Since the 19th century, writers have set large numbers of their stories in schools; these works are meant mainly for a school-age audience, although some are intended for older readers. The traditional form featured an account of bullying, where the bullied student, usually a boy, eventually triumphs. Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), for example, recounts boys being bullied in the fictional school Dotheboys Hall run by the vicious Wackford Squeers. Bullying–this time by older fellow students–is also the central theme of Richard Hughes’ famous book Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857). Set at Rugby School in England, which Hughes attended from 1834 until 1842, the book became so popular that it has been in print ever since its original publication. A sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), was also successful, and a series of “Flashman” books by George MacDonald Fraser were based on the later life of the leading bully in the story, Harry Flashman, and his cowardly actions around the British Empire. Since Tom Brown’s Schooldays, many books have used schools as their primary setting, with a number of them centering on the themes of bullying, theft, and murder.
Incidents of bullying, especially in boys’ boarding schools, pervade many novels that focus on school days, just as they often do in autobiographies. Some of the most well-known accounts are by Roald Dahl in both his autobiographical Boy (1984) and his short story “Galloping Foxley” (1960). Other books such as Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co (1899) and Nicholas Drayson’s Confessing a Murder (2003), about a student at school with Charles Darwin, include in-school bullying scenes and then follow the victimized student into later life. The violence in many of these fictional boarding schools, however, is nowhere near the treatment meted out to inmates in juvenile detention centers and youth custody centers. The latter literature includes such works as Steven Slater’s Approved School Boy (1967) set in Dorset, England, and Lorenzo Carcaterra’s Sleepers (1995), set in New York State; both of these books are partially autobiographical in nature. Damon Galgut’s A Sinless Season (1982), set in South Africa, covers bullying by other inmates and staff in detail. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) goes even further in describing the lives of boys stranded on an island with no adults.
The proliferation of books for school-age children has led to many books that focus on children solving crimes in school settings. Terence Rattigan’s play The Winslow Boy (1961), which is often performed in schools, focuses on the Archer-Shee case that rocked British politics in 1908-1911, in which a father sought to clear the name of his son who was expelled for theft. Other popular children’s stories involving crimes include Anthony Buckeridge’s Rex Milligan’s Busy Term (1953), in which a boy from a London grammar school uses information from his history teacher to prevent a greedy developer from illegally taking over the school. Stories set in boarding schools offer an easier environment for writers, as they typically include a limited number of characters and suspects. One example of this genre is Buckeridge’s Jennings Follows a Clue (1951), which is set in an English preparatory school. Richmal Crompton’s character “William,” is regularly involved in trying to solve mysteries and crimes, with some 40 books devoted to his career.
Erich Kastner’s Emil and the Detectives (1929), set in Berlin in the 1920s, describes a boy tracking down the pickpocket who stole some money from him (and who turns out to be a wanted bank robber). Paul Berna’s Le Cheval sans tete (1955; published in English as A Hundred Million Francs in 1957) involves a group of schoolchildren in Paris becoming involved in the hunt for a major bank robber. Maurice G. Woodward’s The Mystery of Lodge School (1987) has as its setting a remote British boarding school where a mysterious series of events follow the arrival of a new German master. Murders also occur on a regular basis in Hogwarts, the school attended by J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Mention should also be made of Charlie Higson’s SilverFin (2005) and subsequent books about the young James Bond at Britain’s Eton College. In addition, child spies dealing with murders and other cases appear in the Alex Rider stories of Anthony Horowitz, starting with Stormbreaker (2000), and in the Alpha Force series by Chris Ryan.
A number of historical crime novels have centered on events in schools or around schoolchildren. Caroline Lawrence’s “Bread and Circuses,” a short story set in Rome during the reign of the Emperor Titus, has school children deciding to solve the mystery surrounding bread stolen from a baker. In The Owls of Gloucester (2000), the 10th in the Domesday Book series by Edward Marston (pseudonym for Keith Miles), set in about 1085, two boys serving as novice monks at Gloucester Cathedral uncover the body of a monk who was one of their teachers. Cynthia Harnett’s The Load of Unicorn (1959) focuses on the life of a boy at St. Paul’s Cathedral School, London, in the early 1480s, and features scriveners trying to keep paper from William Caxton to prevent him from printing books that would cause them to lose business. Michael Clynes (pseudonym for Paul Doherty), in his Sir Roger Shallot murder/mystery journals set during the reign of Henry VIII, features Benjamin Daunbey, the nephew of Cardinal Wolsey, as a schoolmaster. In all of these works, however, the central issue in the story is historical, not the school.
Ashley Gardner sets his The Sudbury School Murders (2005) in Regency England, with the importance of the honor of the school being an initial theme until it is overwhelmed by money-making schemes devised by a wealthy student. Set n Australia, Jackie French’s Tom Appleby: Convict Boy (2004) covers the life of a fictional child convict in Australia in the 1790s, and Gary Disher’s Moondyne Kate (2001) has a schoolboy involved with bushrangers in mid-19th-century Australia.
There are also some crime stories whereby schoolteachers become involved in crime. Ernest Raymond’s We, the Accused (1935), made into a film in 1980, is about a teacher who tries to shorten the life of his ill wife and finds himself trying to escape from the police.
The vulnerability of schoolchildren to being kidnapped also features in many stories, such as Frank Richards’s Lord Billy Bunter (1956); Jerrard Tickell’s Whither do You Wander (1959); and Arden Winch’s Blood Money (1981), which was turned into a television series by the British Broadcasting Corporation. The crime writer Ellis Peters (pseudonym for Edith Pargeter) wrote City ofGold and Sorrows (1973), which involves the disappearance (and murder) of an inquisitive teenage boy on a school history excursion to the site of a Roman villa. Kingsley Amis’s The Riverside Villas Murder (1973) has a London schoolboy inadvertently solving the mystery over a murder of a local man.
Another genre consists of murder stories written for adults but focusing on schools. R. C. Woodthorpe’s The Public School Murder (1932) covers the murder of an English public school headmaster; James Hilton’s Murder at School: A Detective Fantasia (1935) has two brothers attending the same school and having separate accidental deaths; and the mystery in Josephine Bell’s Death at Half-Term (1939) surrounds a murder in an English preparatory school during a performance of Twelfth Mght.EdmundCrispin’s Love Lies Bleeding (1948) is set in a public school near Stratford-upon-Avon and describes the murders of two schoolmasters as an unknown person seeks to get his hands on the manuscript of a long-lost Shakespearean play. Evidence quickly points to a member of the school staff, and the crime is solved by an Oxford University professor at the school for speech day, who aids (and then takes over from) the police investigation. Key elements of this novel include the “regular” habits of several schoolmasters and the length of time taken to write school reports. The great British writer of spy fiction, John Le Carre (pseudonym for David Cornwell), in Murder of Quality (1962) also sets a murder in a school context, but this time highlights a student who may, or may not, have cheated in an examination. The spy George Smiley is involved in solving the mystery. Michael Gilbert’s The Night of the Twelfth (1976) focuses on a teacher and the disappearance of children near a school, and Robert Barnard’s School for Murder (1983) places a murder in a British preparatory school. Howard Shaw’s Pageant ofDeath (2000) has a murder carried out during the performance of a school’s 500th-anniversary pageant.
The intrusion of war into school life leads to new criminal offenses that affect civilians. In R. F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days (1972), a student who refuses conscription and becomes a conscientious objector appears in the story, albeit briefly. Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword (1956) follows the life of a boy in German-occupied Warsaw, and Danish writer Anne Holm’s David (1963, published in English as IAmDavidin 1965) covers the experiences of a Jewish boy in Nazi Europe.
A number of well-known films have also addressed war’s effects on schools and the lives of children, with the committing of war crimes as a backdrop. The French film Fiesta (1995) explores the life of a Spanish schoolboy leaving school for the Spanish Civil War, and Au revoir les enfants (1987) deals with the hiding of a Jewish boy in a Carmelite boarding school during the German occupation of France. Bryce Courtney’s The Power of One (1989), set in South Africa during the 1940s, focuses on the introduction of apartheid, and Robin Brown’s When the Wood Became the Trees (1965) relates the growing up of a white schoolboy during a state of emergency and killings in Rhodesia.
Series of revenge killings are rarely a theme in popular fiction, although Agatha Christie does cover this possibility in Nemesis (1976), when a former headmistress takes a coach tour with the friends of a former female student with whom a wrongly convicted young man had fallen in love many years earlier. Gavin Newman (pseudonym for Guy N. Smith), in The Hangman (1994), has an evil young man seeking revenge on all who wronged him, including his former headmaster who had punished him too many times.
The range and variety of these stories illustrate how the nature of crime and the clear interest in crime writing have led to many books set around schools, teachers, and students. As a genre, it has attracted many well-known writers, most of whom are famous for other books, as well as a number of schoolteachers and former schoolteachers such as Buckeridge, Doherty, and Woodward.
- Fitzpatrick, R. (1990). Bullies, beaks and flannelled fools: An annotated bibliography of boys’ school fiction 1742-1990. London: privately published.
- Gathorne-Hardy, J. (1977). The old school tie: The phenomenon ofthe English public school. New York: Viking Press.