke Greenlandic, and none wanted to. The children, largely immigrants, were expected to assimilate and become as ‘Danish’ as possible. That sense of being treated as a second-class citizen continues to permeate Jasperson’s view of her relationship with the Danish. So when a fellow Inuit Isaiah Christiansen dies after a fall from the roof of the building where he and Jaspersen live, she takes a special interest. The official explanation is that he had a tragic accident. But the marks of snow on the roof tell Jaspersen a different story and she starts investigating on her own.
And then there’s Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. His mother was a prostitute, so he was made a ward of the state and placed in McClaren Youth Facility. In The Last Coyote we learn more about Bosch’s mother when he re-opens the case of her murder, a case that’s been largely ignored for thirty years. In the process, he visits an old friend of her mothers who was in the same business. Here’s what the friend says about McClaren:
‘What a depressing place. Your mother would come home from visiting you and just sit down and cry her eyes out.’
Bosch doesn’t have happy memories of his years there, but at the same time he acknowledges that being there meant he had a place to sleep and eat and a way to stay a little safe. He also believes it’s made him stronger. In fact, he has to cope more with his feelings of abandonment than he does with ‘school scars.’ His search for the truth about his mother gives him a different, more adult perspective on her and on what happened to him as a young boy.
In Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black we ‘meet’ Inspector Jimmy Perez, originally from Fair Isle, Shetland. As a young boy he had to leave his home to go to school in Lerwick. The difficulty of getting to and from the school (especially because of the unstable weather) meant that Perez stayed at the school during the week and only went home on weekends and holidays and then only when the weather permitted travel. For Perez, it wasn’t so much that he hated school. Rather, he was homesick. He was used to Fair Isle, the family croft and the way of life there and it was a major change for him to go to Lerwick. Then, two bullies began to make his life miserable – until he met and befriended Duncan Hunter. His friendship with Hunter was an important part of what made school bearable for him. Since then Hunter has grown up to be an unlikeable person and now Perez has little in common with him. But still, when Hunter becomes a possible suspect in the murder of seventeen-year-old Catherine Ross, their shared past adds an awkwardness to the investigation and an interesting layer to Perez’ character. It’s also interesting to see that Perez’ opportunity to leave Fair Isle has given him a different perspective on his home and family.
Boarding school can be a wonderful experience – or not. A lot of it depends on the student and the family, the school and the staff. But positive or negative, the experience has a real effect on those who go away to school. If you’ve been to boarding school you know what I mean. If you haven’t, you can imagine it.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dee Clark’s I’m Going Back to School.