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.
Given the masses of people that use London’s underground every day, I’m surprised that there haven’t been more crime novels set on the tube. Although Baptism by Max Kinnings opens with the murder of a monk in Snowdonia, most if the action is centred around the hijacking of a London underground train and the attempts by a negotiator to secure the hostages’ freedom. For those of us who use the tube, of course, this is your worst nightmare and the author cleverly plays on all your fears in this fast-paced book.
George, a train driver on the underground, begins his morning with a familiar routine; waking up his young family and kissing his wife goodbye. However, he receives a phone call that reveals his wife and children are being held hostage and is given instructions to proceed to work as usual and follow the captor’s instructions. The day descends into nightmare as the kidnapper enters his cab and instructs him to halt the train between stations. In the sweltering summer’s day, the passengers don’t initially realise the gravity of the situation.
When two armed policeman sent down on a reconnaissance mission are killed Ed Mallory, an experienced hostage negotiator, is tasked with talking to the hijackers led by a religious fanatic and former soldier. When George leaves the telephone line open, the negotiating team realise that the kidnappers intend to use water to add a terrifying dimension to this already horrifying situation.
The book had a strong opening and I was interested to see how the narrative would develop. Kinnings has created two good protagonists – George the family man who never intended to become a train driver, and Ed, the blind hostage negotiator. I liked the back story to George, a failed poet and muscian who has never had the courage to follow his dreams. Ed also was given an interesting background – and I can belive that a blind negotiator could use his intuition effectivey in these kinds of situations. For me, the violence was slightly too strong and not for the faint hearted but it did fit in with the dynamic narrative and brutal situation.
I can’t see many people wanting to read this on the tube, but other than that I think it makes a fast moving and enjoyable read.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher.
Other reviews can be found at Eurocrime and Crime Fiction Lover. The author’s website is here.