Review: Elizabeth Hay – Alone in the Classroom

Alone in the Classroom is a beautifully written book by Canadian author Elizabeth Hay. Although it isn’t a traditional crime novel, it does feature the death of two young girls and the attempt by a small community to come to terms with an act of violence. It’s a book that shows that descriptions of excessive violence are unnecessary when a writer has the talent to invoke fear and loss through the quality of their prose. I found it a very moving read.

In 1929, Connie Flood is a teacher in a small village school and has an instinctive rapport with her students. One in particular, Michael Graves she helps overcome his difficulties in reading and writing. Head at the school is the disturbing Parley Burns, a frustrated actor whose attachment to certain young female students provokes suspicion. When a violent attack takes place against Michael’s sister, the family’s shame has devastating consequences.

Years later, Connie’s niece Anne learns about the incident at a family gathering and starts to unpick the tale. In doing so she discovers the impact of the prairie upbringing on her own family.

This is a book that is difficult to place into any genre. Although violence and death play a central role in the narrative, the novel isn’t about the investigation into the tragedies. Instead, the first part sets the context of the tragedy with the admirable Connie Flood observing the failings of fellow teachers and the struggles of students.  But we then follow an older Connie though the eyes of her niece. Connie had followed an unusual path and the more conventional Anne can only marvel at her Aunt’s determination to live life as she wants it.

The characterisation is wonderful, especially the minor characters including the repellent Parley Burns and charismatic Michael Graves. But the overwhelming strength of this book is the quality of the writing. Hay evokes a lost time with small observations that conjure up a wealth of images. It’s one of those books that you marvel over individual sentences and the beauty of the prose. With my crime reviewer hat on, I suppose I do feel sad that there isn’t a resolution to some of the acts that are committed or even certainty over the culprit but it is nice to read something completely different. I would highly recommend this book.

I received a copy from the publisher.

Review: LR Wright – The Suspect

If images of Canada conjure up thoughts of icy wilderness and miles of forest, you’re in for a surprise with this book. The Suspect by LR Wright is set in the small town of Sechelt on Canada’s ‘Sunshine Coast’, an area to the north of Vancouver famed for its mild climate and stunning coastline. It’s a place that Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, has chosen for an easy posting. However, when Carlyle Burke, an elderly man with few friends is found dead, Karl has to use his knowledge of human foibles and methodical policing to find the killer.

The Suspect is a short and unusual book that draws the reader into the story. The setting provides the backdrop to the murder investigation, with descriptions of fertile gardens and small coastal inlets, and there is an air of the retirement village about the whole plot, a gentle paced hunt for a murderer. For the reader there is never any doubt about the culprit as the opening chapter is written from the murderer’s point of view. The book charts Karl’s growing suspicions about the identity of the killer and his attempts to prove the man’s guilt and to ascertain the motive.

The police investigation part of the book works very well and Karl is clearly a talented policeman. Also central to the plot is a date that he goes on with Cassandra, the town’s librarian. Their budding romance is tainted by her friendship with the main suspect and the characterisation of the interweaving relationship between Karl, Cassandra and the suspect George is the principal strength of this book. This is a book with no major shocks but a gradual revealing of supposed wrongs done to a person. I’m not sure I believed that the motive was enough to make a man kill but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book.

This unusual little book was a delight to read, all the more so as it was something I probably wouldn’t have picked up. I will certainly read more of this series if I can find them.

Thanks to Maxine at Petrona for my copy. Her review is here. The book, first published in 1985, has also been reviewed by Mysteries in Paradise and Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan.

The writer (who died in 1991) has an official website.