School Days Can Be Murder

Cover of Murder at the PTA
Murder at the PTA by Laura Alden
Judging by the proliferation of backpack, laptop, and sneaker ads on TV, it must be time to head back to school. Since almost as many authors seem to come from the halls of academia as the cubicles of journalism, it makes me wonder why more teachers don’t show up in crime fiction.

After all, the best teachers are about as easy to intimidate as a homicide detective and can spot lies and bad behavior as well as The Mentalist. (Admit it, you know you had that one teacher you swore could read your thoughts.) They usually have a large community network, maybe even a phone tree. At the college level, schedules can be very flexible to allow for fictional snooping, and even those at the primary and secondary level don’t exactly work nine-to-five. (Seven-to-seven, maybe, but this isn’t reality. This is fiction.) They’re encouraged to research and question (as long as they don’t question the principal or dean). Seems to me, teachers are natural-born sleuths.

So, in addition to Janice Hamrick’s Death on Tour (which was excerpted here back in April), featuring a Texas teacher in Egypt, here are a few back-to-school reads, moving from cozy to not-so-cozy.

What could be cozier than a quaint town, a children’s bookstore, and an elementary school? Laura Alden’s Murder at the PTA may not showcase a crime-solving teacher, but there are plenty in the supporting cast as PTA secretary, mom, and yes, bookshop owner, Beth Kennedy puzzles out who killed the school’s unpopular principal. And if you fall in love with Beth, the second book in the series came out last month.

Murder 101 by Maggie Barbieri
The Alison Bergeron mysteries by Maggie Barbieri start with Murder 101, in which the recently-divorced English professor finds her car stolen. Having the police find it should turn be a good thing, until they notice the body of a student in the trunk. Clumsy, “queen of the nerds” Bergeron knows she didn’t do it, but at first Detective Bobby “Hot Pants” Crawford isn’t convinced. It’s not until she finds herself the target of more than an investigation that Crawford starts to see her as more than a suspect. If you like a little romance mixed with your mystery, Barbieri’s sixth installment is due out later this year.

Ada Madison’s professor, Dr. Sophie Knowles, would rather be doing puzzles and math problems, but the brainteaser of who killed Dr. Appleton becomes irresistible. Besides, someone has to clear the good name of her graduate assistant, right? Perfect for back-to-school season The Square Root of Murder is set at the tail-end of a sweltering summer and though Dr. Knowles often comes across as a frumpy, flustered professor, her analytical mind proves to be an asset. The campus characters aren’t wacky so much as believable and varied. Pilot boyfriend, Brue, and beading buddy, Ariana, add dimension to Dr. Sophie and try to keep her out of trouble.

Neil Plakcy’s adjunct professor is a little less accomplished, professionally. In fact, he’s a former computer hacking felon on parole in his pre-Silicon-Valley stomping ground of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. But Steve Levitan and his former neighbor’s golden retriever, Rochester, don’t intend to let that stop them from figuring out who shot Rochester’s former guardian in In Dog We Trust. For dog lovers, sure, but the characters are flawed enough to work for cat and fish people, too.

Choke On Your Lies by Anthony Neil Smith
Choke On Your Lies by Anthony Neil Smith
Poetry professor Mick Thooft might not be as well known as some of Anthony Neil Smith’s other characters, notably Deputy Billy Lafitte of Yellow Medicine and Hogdoggin’, but he finds himself just as much in over his five-o’clock shadow. Choke on Your Lies might start off with lunch and a messy divorce, but quickly descends, gloriously, so, into sex, lies, blackmail, forgery, and yes, video. Mick’s friend, the overweight, obnoxious, ruthless, and brilliant Octavia VanderPlatts is neither cozy nor cuddly. She is, however, the perfect person to have on your side when things get ugly. And Anthony Neil Smith does ugly fantastically.

In Witness to Death, mild-mannered John Brighton is a middle-school teacher like his creator, Dave White. With any luck, that’s all they have in common as after following his ex-girlfriend’s new man on the kind of hunch jealous exes have, John ends up running from the bad guys, the cops…well, from everyone. It’s hard to say anymore without giving away something that would spoil the fun of this action-packed spy thriller. I will say it’s fun to watch John evolve.

I just hope the coming school year proves to be safer than these reads imply. Can you picture any of your teachers as crime-solvers? Which one?


Neliza Drew is a tofu-eating teacher and erratic reader with a soft spot for crime fiction. She lives in the heat and humidity of southern Florida with three cats and her adorable Hubby. She listens to way too much music, writes often, and spends too much time on Twitter (@nelizadrew).

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