I Can’t Do My Homework Anymore*

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.


Filed under Ellery Queen, Gail Bowen, Liane Moriarty, Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid

28 responses to “I Can’t Do My Homework Anymore*

  1. Always enjoy stories set in school/University. Gail Bowen’s early books are fun reads. I haven’t read her lately, must rectify that.
    Now I’m drawn to novels by Tana French, The Likeness is one of my favourites. Not sure if you’ve had the opportunity to read it but it takes place at Trinity College where student friendships turns deadly.
    Another book I really enjoyed is Peter May’s Runaway. Although not a story about schoolwork, the story does begin in high school & the friendships formed there last forever, in good times & murder…..heh heh
    I just purchased a copy of Big Little Lies (excellent price now that the world has read it LOL). Excited to begin reading.
    Terrific post (as always) Margot, cheers!

    • Thank you, Anne – so glad you enjoyed the post. And I did read the The Likeness. French does a highly effective job of crafting the school atmosphere in that one, doesn’t she? And about Gail Bowen…I think her work is of very high quality, and just about always recommend it. Among many other things, it does show a lot about life in a Canadian university.

      I hope you’ll enjoy Big Little Lies. It’s quite a well-written story, in my opinion.

  2. Col

    You keep pushing Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone under my nose! My assignment – to read it and report back!

    • You’ve sussed me out, Col! A Judgement in Stone is, in my opinion, a classic in psychological suspense and crime fiction. I would recommend it highly to nearly anyone, if for no other reason than its influential place in the genre.

      • I haven’t read A Judgement in Stone yet but it’s definitely on my “TBR” list. I heard about the beginning line, “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write” and it’s one of those lines that hooks the reader into the story and makes him/her want to read on. Definitely a memorable line in the mystery genre.

        • Honestly, Sbrneseay1, that first line ranks among my all-time great novel openings. It’s so powerful, and tells the reader so much. And yet, as you say, it’s a hook that really makes the reader want to know more. You can’t ask for more than that. And I do recommend the novel – it’s a classic, in my opinion.

  3. Margot: In Another Margaret by Janice MacDonald the sleuth, Randy Craig, investigates combined physical and literary mysteries in the context of working on her Master’s thesis in English. The actions of her enigmatic supervisor leave Randy wondering if a godgame is being played.

  4. That last-minute panic about homework on Sunday night (or even Monday morning) sounds familiar – not me personally, of course, I was the world’s greatest nerd, but with my sons…
    Am I right in thinking that there are several Inspector Morse novels and/or screenplays in which assignments/homework/studying for exams play a significant part? I believe in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn there is something about preparing for exams and not entirely incorruptible examination boards.

    • Ha! I was a school nerd, too, Marina Sofia! My daughter, on the other hand, had a much more – erm – balanced approach to life. And you’re exactly right about The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. Quinn, the victim in the novel, is a member of Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate, which is charged with overseeing exams in other countries that have a British education tradition. And all sorts of things happen in that syndicate…

  5. Margot, I liked the Tilton University setting of your own book “Past Tense”. In spite of the discovery of a corpse on the campus, it sounds like a very nice place to get an education. Review coming up soon.

  6. Tim

    And, of course, you open the door to one of the richest veins of crime fiction: campus settings. Well, with the door now open, perhaps you will consider posting a campus crime catalogue.
    BTW, I’m no expert, but Judgment in Stone might be the best of its type anyone could read. So, to anyone who hasn’t read it — Eunice, ironically, could not have read it — does yourself a favor. Get it! Read it!

    • You are absolutely right, Tim, about A Judgement in Stone. I think it’s a truly excellent novel; it really is. As for crime on campuses, there certainly are plenty of examples. Maybe I’ll do a post on that at some point. Thanks for the idea.

  7. Keishon

    great post, Margot. I really should try to read Gail Bowen. I loved A Judgment in Stone but feel like I should re-read after reading your post. That was such an excellent book that gave motive and the ending away before the story even begins and still maintained a suspenseful storyline.

    • Oh, I agree, Keishon. It really is an excellent book. And I heartily recommend Bowen’s work. Her Joanne Kilbourn series is very well-written and deserves a wide audience. Thanks for the kind words!

  8. Edmund Crispin’s Love lies Bleeding is set in a pair of schools, and there is a lot of business about the evidence in the chemistry lab, and something about blotting paper. I will read just about ANY book set in an educational establishment, it just seems one of the best stages for a crime story.

    • Thanks, Moira, for the reminder of the Crispin – a fine example. And I’m with you: educational establishments are really effective contexts for a crime novel. There are any number of possibilities for just about any sort of crime story.

  9. Well the opening paragraph made me smile Margot as I had one child who made an effort to leave every assignment until Sunday and then sat around with schoolbooks open making it a family sport – one I have to say I wasn’t too happy about! I’m so pleased you chose to include the Coverdale family in this piece and of course Tana French had some school assignments in her book The Secret Place, as well as the more informal one of putting secrets onto a notice board which led the police a merry dance!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Cleo. Isn’t it interesting how children can manage to turn assignments into family games of ‘Finish the Work,’ whether anyone wants to or no? You’re quite right, too, about Tana French’s work. I like very much the way she works the whole school/uni context into her stories. It’s very effective and I’m glad you mentioned it. And as for the Coverdale family? That’s a brilliant story. Folks, do read it if you haven’t.

  10. I enjoyed the post so much! 🙂 I do know how frantic it gets! *winks* I never thought that something so commonplace could find its way into so many interesting story-lines. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

    • Thank you, Regulus98 🙂 – I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. And I think we all feel that sort of pressure sometimes. Learning to manage everything isn’t easy.

  11. Can’t forget some of the old school classics from the Golden Age that takes places in academia settings such as Agatha Christie’s Cat Among The Pigeons or Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night. There’s also a Josephine Tey book as well but the title escapes me at the moment. . . .. ah, I remember! It’s Miss Pym Disposes

    • Right you are about that Josephine Tey, Sbrnseay1! It’s a good example, too, of the great crime fiction that takes place in an academic setting. And so are the other novels you’ve mentioned as well. Thanks for reminding us of them.

  12. kathy d

    Well, I like every book by Tana French, including The Likeness. It’s quite a different type of read, but worthwhile. Could not put it down.
    I wasn’t a high school nerd. I would stay up late reading good books and get up late and sometimes be late because I couldn’t put down any good book, including mysteries. I also started being involved in anti-war and civil rights movements so that took some time.
    But since my parents got me a radio when I was 11, I knew all of the top 50 pop/rocknroll songs and would have the radio on while doing homework. I can remember words to those songs more than I remember the homework.
    Also, I would cram for exams and always did well that way.
    I still sometimes wait to write and research and write under time pressure, but I am learning to start earlier for everyone else’s sake. Somehow my brain cells work better the closer to the dead it gets.
    And I am also an example of someone who suddenly starts cleaning, doing laundry, paying bills when I’m supposed to be writing or researching. So I get a lot done!

    • It certainly seems that you did get a lot done, Kathy. It’s actually a good reminder that just people don’t have everything done far ahead of time doesn’t mean they’re lazy. It sounds as though you had a lot going on in your life. And yes, Tana French’s work is very well-written.

  13. kathy d

    I just heard a TV anchor with two teenagers at home (in a discussion about homework) says that “homework is very inconvenient for ME.” The parents’ efforts aren’t taken into account. Every parent I know helps their children with homework.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s