Book Talk: Downing — ‘For Your Own Good’
Teacher of the year, the prestigious Belmont Academy, a unique poison and vehicle for its delivery, and bodies piling up all over the place. What more could you ask for in a happy, little novel about life and death in an affluent American community.
“For Your Own Good” (2021, 373 pages) is Samantha Downing’s third novel, and the body of her work might have its own genre: fun/murder/mystery. I don’t mean to imply that her books are slap-stick comedy. They’re not. It’s better to think of them as being absurd to the point that you can’t help but smile while you’re enjoying the smooth narrative.
Downing’s choice of subjects almost dictates the tone of her books. In “My Lovely Wife” (see my review, 6/15/22), they are psychopaths, serial killers Millicent and her unnamed husband. In “He Started It” (see my review, 6/22/22), they are members of a family on a bizarre zigzagging road trip across the country. And in “For Your Own Good,” they are Teddy Crutcher, “Teacher of the Year” and Zach, a student whose “paper was good. Damn good, in fact. If Zach were a better person, he would’ve received a better grade.” Oh, and there’s another student, Courtney, whose mother is the initial victim. Then, there’s Frank Maxwell, an “accidental murderer” whose guilt drives him from academia to the clergy.
But the central character is certainly Teddy, a man so dedicated to his calling as an educator that a few deaths are just minor annoyances and distractions from his own agenda, which is to push his students to do their best, for their own good. As I read about Teddy, I couldn’t help thinking about Tony Shaloub’s TV character Monk, and his oft-used comment, “You’ll thank me later.”
Most of us have memories of our high-school experiences: “could’ve been worse,” “truly horrible,” “barely survived.” However, conditions at Belmont, known on the social media as “Homicide High,” made even my own experience at a Jesuit military academy in the center of New York City seem almost normal.
The kids at Belmont, urged on by their helicopter parents, are frantic to get the grades they need to get into the college of their choice. The parents know how to pressure the teachers to award only the best grades. And Teddy just wants everyone to leave him alone while he has the same sandwich, apple, and milk (but only from a glass bottle) for lunch each day at his desk. Oh, and he also wants his “Teacher-of-the-Year” plaque, which has gone missing from his classroom, to be returned. In fact, its absence nearly drives him to distraction.
Unlike many mysteries that save the “twist” for the end, Downing sprinkles numerous twists throughout her novels, and this keeps the reader guessing. I think that Ms. Downing must live in a non-parallel universe, and that’s our good fortune.
• • •
Jim Glynn may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.