In lesser hands this thriller/mystery would not have worked. The “ripped from the headlines” plot of a school shooting combined with the afterschool special (do they have those anymore?) subplot of bullying would have ended up being at best a cliche and at worst shallow and emotionally manipulative. Simon Lelic however, makes this story something else entirely.
On one level it isn’t much of a thriller or mystery. A teacher at a high school in London walks into a school assembly and kills five people, including himself. However, as Detective Lucia May investigates the shooting she discovers there is much more to the story than “crazy guy shoots people”. She uncovers a culture of bullying in the school that is mirrored by a culture of sexual harassment at the police station where she works. Her boss wants her to close the case and leave it at what it is on the surface. She wants to bring to light everything else that has been going on at the school. The story is told in chapters that alternate from Lucia’s perspective and that of the many people she interviews. Lelic manages to capture all the different voices well including confused teenagers, superior secretaries and bullying PE teachers.
The story reminded me a bit of What Came Before He Shot Her by Elizabeth George, a book I strongly disliked. It’s similar in that we know the ending at the beginning and because the story is really an exploration of the pressures and factors that combine to cause someone to commit a horrific crime. I disliked the George book partly because I was mad at her about the ending/beginning and partly because I felt emotionally manipulated. (If you haven’t read the George books it will be hard to explain why I was taking it so personally but this is one of a series and the crime involved a recurring character.) I knew I was supposed to feel sorry for the eventual murderer and see him as a victim but I felt like it was too obviously set-up as not really his fault. On the other hand, I liked that Lelic asks the question of who else is to blame for the shooting but doesn’t make the shooter out to be innocent either. It’s more nuanced than the George book and I appreciated that.