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Simon Lelic, A Thousand Cuts.

New York: Viking, 2010


Simon Lelic's debut novel, A Thousand Cuts (marketed in Europe under the title Rupture), looks at the aftermath of a shocking crime in which a teacher at a North London school walks into a school assembly and shoots three students and one of his fellow teachers before turning the gun on himself. Obviously, this is not a whodunit, since the killer's identity is not in question after the second chapter. Instead it is a whydunnit, which raises the essential question, "What drives a person to murder?"

In the aftermath of the school shooting, the media and all concerned seem to be quick to label the teacher, young Samuel Szajkowski, a monster whose actions were motivated by some underlying evil driving him to kill the students under his charge. The officer charged with investigating the killings, Detective Inspector Lucia May, is expected by her superiors to quickly conclude that this is the case. But her investigation raises disturbing questions about why the idealistic new teacher would become a killer -- questions the school's administration and her own superiors do not want asked.

On one level, A Thousand Cuts falls back on some of the conventions of mystery fiction, even veering perilously close to cliché. For instance, like so many fictional detective heroes, DI Lucia May is a maverick cop who is prepared to follow her instincts against the will of her boss and in the face of the initial evidence. And it is no a surprise to discover that, like most mystery heroes today, she has a fairly disastrous personal life. But Lelic rises above these clichéd conventions in giving his story an original and highly effective narrative style.

The story is told through chapters that alternate between witness statements and third person accounts of DI May's investigation. The witness statement chapters are presented as transcripts of interviews with fifteen witnesses taped by the Inspector during the course of her investigation, but they omit her side of the interrogation. Not only that, but at the start of each interview you are never sure who is speaking, but each becomes clear in good course without any intrusive element. These two unusual techniques encourage the reader to imagine what the Inspector asked and to identify with her to such an extent as to almost feel as though the reader was asking the questions himself.

These interrogations reveal that Szajkowski had been a victim of bullying from both students and teachers -- bullying which had escalated from mere verbal disrespect and defiance, to malicious pranks, and finally to physical violence. Furthermore, Szajkowski wasn't the only victim of bullying at the school. Bullying, ignored or tacitly encouraged by the headmaster and much of the faculty, had become endemic at the school. The assembly at which the shooting took place was actually the school's rather hypocritical response to an incident only a few days before in which a bullied student had been attacked and beaten so severely that he wound up in a hospital. As she uncovers these facts, DI May comes to see that the killings not only could have been prevented but that they were caused by circumstances that everyone but her seemed to want to cover up and allow to persist.

Throughout the course of the story DI May's discovery of the extent of the bullying occurring at the school is juxtaposed with sexual harassment she experiences as the lone female in her CID unit. Just as the school's headmaster turns a blind eye to the bullying in his school in order to maintain the school's positive public image, her boss is equally willing to ignore or blame her for the increasingly aggressive and hostile treatment she receives in the squad room. The author's background as a business reporter and businessman equips him to believably depict the all too real effects of economic and political pressures that have the effect of maintaining the status quo in dysfunctional organizations.

In the end it is the question of precisely how repeated bullying and harassment, left unchecked, may sort itself out that is explored by author Simon Lelic through the stories of Szajkowski and May. Personally, I found the ending less satisfactory than the story that had led up to it. After the all too believable situation at the school had been described the denouement seemed a bit contrived. I was particularly unconvinced of the effect Lucia's final lines are suggested to have. Nevertheless, I found A Thousand Cuts to be a very well written and thought provoking book. I highly recommend it to any serious reader and not just to fans of mysteries and crime fiction.