by Sharon Tucker
The August weather may still be stiflingly hot, but schools everywhere are preparing to gear up for fall and the start of a new school year–exciting times, yes? K-12 students are bracing themselves! University students are excited if they are freshman and blasé if they are upperclassmen. Teachers everywhere will head back to school two weeks early to prepare for the upcoming term, but the rest of us will be footing the bills or limp with relief that we are not footing the bills for books, new clothes and school supplies. To further put us in the mood for fall and all things scholastic, Sacred Clowns (1993) by Tony Hillerman, Miss Pym Disposes (1946) by Josephine Tey and Unsympathetic Magic (2010) by Laura Resnick all employ teachers in distinctive roles at the center of each.
Officer Jim Chee and Lt. Joe Leaphorn have been in ten novels set in the US Southwest prior to Sacred Clowns but here Tony Hillerman finally puts Chee and Leaphorn in the same unit of the Navajo Tribal Police, which has been especially created for investigations. In spite of their distinctly different approaches to policing, both officers are uniquely suited to solving crimes.
Jim Chee is a traditional Navajo to whom ceremonials and customs are central to his belief system and way of life. Chee is studying to be a ceremonial leader in the Navajo religion and frequently his traditionalism clashes with modern life, but it also makes him a better policeman. His knowledge of fellow traditionals gives him insight into motives and behavior that others miss.
In contrast, Leaphorn is non-traditional and more comfortable with solving reservation crime by the book, the penal code. Leaphorn is just as intriguing a character due to his palpable discomfort with elements of the Navajo culture. However, his strong suit as a peace officer is that despite his affinity for spit and polish, Leaphorn respects what he doesn’t always understand, much less believe. Sacred Clowns concerns a runaway high school student, the death of a high school teacher and the theft of a Civil War artifact. As the plot progresses, readers learn that all three incidents are related and the contrasting approaches Chee and Leaphorn learn from each other and work together to conclude each case most satisfactorily.
As Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes begins, Leys Physical Training College for Women (somewhere in England) has invited former French teacher, Miss Lucy Pym, to speak as a guest lecturer. The invitation has been extended, not only because she is an old school friend of the current headmistress, but also because she is the best-selling author of a psychology book that successfully refutes many of the then current theories in the discipline.
Almost immediately Miss Pym finds herself containing first what could become a cheating scandal, then pondering the evidence in an instance of what looks like premeditated murder. What she discovers at Leys places Miss Pym squarely in the midst of more than one ethical and moral dilemma.
Tey has special insight into schools such a Leys since she trained in one herself and she captures what seems to me similar to the rarified air of a convent but of course, sportier and rather less ecclesiastical. Both convents and girl’s schools are exclusive, closed communities striving diligently toward a goal, after all. One cannot help but remember Robert Browning’s poem “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” and find distinct parallels.
One of the best of the Urban Fantasy genre around has to be Laura Resnick’s Esther Diamond series. Each one treats the reader to a different aspect of paranormal goings-on that affect a working actress in Manhattan. Fortunately for Diamond she has her very own mage (a learned person or magician), Dr. Maximilian Zadok, who matriculated from Oxford University some 350 years ago and is still around due to a mishap with an immortality potion and with a mission to protect New York from the forces of evil.
Whatever the phenomena plaguing her currently it’s not beyond the powers of this professor who is learned in everything from disappearing acts and doppelgangers to voodoo and zombies. Unsympathetic Magic has Diamond juggling performing in an episode of a popular TV franchise while helping out a fellow actor (and ex) by teaching an acting class at a Harlem cultural center. What soon becomes evident to Diamond is that gargoyles and the walking dead in her city are but the harbinger of more to come that only Max (Dr. Zadok) can waylay. By mentioning the term “human sacrifice” you can easily see where all this is going unless Max can repel the forces set in motion by a black magician.
Any or all of these three can help ease you into fall and the school days to come. You can explore the Four Corners (where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet) with Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn or perhaps the scents of waxed gymnasium floors, a full-English cafeteria breakfast or chalk dust appeal to you more. Don’t forget Maximillian Zadok‘s valiant efforts to protect Manhattan from the end of the world as we know it. Education will never be the same.
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