Thomas H. Cook's The Chatham School Affair

Thomas H. Cook’s The Chatham School Affair won the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award for best mystery novel in 1997. Cook, who has Masters degrees in both History and Philosophy, and has taught college courses in English and History, is a prolific mystery novelist and true crime writer. Yet surprisingly enough, when asked about his childhood reading, Cook replied, “There were no books in my house. Neither of my parents finished high school and my father barely got out of grammar school.” But educators, he tells us, were influential in his life:
My love of reading came from my teachers. . . and who, according to Southern custom, stressed the classics of English and American literature, so that I read Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Dickens, Hardy, Conrad and loads of Shakespeare. We also read some Hemingway and Fitzgerald, along with a little Steinbeck.
The Chatham School Affair is told as an extended flashback by Henry Griswold, an aging lawyer who reflects on the strange events of 1926. Miss Channing, the new and unconventional teacher, arrives at Henry’s Cape Cod school, setting off a chain of events that ends in murder, suicide, and tragedy.

This crime mystery is a historical novel set in the 1920s, a time less tolerant than today. It is also a coming-of-age novel in which an adolescent learns about the ambiguities and complexities of life. Henry is a restless youth, dissatisfied with the restrictions and conventions of small-town life. He sees events through a romantic lens, a situation that exacerbates the tragedy. Moral and social dilemmas stimulate Henry’s psychological development. “Essentially I write about people in crisis,” Cook told Publishers Weekly, “and crime is usually what propels that crisis” (Foster 2008, 37).

Like Ross Macdonald, Cook focuses on the interplay between past and present. “I like writing novels,” he stated, “in which the actions occur in the far past, and are now being reflected upon. That structure allows for characters both to carry out and to reflect upon their actions.” His narrative structure juxtaposes innocence and experience, youth and age.

Cook’s novels are typically set in New England or the southern U.S. Setting plays a major role in The Chatham School Affair, both influencing and reflecting the behavior of individuals in a restricted milieu. The actions of the characters are shaped by the circumscribed place (Chatham, Massachusetts) and the time period (the 1920s).

The Chatham School Affair will not appeal to those who love fast-paced, action-driven mysteries. This gradually unfolding novel is nuanced yet powerful. As a Kirkus reviewer observes, reading the novel is like watching an “avalanche in agonizing, exquisite slow-motion. . . . Readers who aren’t exasperated by the glacial pace will find themselves entranced” (1996).

Cook, Thomas H. The Chatham School Affair. New York: Bantam, 1996.

Foster, Jordan. “Master of Crisis and Crime.” Publisher’s Weekly 255, no.14 (Apr. 7, 2008), 37.

“The Chatham School Affair.” Kirkus Reviews. July 15, 1996.