Simon Lelic was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association’s John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger for best debut novel in 2010 with this gripping account of a tragic shooting incident – but does it really belong in the genre at all?
Set in the aftermath of a killing spree in a London comprehensive, it follows the investigations of young female police officer Lucia May as she tries to make sense of an apparent act of insanity in the face of increasing resistance from her superiors and colleagues. Samuel Szajkowski one morning walks in to an assembly and shoots and kills pupils and staff before turning the gun on himself. The novel, most of which is made up of transcripts of Lucia’s interviews with those touched by the crime including the families of the victims, initially comes across as a sort of police-procedural version of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin about a Columbine-style massacre, except that the setting is the UK and a teacher not a student did the killing.
It emerges that bullying was endemic within the school and a politically motivated conspiracy is in place to deflect attention from this as the institution is part of the government’s flagship programme for more self-governing schools. This is then paralleled with Lucia’s situation at work, where is constantly harassed and made the butt of sexist comments by her all-male department.
The best part of the book is the description of the intense psychological pressure exerted by bullying which makes for riveting if exhausting reading due to the intensity of some of the scenes. In addition Lelic shows tremendous skill in orchestrating the book’s nearly two-dozen voices to provide a convincing depiction of the devastation bullying and harassment can cause, focusing credibly on both the victims and the perpetrators. In many ways I found myself reading this work with sweaty palms and gritted teeth, getting angrier and angrier as one humiliation after another is inflicted on those that don’t immediately fall within a group’s acceptable norm. Its depiction of a Darwinian tribalism as authority is abused again and again is one that most readers will be able to recognise and one which, within the crime genre, would most strongly be associated with the works of Patricia Highsmith whose novels focus relentlessly on the morbid power play between the strong and weak.
Having said that, I found that having set the characters and situation up with great expertise, the book slightly disappointingly then seemed to rush to a conclusion which, while open-ended, also seemed perhaps to be a convenient short cut, ensuring that the author didn’t have to come up with either a pat resolution or stand around exposed and philosophise about the novel ‘s theme. Only in this respect does its debut status seem apparent. What did strike me though was how the use of the procedural structure, while useful and even convenient from a narrative standpoint, and providing a useful anti-heroic look at sexism in the Metropolitan police force (though hardly an original one after TV’s Prime Suspect et al), seemed so far away from the author’s real focus that it could have worked just as well, perhaps even better, if the main character had been a social worker (or a journalist).
A book then on the margins of the crime genre rather than one that pushes at its limits – very well done and certainly deserving of the positive reviews it has received in the press.