Classrooms aren’t always the best places to learn things. After all, if you’re going to teach a science lesson about salamanders and other amphibians, what better way than for students to actually see some in their natural environments? If you’re teaching a unit on The Scottish Play, why not take students to see a production of it?
If you went on field trips yourself, or you’ve sent your children on them, then you know how much of an impact a field trip can have. They’ve been a part of schooling for a long time. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we also see field trips woven throughout crime fiction, too.
When we first meet Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers in The Penguin Pool Murder, she is escorting her fourth grade students on a field trip to the New York Aquarium. Her plan was an enjoyable and educational outing, as field trips are supposed to be. But that’s not how it works out. First, Miss Withers’ handbag is nearly stolen by a pickpocket. Miss Withers manages to trip up the would-be thief, and he is caught by security guards. Later, the class is gathering to leave the aquarium when one of the students notices that Miss Withers’ hatpin is missing. It’s just been found at the bottom of a flight of stairs when Miss Withers sees that one of her students is not with the group. The class soon finds him staring avidly into the penguin tank. And that’s when they see the body of a man sliding into the tank. It turns out to be a complicated case for Miss Withers and for New York Police Inspector Oscar Piper, who investigates the crime. Certainly it’s not the field trip Miss Withers had imagined!
Much of the action in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons takes place at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. In that novel, what starts out as an ordinary summer term becomes anything but that when the new games mistress, Grace Springer, is shot one night in the school’s new Sports Pavilion. Then there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. One of the pupils, Julia Upjohn, goes to visit Hercule Poirot. She’s heard of him because he knows Maureen Summerhayes (yes, fans of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, that Maureen Summerhayes), who is a friend of Julia’s mother. Poirot returns to the school with Julia, and works with the police to find out what’s behind the events at the school. Although these events rock the school, it is still an established girls’ school, so there are several field trips. One chapter of this book takes the form of letters that various characters write; they speak of trips to see ballet, opera and other performances. It’s an interesting look at life in such a school at that time.
Aaron Elkins’ Fellowship of Fear is the first in his series featuring cultural anthropologist Gideon Oliver. He’s been invited to do a series of guest lectures and classes for the United States Overseas College (USOC), which provides higher education for those associated with US military installations in other countries. Instead of the peaceful lecture series he thinks he’s going to give, Oliver gets drawn into a web of international conspiracy, espionage and murder. But there are still the lectures to give and the other educational plans he’s made. One of his lecture stops, for instance, is in Spain. He’s made a reservation at a local museum for a private tour for him and his students. But when the group gets there, they are told the museum is closed. Oliver is trying to work out what he’s going to do to complete this part of his lecture series when his students make a grisly discovery: the bodies of two men. As it turns out, Oliver can’t avoid the web he’s been drawn into even on a field trip…
And then there’s Dana Stabenow’s A Grave Denied. When Ms. Doogan takes her eighth-grade students to Alaska’s Grant Glacier, she thinks it’s going to be an opportunity for them to add to the richness of what they’re learning about the glacier and its history. In fact, she’s asked them to keep a journal of this trip and other things that they do. But instead, the class finds the body of a dead man frozen in the glacier. He is Len Dreyer, a local handyman and ‘fix-it’ person. He didn’t have any family or close friends, so no-one really noticed his disappearance, much less knew that he was dead. Alaska State Trooper Jim Chopin investigates the case, and works with PI Kate Shugak. She has a personal stake in it, since she is acting as guardian for one of the students who found the body. And she knew the dead man, although not well. Certainly Ms. Doogan’s students have more to write about than she expected.
One of the funnier field trips in crime fiction (at least from my perspective; your mileage, as they say, may vary) is in Simon Brett’s What Bloody Man is This? Down-and-out actor Charles Paris is ‘resting between roles’ when his agent gets him a ‘play as cast’ position with the Pintero Theatre, Warminster. They’re doing a production of The Scottish Play, and Brett ends up having half a dozen minor roles. He also ends up deeply involved when Warnock Belvedere, who has the role of Duncan, is killed. Paris is ‘a person of interest,’ since he was in the theatre building at the time of the murder. But he is by no means the only likely suspect. At one point, a group of students attend a matinee performance of the play, and Paris is asked to talk to them after the performance, and field their questions:
‘Charles persevered. ‘So for them, you see, the theatre provided everything. Tragedy, comedy…’
‘Where’s the comedy?’ demanded an aggressive recently broken voice.
‘Well, even in Macbeth there’s comedy.’
‘The Drunken Porter. He’s a comic character.’
‘But he’s not funny.’
‘No, I know he’s not funny, but he is a comic character.’
Dear, oh, dear, this is uphill work, thought Charles… ‘You see, you have the latest sit com, but in the same way the people of Shakespeare’s time had the Drunken Porter….’
‘Poor sods,’ said a voice from the back.
The short bearded teacher leapt up in fury. ‘Who said that? Come on, who said it? We are not leaving this theatre until the boy who said that word owns up.’
Oh God, thought Charles. We could be here all night.’
Paris probably didn’t imagine that his thespian duties would involve field trips…
Field trips are an important part of education. Fortunately most of them go much more smoothly than these!
Speaking of field trips, the ‘photo you see was taken at Carlsbad, California’s beautiful Agua Hedionda Lagoon Discovery Center. I had the privilege of co-presenting a two-part workshop on Writing in Nature the past two weekends. Many thanks to our hosts! It was a great experience!
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Canned Heat’s Going Up the Country.