One of the tools of the reviewer’s trade is the overreach, which you usually see done in terms of comparisons. It’s more of a form of shorthand than anything else. You see a movie featuring a young, handsome actor with a vapid expression and an abundant use of hairstyling product, and you write “a younger Brad Pitt.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that the reviewer thinks the actor is indeed a younger version of Brad Pitt or is really anything like him. This technique works just as well with books --- maybe too well. (I can’t tell you how many cut-rate techno-thriller paperbacks I have picked up over the years on the strength of a reviewer’s testimony that the author was “the next Tom Clancy”.)
So I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Cornelia Read, the author of THE CRAZY SCHOOL, is “the next Alfred Hitchcock.” That’s just a huge overreach, and nobody takes you seriously when you state something like that. What I will say, though, is that in her books (here and in her debut novel, A FIELD OF DARKNESS), Read has developed a knack for doing something that is typically Hitchockian --- putting her heroine in the way of suspense, danger and murder, but not doing so in a deliberate way.
Hitchcock’s characters tend not to be private detectives, intrepid coroners, or the usual run of people who populate mystery novels. Instead, the famous director ensnared his characters in all sorts of murderous nonsense, usually by accident --- such as sharing the wrong train compartment with a sinister stranger or getting attacked by an airplane in a random cornfield. Read’s protagonist, the WASP-refugee Madeline Dare, is thrust again into a situation replete with mortal peril, when she much rather would be cranking up a Sex Pistols CD and relaxing with a bottle of cheap wine.
The author begins with Madeline successfully escaping the stultifying climate of Syracuse and landing in the Massachusetts hinterlands. Dogged by suspicion after the climactic events of A FIELD OF DARKNESS, she ends up getting the only job she reasonably can: teaching American history in a small, private school operated by a preening psychologist. The Santangelo Academy specializes in students from elite backgrounds who, shall we say, have behavioral difficulties that require a different educational approach.
But “different” isn’t the half of it. It is one thing, as Madeline learns, to get her students interested in the Yalta Conference and the McCarthy era. It is quite another to discover that school policy requires her to participate in both group therapy with her colleagues (who operate at varying levels of obnoxiousness) and individual discussions with a particularly needling therapist. The Santangelo Academy of the late ’80s turns out to be one of the last bastions of trendy ’70s pop psychiatry, a discipline in which Madeline has a black belt.
In her previous novel, Read focused much of her energy on class differences, riffing on the Jell-O salads of her Syracuse in-laws and the hoity-toity cocktails of her upper-class forbearers. Here, Read discovers a new target in the half-baked educational and psychiatric philosophies of THE CRAZY SCHOOL, and finds herself siding with her strange and disturbed students over an administration more interested in separating their parents from their money. It’s a conflict that turns murderous, and Madeline ends up being the prime suspect in two unexplained deaths.
This brief synopsis (and the bleak photograph on the dust jacket) may lead the reader to suspect that THE CRAZY SCHOOL is depressing, which assuredly it is not. Madeline Dare redeems the oppressive atmosphere and the clouds of suspicion with her incisive narration, her biting wit and a nonstop stream of pop-culture references. Cornelia Read has turned out another sparkling performance here, more than worthy of your time and attention --- and that in no way is an overreach.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on December 28, 2010