The Chatham School Affair (Book Review)

I can’t resist mysteries. Thomas H. Cook’s novel caught my eye in Imprints last year when I was scanning the crime fiction shelves. A shadowy red cover, an intriguing title, the promise on the back of the book – ‘the arrival of Elizabeth Channing in 1926, to teach art at the Chatham School … was the catalyst for a tragic chain of events that would culminate in a murder trial’ – meant that I was hooked straightaway. I had never heard of Thomas H. Cook, but the cover’s byline ‘Edgar Award Winning Novel’ and the ‘read the first page’ test convinced me.  The Chatham School Affair found a place in my shopping bag, along with some Haigh’s  chocolate truffles and a bottle of red wine.

Was this a good impulse purchase? Yes and no. But tending towards ‘glass-half-full’ yes, because I  spent a chilly winter weekend sitting by the fire, immersed in this beautifully-written, sinister, bleak story. Cook has a gift for evoking  atmosphere; his descriptions of the desolate countryside around Cape Cod, particularly Black Pond – a dark, windswept stretch of water, ‘still and lightless’ -will stay with me for a long time.  And I enjoyed his use of foreshadowing, the early warnings in the text that prepare the reader for the inevitable final tragedy: the mention of a  blurred photograph, the transcript of a trial, a conversation accidentally overheard.

On the negative side, I don’t agree with the reviewers who claimed that the ending of the novel was a ‘surprise’ ( they can’t have been reading very carefully!) and I did get a bit worn out with all the emotional drama by the end (some editing of the last 50 or so pages would have helped.) Other reviewers complained about the ‘glacial pace’ of the plot: again, I disagree. The suspense that Cook generates is an asset, not a flaw. Once I’d started reading The Chatham School Affair, I couldn’t bring myself to put the book down.

Recommended if you like mysteries and want a good excuse to avoid doing the housework on the weekend. (‘Honey, can you put the washing on and take the kids to the football? I really have to finish this book.’)


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