Most students, whether they’re in secondary school or in college/university (and beyond), go through the challenge of taking final exams or other high-stakes exams. It can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially if you tend to ‘freeze up’ at exam time. And then there’s that tension as you wait for results. Whether it’s high school/private school entrance exams, graduate school and law school entrance exams, or something else, getting through those tests can take a toll.
But it’s something a lot of people go through, so it resonates with many of us. With that connection, and with all of the tension that surrounds exam time, it’s little wonder that high-stakes tests and exams play a role in crime fiction. There are plenty of examples in the genre; here are just a few.
In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, we are introduced to the Reynolds family. One afternoon, thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds is present at the preparations for a Hallowe’en party to be held that evening. There, she boasts that she has seen a murder. No-one believes her, but she insists that it’s the truth. Later that evening, she is drowned in an apple-bobbing bucket. Detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver is at both the preparations for the party and the party itself. She asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he agrees. As part of his investigation, he talks to the members of her family, including her sixteen-year-old sister, Ann. At the time of the murder, Ann is preparing for her A-Level exams, and is thoroughly immersed in her studies:
‘They went upstairs to where Ann, looking rather more than her sixteen years, was bending over a table with various study books spread round her.’
Despite her focus on her work, Ann was at the party, and is able to confirm what Poirot’s already heard. And she adds some interesting information about her sister’s character to what Poirot knows.
Because there’s so much at stake, important examinations are treated very seriously, and those responsible for creating and administering them are supposed to work under strict regulation. That topic comes up in Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. In it, we are introduced to Quinn, who is the only Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate. This group is responsible for all exams given in other countries that follow the British education system. Quinn was by no means a universal choice to join the group, so there’s already tension. Then one day, he is poisoned. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the crime, and, of course, take an interest in the other members of the Syndicate. And they find that Quinn knew some things about members of that group that weren’t safe for him to know.
In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, ten-year-old Kate Meaney has the dream of becoming a detective. In fact, she has her own agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends a great deal of time at the newly-built Green Oaks Shopping Center, where she suspects there will be a lot of crime. She’s quite content with her life, but her grandmother, Ivy, wants more for the girl. So, she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate refuses at first, but is finally persuaded by her friend, Adrian Palmer. He even promises to go with her to the school, for moral support. When Kate doesn’t return from Redspoon after the exams, there’s a massive search for her. But she is never found. Some twenty years later, Adrian Palmer’s sister, Lisa, is now working at the mall. One night, she happens to meet Kurt, who is a security guard there. They form an awkward sort of friendship, and, each in a different way, return to the past. As they do, we find out what happened to Kate.
The real action in Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic begins when Cassandra James, who works in the English Literature Department of St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge, pays a visit to Department Head Margaret Joplin. She’s there to pick up a group of student exam papers. When she arrives, though, she finds that Joplin is dead, and the papers are scattered everywhere, and in various stages of ruin. The shock of Joplin’s death is hard enough, especially when it turns out that she was murdered. But there’s also the problem of the papers. There’s going to be a real problem if the papers can’t be located and rendered readable, and James doesn’t want to face that. She’s going to have to, though, because with Joplin’s death, she is named Department Head. As the murder investigation continues, the exam papers become one of several challenges that James is going to have to face. And it’s interesting to see, from the faculty perspective, how exam papers are supposed to be handled, marked, and so on.
And then there’s Natsuo Kirino’s Real World, which takes place in contemporary Tokyo. In it, Toshiko Yamanaka is preparing to go to a ‘cram school’ session to help her prepared for college entrance exams. They are extremely rigorous, and even a lot of extra tutoring and assistance don’t mean a student will do well. It’s a cause of a lot of stress. As she’s getting ready to leave, Toshiko hears a loud noise from the house next door. She wonders if all’s well, but on the way to cram school, she sees Ryo, the boy who lives there. He seems fine, so she doesn’t think much more about it. Later, she hears that Ryo’s mother has been murdered. The police stop by to talk to her, and it’s soon clear that they have Ryo on their suspects list. She decides to cover for Ryo and lies to the police about having seen him. Soon, Toshiko and her friends are drawn into this murder case, and things spin quickly out of control for all of them.
There are other novels, too, that touch on high-stakes exams such as entrance exams and other major tests. They do cause stress, and they have a lot of impact on people’s lives. So, it shouldn’t be surprising they come up in crime fiction.
I can’t resist closing this post with a bit from Kathryn Fox’s Malicious Intent. Everyone who has ever taught will likely appreciate it. In this scene, freelance forensic pathologist Anya Crichton is giving a university lecture on forensics:
‘Put the word ‘forensic’ in a lecture’s title and it pretty much guaranteed a full house. Anya introduced the day’s topic and a croaky voice from the back row interrupted.
‘Excuse me, but will this be in the exams?’
The most predictable question had taken all but thirty seconds to be asked.’
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chuck Berry’s School Days.