Saturday, March 5, 2011

Review - Passion Play by W. Edward Blain

Short review: One of my high school teachers writes a murder mystery about killing boys at a thinly disguised version of the high school I attended.

Montpelier School
Is not Woodberry Forest
But really it is

Full review: At the outset I must reveal that W. Edward Blain, who was, and at the time of this writing still is, an English teacher at Woodberry Forest School, taught me English in my 6th Form year there. Consequently it is quite possible that this novel, published just four years after I graduated and set at the fictional Montpelier School for Boys which is an incredibly thinly disguised version of Woodberry Forest, might hold more interest for me than it does for the average reader. Notwithstanding this, Passion Play is a very good mystery novel involving faculty intrigue, adolescent turmoil, and a series of murders.

One thing must be made clear: in addition to serving as the backdrop for most of the action, the Montpelier School for Boys is, in a certain sense, a character in the novel. The particular and somewhat unique way of life at the school dominates the action throughout the novel. And that way of life mirrors the real life of Woodberry students almost exactly. Montpelier students go to classes on a rolling schedule, with Tuesday and Friday afternoons off, with Saturday classes, just like Woodberry students. They have dorm inspection at 10:15 every day, are required (with limited exceptions) to participate in organized sports, have mandatory nightly two-hour study periods, all just like real Woodberry students. Even the "training meal" athletes who are going to an away event eat (roast beef, mashed potatoes, peas, and white bread, which everyone would just mix together to eat) is exactly the same. And, of course, the most important element common to both schools is the student run, single sanction honor code that prohibits lying, stealing, or cheating. To make the parallel even more obvious, the main building at the Montpelier Academy for Boys, housing administrative offices, the dining hall, and several dorms for the boys is Stringfellow Hall, while at Woodberry Forest the same function is filled by the Walker Building, named for the school's founder Robert Stringfellow Walker. In short, if an element of student life is introduced into the novel, it is almost certain that it is drawn from reality.

But other than providing a view into the world in which the students at Woodberry Forest live and work, does Passion Play deliver a story worth reading? The answer to that a resounding yes. The novel opens with a bang as an unnamed character picks up an adolescent male prostitute in New York and proceeds to murder him in a dingy movie theatre. The action then shifts to the Montpelier School in Virginia, where the murders continue as boy after boy is killed (for the record, as far as I know, no students attending Woodberry Forest have ever been murdered). The story is told from a shifting third person viewpoint, allowing Blain to move about from character to character, and relate his experiences in the unfolding grisly drama from each of their perspectives. This is a brilliant storytelling device, as it allows Blain to tell the story primarily from the perspective of Ben Warden, the head of the school's English department, Thomas Boatwright, a somewhat ordinary student at the school, and Cynthia Warden, Ben Warden's wife. Each has a unique perspective on both life at the school and the mystery. Finally, the unknown killer crops up from time to time as a viewpoint character, giving the reader insight into his motivations, and allowing Blain to cast suspicion on a number of characters in the process. Some chapters are told from the perspective of a handful of other minor characters, but the bulk of the story is told from the perspective of the four main characters.

From my perspective, as a former student, the character who I identified with most was Boatwright, whose life at the school rang true to me. His travails as he struggles to deal with the rigorous academic standards, the vagaries of the disciplinary system and its interaction with the honor code, and the usual adolescent difficulties understanding the new and alluring world of sex, are compounded by his difficulties dealing with Greg Lipscomb, his black roommate, and understanding (or even being aware of) the racism, both blatant and subtle, that Lipscomb must deal with. For one unfamiliar with the school, it should come as little surprise that as a private boarding school in the Southern United States, Woodberry has had few black students, and those that have attended have had to deal with some fairly nasty behavior by scions of wealth Southern families. Boatwright must deal with the overt racism displayed by several of the more obnoxious characters in the book, but also comes to realize his own prejudices and the pressures his roommate faces. Boatwright also has to figure out who, in the jungle that is the world of adolescent boys, who to turn to for advice concerning relationships with girls, and stumbles through making several foolish choices along the way.

The story of the two Wardens is more serious, but somewhat less compelling. Cynthia is mysteriously ill, and much of the action of both Ben and Cynthia in early part of the book is preoccupied with unraveling why this is so. Ben is a somewhat notable poet, and struggles to continue his output and his responsibilities to his students even while he struggles with his wife's unknown malady. The action of the story is told against the backdrop of the school's production of Othello, and although Ben is not the director of the play, as the head of the School's English department he (and Cynthia) are deeply involved. The use of Othello, with its themes of love, betrayal, and sex, is no accident, as those themes are mirrored in the action of the story ranging from Boatwright's fumbling adolescent romance with a girl from a nearby all girls boarding school (which seems to be roughly based upon the Madeira School for Girls, whose former headmistress Jean Harris famously killed her lover Herman Tarnower), to the rude sexual escapades of the bully boy Robert Staines, to the ill-disguised lust some of the other faculty members have for Cynthia, and finally, the sexual perversions of the unknown killer. Othello also serves to highlight the racial tensions that underlie the work, as Lipscomb assumes the title role in an effort to avoid the racial stereotyping that would accompany his participating in sports and prove himself intellectually. On that score, choosing to appear as Othello seems like something of an odd choice, given that the part is so identified with black actors, which seemed to me to run against the point of having Lipscomb's character in the book to begin with.

There are only a few minor miscues in the book. Some of the chapters don't work very well as they are told from the perspective of viewpoint characters with little to offer to the story. In one, for example, a vain faculty member who also happens to be a basketball coach spends much of the chapter trying to steer the conversation to his team's recent victory, and secure praise for himself. The chapter is mostly harmless, but it doesn't add much to the story, as the character doesn't really figure into any other part of the plot. The other weakness involves the resolution of the story. The mystery of who the killer is is not really solved. Instead, the killer reveals himself and ends the mystery on his own. In effect, the actions of all the other characters of the story become more or less irrelevant at the end, as the killer takes matters into his own hands. This is a rather unsatisfying end to the central element of the book.

Despite these minor flaws, the book remains quite good, primarily because the murder mystery mostly serves as a framing mechanism for exploring the relationships between the characters, and on that score, the book is excellent. As an aside, I must say that while none of the characters in the book were direct copies of faculty or students from my tenure at the school, there were definitely characters who, in the broad strokes, I recognized and have a feeling I know who they were loosely based upon. Being drawn from real people probably helps make the characters and their interplay so effective in the book, and make their interactions ring true. In the end, this book is an excellent read for anyone who is interested in a good mystery coupled with a detailed and well-crafted treatment of life in a boys boarding school.

Subsequent book in the series: Love Cools

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  1. How interesting to read a murder mystery set at the school you attended and involving fictionalized versions of people you know and events you may have experienced - or at least interactions and relationships you are familiar with. It's sort of like having a window into the mind of the author.

  2. @Julia: Yes, it was quite fun to read. There is a loose sequel called Love Cools (I'll be putting up a review of that later today probably). The only thing that I'm curious about is whether someone who didn't go to Woodberry Forest would find it as enjoyable as I did.

  3. Good question. I might give the two books a try.

  4. @Julia: They are a little bit hard to find, as they are almost twenty years out of print. Not to try to steer you that way, but clicking through on the links in the reviews may be the best bet for finding copies.