The Crazy School, Cornelia Read, Grand Central Publishing, $23.99.
This is an exciting book because it's by a talented new author, and it's really terrific. Her first novel, A Field of Darkness, was nominated for an Edgar for best first novel, but I had a few problems with it. The writing was gorgeous and the characters were wonderful but the mystery part wasn't quite in focus. In this second book, it feels to me like Read's focus has intensified, and her narrative drive is revved up to full throttle. Her series character, Madeleine Dare, is a young woman from a very advantaged background who has married and lived first in Syracuse and now lives in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, where she works at a school for disturbed teenagers. Her present penny pinching lifestyle has been somewhat resolved (for her) in the first novel; this second novel is more directly concerned with her job, as the husband in question (with the interesting job of working on a device to shave railroad tracks to extend their life) is kept mainly off canvas. He fulfills the job a lot of wives had in older detective novels - he's the warm space the heroine comes home to while she figures out what's going on (he even cooks). Think Mme. Maigret or Emmy Tibbets from Patricia Moyes' fine novels.
In any case, while Madeleine hopes she is helping the children she works with, she's not sure, and several things about the school disturb her. It's "crazy" on more than one level, with the students probably being on the lesser end of the crazy scale. It's run by a man named David Santangelo whose main concern seems to be the helipad he's building on campus; meanwhile some of the students (who are paying the equivalent of a college tuition) are living in buildings so infested with rats it's the job of some of the students to set out poison for them every night. The teachers are all forced to go to counseling - something Madeleine sees as completely bogus, especially when one of the counselors tells her she's sure Madeleine had been abused as a child because she sits up so straight. (Obviously this counselor was never sent to ballroom dancing school).
Madeleine becomes more involved with the students while at the same time becoming more suspicious of the administration - something that becomes even more baffling when she's offered a higher level job seemingly out of the blue. When two of the students turn up dead the rest of the school is sure it's a suicide, but Madeleine, who's pretty sure she herself has been poisoned, is certain they've been murdered. Working with an unusual group of "helpers" - and Read is able to twist and change your expectations of certain characters - she's able to find a solution to the deaths, but it comes at a high price. What Madeleine Dare might be doing in the next novel is anyone's guess, but I feel sure that after you read this book you'll want to find out what it will be.
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