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Cornelia Read: The Crazy School

In spite of its relatively short history, Santangelo Academy, the setting for Cornelia Read's second novel, The Crazy School, leaks shadows and New England fog all over the book's narrator, Madeline Dare. In keeping with the storied association of prep schools and murder—must be the rage of teenage hormones, or the residuals of the days of corporal punishment—Madeline, an unlikely detective and even less likely high-school teacher, uncovers something weirder and more awful than she anticipated.

After Madeline's engineer husband is laid off, she joins the staff at Santangelo, a guru-led reform school in the Berkshires, where she has to undergo the same protracted group-talk treatment as the disobedient, drug-addicted attendees. Between the mandatory staff "appreciations" and the campus ban on coffee, Madeline is as miserable as her pupils, which could be why so many of them decide to confide in her. When tragedy strikes the campus, though, Madeline has more to overcome than her superiors' New Age agenda and the challenges of teaching I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings; her ornery attitude at work makes her a police suspect and an unlikely ally to her alienated students.

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The Crazy School never reaches the gothic depths of Read's debut novel, A Field Of Darkness, but it maintains a similar, stubbornly deliberate pace propelled more by Madeline's ornery disposition than by any procedural imperative. Madeline's motives to delve into the Santangelo mystery are a little specious, but her Achilles heel is the guilt she feels over her own unfitness for her charges' care, just as her disappointing career as a small-town journalist in A Field Of Darkness prompted her to dig into a long-unsolved murder. (The books are sequential, but it isn't necessary to have read the first to enjoy the second.)

And in the end, Madeline's dim view of her surroundings and her attendant skepticism make The Crazy School's conclusion, and its attendant stretches of believability, seem almost realistic. This is no gullible Nancy Drew, and whatever damages her students have inflicted on themselves pale in comparison to the institutional gloom she sees enveloping them. Sounds like an ordinary case, but the company of a chain-smoking former flower child makes the trip anything but common. —Ellen Wernecke Grade: B

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