It’s Sunday as this is posted, a day when young people everywhere are scrambling to finish up those school assignments before they have to be turned in on Monday. It can be a frantic time, especially for students who – ahem – don’t feel the need to rush into things without reflection. It’s all got me thinking about school assignments.
Most school assignments, at any level, are fairly straightforward, if not exactly benign. Students are expected to do activities, write things, create things, and so on. If the assignments are engaging and relevant, they can serve student understanding and growth. If not, they can end up being a major bone of contention at home and at school.
You might not have thought about it (I know I didn’t until I started reflecting on it), but schoolwork does play a role in crime fiction. And that makes sense, if you think about it. After all, you never do know what a student may turn up in the course of doing research.
For instance, in Ellery Queen’s The Adventure of the African Traveler, Queen has agreed to teach a master’s degree course in applied criminology. Of the many who applied to take the course, only two have been selected. A third is the daughter of the professor who persuaded Queen to teach the class, so she’s been admitted, too. Queen takes seriously the term ‘applied,’ and takes the group to the scene of a murder. The victim, Oliver Spargo, was a representative for a large exporting company. After a year in Africa, he’d recently returned, and was staying at the Fenwick Hotel when he was bludgeoned to death. Queen makes the case a sort of laboratory for the students, and each of them tries to use the clues to work out who the killer is. This one may not be regarded as Queen’s best, but it’s certainly an interesting take on coursework…
In Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone, we are introduced to Melinda Coverdale. A university student, she is the daughter of wealthy and successful George Coverdale, and step-daughter to his wife, Jacqueline. When the Coverdales decide to hire a new housekeeper, Melinda doesn’t think too much about it; she’s quite busy, as university students are, with her own life. But Eunice Parchman isn’t like other housekeepers. She has a secret – one she is terrified will get out. Unbeknownst to Eunice, Melinda’s done some work in school that allows her to find out more than she should know. And when she comes home for a visit, the result is tragic.
In one plot thread of Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo, Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham learns that an unidentified body has been pulled from a bog not far from her home village in the Lake District. There is evidence that the body could very well be that of Fletcher Christian. If it is, it means that he didn’t die on Pitcairn Island, as had always been assumed. And, if he made it back to the Lake District, what would be more natural than that he should contact his close friend, Wordsworth? And if that happened, it would only make sense that Wordsworth would have written something about Christian’s adventures. This logic tallies with the stories Gresham’s heard about an unpublished manuscript. Finding such a treasure would make her academic career, so Gresham immediately travels to her home town and starts trying to track down the manuscript, if it exists. Oddly enough, she gets some very valuable assistance from an assignment that her schoolteacher brother, Matthew, has given to his class, and one student’s response to it. Jane follows all of the leads, but the closer she gets to the truth about the manuscript, the more danger there is. And a strange series of deaths seems to follow along…
Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring concerns the murder of Reed Gallagher, whose body is discovered in a seedy hotel room. Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn, is a university colleague of Gallagher’s, and acquainted with his widow. So, it’s not long before she’s involved in the murder investigation. Not long after Gallagher’s murder, journalism student Kellee Savage goes missing after an argument at a bar. Kellee is a also student in one of Kilbourn’s classes, so this deepens her involvement in the case. It turns out that Gallagher’s death and Kellee Savage’s disappearance are related. And part of it has to do with Kellee’s work as a journalism student.
A school assignment turns out to have major implications for three families in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. This story’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on the Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney, where a tragedy occurs on a much-anticipated Trivia Night, which is supposed to be a fundraiser. The novel follows the lives of three families, all of whom have children enrolled in the school. One family consists of Madeline Mackenzie, her second husband Ed, and their children Fred and Chloe. There’s also Madeline’s daughter, Abigail, whose father, Nathan, has recently remarried. Another family is the White family: Perry, his wife Celeste, and their twin sons Max and Josh. The third is Jane Chapman and her son, Ziggy. As the story unfolds, we learn how these families interconnect when Ziggy is accused of bullying – an accusation he denies, but doesn’t protest. That accusation, and some other conflicts, touch off a series of incidents that lead to the tragedy. In one plot thread, the Kindergarten teacher assigns her students to create a family tree. It seems a simple enough assignment, but it isn’t. Ziggy doesn’t know who his father is, and his mother says she doesn’t, either. In Madeline’s family’s case, the assignment is complicated by the fact that Abigail has a different father to Fred and Chloe, and that creates difficulties for Madeline. And Celeste has her own issues with the assignment. It’s not the reason for the tragedy, but it shows how complex even a simple school project can be.
And that’s the thing about schoolwork. One never knows where it’ll lead. Perhaps it’s little wonder so many people leave it to the last moment to complete their homework.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s Homework.