It was the evening of the twelfth of June when the news broke – another boy had disappeared. Ten-year-old Ted Lister’s body was found in a Sussex cornfield; he had been brutally tortured before he died. The third such death in twelve months, the police operation assigned to the case kicked into high gear, but seemingly with no coherent information from the few witnesses to the crimes, progress seems impossible.
Meanwhile at the elite Trenchard House private school, a new teacher, Kenneth Manifold, has arrived at the same time as an international crisis involves the Israeli Ambassador, whose son is at the school. What has Manifold, whose background seems uncertain, got to do with either of these events? And how will they both affect the school, and more importantly, the boys therein?
I picked up a recommendation to this one on the Golden Age Detection Facebook group from Martin Edwards in response to which other Michael Gilbert books were worth tracking down other than the three that appeared from the British Library recently – Death In Captivity, Death Has Deep Roots and Smallbone Deceased. Gilbert wrote from 1947 to 1998 so technically isn’t a Golden Age writer, and he spread himself across most aspect of the genre from classic whodunit to thriller. This is from the middle of his career and, to be honest, it’s a little hard to catalogue.
The action swings back and forth every few chapters between the police investigation into the child-killer and the possibly-linked events in the school. The police side of things seem to be well-researched – the notion of the investigation feels, well, real, with there being a forensic element to the investigation as well as the witnesses. The description of the villain’s crimes is kept within the bounds of taste, although I could have done without the description of the cat later in the book.
The school life is as odd as private schools tend to be in mystery novels. A tiny number of students who seem to be involved in every aspect of school life, teachers with a minimal workload – Manifold seems to teach French to one class, English to another and… nothing else. Maybe I should have taken up that offer when an elite private school tried to headhunt me recently (true story!). The staff seem to be usual group of weirdos that seem to get away with everything under the sun, notably the teacher who takes detailed photographs of students in his classes when they are not looking. It detracts a tad from the reality of the rest of what is going on – there’s every chance small private schools in the 1970s did have such behaviour going on in their corridors, but it feels at odds with the other narrative at times.
As a mystery, it’s more of a guessing game than a fairly-clued mystery, and I think there is a cheat with regards a certain piece of paper, as it was discovered well before it influenced the police side of the story, when it should have narrowed things down much earlier. Regardless, this is an absolutely gripping read, with an extremely effective conclusion. Just a shame about the poor cat… oh, and that cover, clearly designed by someone who heard the word “school” but didn’t realise it was a secondary boys’ school where, to be honest, they don’t play a lot of hopscotch.
The book is currently out of print, but there seem to be a lot of affordable copies out there on the second hand websites.