Book Review: The Finalists by David Bell

In David Bell's The Finalists, the competitive selection process for a prized college scholarship turns deadly. Here's Jenny Maloney's review!

The Hyde scholarship is many things—competitive, comprehensive, and a golden ticket for the student who wins it. The scholarship is awarded to only one student every year. It covers all tuition and guarantees a job after graduation. To attain the award, a select group of students is brought to Hyde House, the family home of the private college’s founders. Once there, they undergo a rigorous written test followed by an oral interview. 

All while locked inside Hyde House, with no way to contact the outside world.

This year, the scholarship carries extra weight. As the biggest selling point for the private college, it’s necessary that everything going according to plan. The college is under tremendous financial pressure. Without the support of the last Hyde heir, the scholarship, the college, and the students’ futures are all on the line. 

All six of the selected students enter the house—but not everyone makes it out.

The Finalists by David Bell is a classically styled closed-room mystery with the contemporary twist of higher education pressure. The pressure the students and faculty are under is real. Right now, higher-education students would probably participate in the Hunger Games if it meant tuition would be covered. So, it’s not unbelievable that six desperate, high-achieving students would allow themselves to be locked in an old Southern house for eight hours. 

The rules state that, if anyone leaves the house before the allotted timeframe is up, the Hyde scholarship will not be awarded—for this group and for all future groups. 

Then the first student, Milo, the favored front-runner, dies during the written examination. 

The scholarship administrator, Troy, and the final Hyde heir, Nicholas, decide to hold a vote. 

Sydney smiles in a forced way… “He wouldn’t want everyone else to stop just because he…well, because he was…you know…”

 

“Passed away,” Captain Stephenson says.

 

“Yeah,” Sydney says. “Passed away.” 

 

Everyone nods, solemn as church deacons.

 

Nicholas steps forward. “I guess we don’t have to vote, then. We know how everyone feels—”

 

“I think we should still vote,” I say. “I think it’s important to go on record with what we all think.”

 

Nicholas takes a step closer to me. He speaks in a low voice that the students no doubt hear. “Are you sure you want to do that?”

 

“We agreed to take a vote, and I think we should take one. So show of hands. Who wants to stay and finish the second half of the process?”

 

For a moment, no hands go up. Nobody moves. 

 

Then Captain Stephenson’s hand goes up. Followed quickly by Nicholas’s. 

 

Then Natalia, Emily, an dDuffy raise their hands. 

 

Finally, Sydney lifts hers. And since she has the longest arms of anyone in the room, it looks like she’s almost reaching the ceiling. 

 

Every eye in the room turns to me. It doesn’t matter. I’m clearly outvoted. But I did say everyone should go on record with what they really think….

 

It’s simply a no-brainer.

 

I lift my hand.

 

The process continues. 

Too much is at stake. Even the mysterious death of one of the finalists isn’t enough to deter the students. Besides, they can’t get a hold of the authorities anyway. Plus, the doors are locked. And the windows are nailed shut. 

What follows is a chaotic tangle of character motivations. Some of the students want to leave, regardless of the consequences. Some of the students can’t afford to leave the scholarship behind. There are debates about what to do with the body. Small teams form among the survivors, only to fracture later. Troy, the administrator, struggles against the tide of student opinion and the pressures on the college. 

Nicholas Hyde, the final heir and ultimate final-say in the awarding of the scholarship, refuses to admit defeat in this, his first leadership role in the scholarship process. Though he seems mostly focused on expensive booze. 

As the day presses forward, the dark history of the Hydes comes burbling up to the present, affecting everyone locked inside the house. When another person dies, the urgency of the moment increases. Even the ones who want to leave can’t. There’s no way to get in touch with the world outside of Hyde House. Distrust and anger split the group, making an already volatile situation worse. 

The Finalists shows the cut-throat world of higher education in a microcosm. Issues such as racism, agism, sexism all roil among the six students, the administrator, and the founders. No one is truly innocent, even the victims. Bell manages to push it all—character motivations, social issues, and the lock-room mystery—to the bursting point.   

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