Mysteries get a bad rap, especially when it comes to the classroom. Why not teach them?
1. People, including those we call students, actually read them. They enjoy them. What would be so wrong with using books students enjoy? It’s time to get over the snobbery. (And yes, those who know me know I’ve been guilty of this elitism in the past.) Though I don’t love the genre, the same argument applies to sci-fi / fantasy as well.
2. Mysteries are perfect for teaching annotations and story structure. Simply put, have students annotate the clues. The basic question in terms of story structure is – how does the author create the tension and then relieve it?
To be fair, Rendell takes an unusual step. Right from the start, we know exactly who the killers are. But that doesn’t minimize the impact of this powerful novel. There is, as Rendell says early on, “more to it” (2). Thus, we have a flashback and, ultimately, a frame story. The question here is not who did the killing, but why. As in Doris Lessing’s creepy and outstanding The Fifth Child, what Rendell is really asking is(and it seems to be something of a British preoccupation – see Frankenstein, Macbeth, Othello, The Fifth Child, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, etc.) – what does it take for us to lose our humanity? Related: To what extent is the individual responsible (sub-question: nature vs. nurture)? To what extent is society responsible?
Eunice Parchman, the deliberately and awfully named protagonist of Rendell’s perfectly titled novel has crossed over the line. She is, as Shakespeare’s Scottish King puts it “In blood / stepped in so far that, should [she] wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (III.4.171-173). Unlike Macbeth, Eunice neither recognizes this nor cares. For reasons Rendell makes clear early on – no, I’m going to tell you because Rendell does in the first pages, indeed the first sentence – “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write” (1). Thus, in Rendell’s view, she lacks the capacity to recognize her flaws.
In contrast, one member of the higher class (higher than Eunice, not necessarily upper), a member of the Coverdale clan is, if you will, hyper-literate. But as much as he reads, he has no idea how to be in the world either.
Eunice does not act alone. Her partner-in-crime (really) has her own backstory. Whatever you think of either of them as human beings, Rendell crafts her novel so that you can not leave the questions I mentioned above unexamined.
A carefully crafted and powerful book.