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Book Review - The Crazy School by Cornelia Read

Crazy + Cruel = Murder

The Crazy School
by
Cornelia Read

Published by Grand Central Publishing

Review by W. R. Greer


When The Crazy School arrived on my doorstep, I didn't know what to think about it and wasn't sure I even wanted to read it. I'd vaguely heard of Cornelia Read and that her first novel, A Field of Darkness had won some critical praise. The book jacket blurb, though, didn't help its cause, describing a mystery at a troubled school for troubled teenagers with a crazy founder running the place. I was half-expecting a B-movie mystery following every cliché in the genre. Based on the good things I'd heard about Cornelia Read, though, I cracked the book open and took a chance on it. Within a few pages, I was hooked.

The Crazy School of the novel's title is Santangelo Academy in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. It's 1989 and Madeline Dare is working at the school the locals refer to as "the crazy school." She had taken the teaching assignment because she needed the job, and found the school to be like a prison for both students and teachers with a long list of heavy-handed rules to keep everyone in line. The difference was that the teachers could leave. The students were the extremely troubled sons and daughters of wealthy families who were sent to Santangelo as a last resort before they ended up in a hospital, asylum, or jail. Some parents sent their children so they might be saved; others just found it a place to warehouse them.

The founder of the school, David Santangelo, is the creator of the bizarre set of rules. Everyone—teachers, students, and parents alike—must attend therapy sessions; caffeine and cigarettes are banned for everyone; most teachers live on campus where they passed out student medications, monitored the dorms at night, and meted out what appeared to be sadistic and pointless punishments for minor infractions. The crazy school appeared to Madeline to be a dark, sadistic place devoid of hope and reeking of despair, and David Santangelo was making a fortune from it. Madeline stayed because she needed the job and she truly wanted to help the kids. She couldn't leave them in the hands of some of the other teachers who appeared incompetent and malicious. When one of her students challenges her claim that it's just a job, he tells her, "When you're ready to own your own shit, you'll know why you're really here. That's what this place does."

The best part of The Crazy School is Madeline Dare. She's smart, sassy, witty, acerbic, cynical, and self-deprecating while being able to analyze her own situation. She admits to understanding the sense of fleeting hope carried by the students' parents:

   They want to help their children get better—they wanted to believe Santangelo had the secret cure, that he'd fix everything so their kids could resist suicide, or heroin, or schizophrenia, or the urge to inhale fumes from glue and gasoline and hair spray and that stuff you spray on records to get the dust off.
   I wanted to believe Santangelo could fix me, while he was at it. Who among us does not want to be shriven, to confess all, in the hope of being made clean and whole and new?
   It's just that I was second-generation at this, one of those kids dragged along for the ride by parents trying to achieve escape velocity at Esalen or Woodstock or, God help us, Jonestown.
Madeline was a child of the 70s, and Cornelia Read's riffing on the history and absurdities of the time provides much of the backdrop and humor of the novel. Despite the darkness of Santangelo Academy, Madeline uses humor to take the edge off, trying to fall back on her husband, Dean, when necessary. She befriends another teacher, Lulu, and they sneak off together for cigarettes and coffee. Some of the other teachers, though, raised her hackles, acting either spineless, cruel, or as if they're harboring secrets or their own. She discovered one teacher was skulking around the campus every night in dark clothes. The therapists were even worse. At the apex of this weirdness was David Santangelo, a man with enough charisma to make his bizarre rules make sense when he explains their purpose, but from a distance he seems to be a control freak in need of intense therapy himself.

When two of the students get into trouble, they confide their secret in Madeline, who promises to keep it confidential for a few days to see what can be worked out for them. The couple is found dead one night and everyone assumes it was a suicide pact. Madeline, though, is certain it's murder, and when she makes that accusation, she finds herself the prime suspect.

The mystery part of The Crazy School doesn't kick in until about the middle of the novel. Its unraveling has the requisite amount of twists and turns where everyone is suspect and Madeline discovers that other people aren't quite what they appear to be, for good and bad. The mystery isn't all that suspenseful, but it's enjoyable to watch Madeline trying to uncover the truth. It does serve as the vehicle for bringing drama to the themes of self-actualization and the grasp for identity and connection with the rest of the world. The guide for this tour is the delightful Madeline Dare, who struggles with finding her own place while trying to both avoid jail and being the next victim to whoever has brought murder to the crazy school.

One slightly confusing aspect of the novel are comments Madeline makes about her past, admitting to killing a man who had been trying to kill her at the time. I kept thinking this had some bearing to the plot of The Crazy School and was waiting for whatever events happened back in Syracuse would make sense in the unraveling of the mystery. There were references to her godfather that left me feeling like I was missing something. It wasn't until I realized that Madeline Dare was the protagonist in Cornelia Read's first novel and these were just references to provide some sense of continuity between the books. It's not necessary to have previously read A Field of Darkness to enjoy The Crazy School.

Cornelia Read is an exceptional writer. Her mix of characters, both students and staff, all come across as believable with their mixture of defiance, cynicism, hope, and murderous intent. Her dialogue between Madeline and the other characters rings true and carries much of the humor and insights. Madeline's interaction with her troubled and troublesome students makes you wish she was one of your teachers, and ultimately, the students become the people she can trust the most. You won't find a suspenseful thriller in The Crazy School, but I get the sense that's not the main purpose of the novel. Like most successful mystery novels, the characters and their drama carry the story, and Cornelia Read gives us the entertaining gift of Madeline Dare. The Crazy School is a wonderful novel and I'm eager to read whatever Cornelia Read has to offer next.

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