Hazel McHaffie

School massacres

Think of the small cathedral city of Dunblane and two things come to mind: an appalling school massacre, and Andy Murray, one of the survivors.

Andy Murray is carving out his own niche in sporting history, trying not to think of the day when, aged just eight, he hid under a table with his brother to avoid the eye and gun of Thomas Hamilton, the former local Scout leader whom he knew.

But memories of 13 March 1996, when Hamilton walked into a primary school and shot dead sixteen children and a teacher, are still vivid in the minds of the people of Scotland.

Dunblane is only about 35 miles from where I live; that’s the closest I’ve come to this horror in real life. I’ve visited the city since 1996 and felt the impact of its shocking claim to fame hidden under the pretty exterior.

And at snowdrop time it’s fitting to pause and remember.

The Snowdrop campaign was founded in the aftermath of the Dunblane massacre to call for a total ban on the private ownership and use of handguns in the United Kingdom.

My heart goes out to everyone who’s known the reality of such a catastrophe personally. The city, the community, the families, will never be the same again. But spare a thought, also, for the relatives of the killers who perpetrate these terrible acts. Their lives too are decimated. And who will give them a hug, lay flowers at their door, send them a sympathy card, make allowances?

I’ve read several novels about school massacres – We Need to Talk about Kevin and Nineteen Minutes stay with me. Disturbing tales, cleverly crafted, gripping in a macabre sort of way. More recently Rupture caught my attention.

This is Simon Lelic’s debut novel – and what a debut. Reviews have been mixed, but in my opinion it’s unusual, taut, gritty. And challenging.

In the midst of a sweltering hot summer in London, a young history teacher, Samuel Szajkowski, walks into his school assembly and opens fire, killing three pupils and a colleague before turning the gun on himself. An open and shut case; there are more than a hundred witnesses.

Lucia May, the police inspector assigned to the investigation, is expected to wrap up the report smartly. But Lucia becomes obsessed with the questions no-one else wants to ask: what drove this polite, shy man to commit this horrific crime? She starts delving. And she really listens. Her own experience of institutional harassment gives her the courage to defy everyone who wants to stop her doing so. And then schoolboy Elliot Samson commits suicide … her resolve hardens.

What makes this book so different is the style of writing. We hear the evidence as the inspector hears it, streams of words from each witness, without interruption or interjection. Such is the power of the story-telling that Lelic doesn’t even tell us directly who is speaking as the case gradually builds – a picture so chilling, so ugly, and yet so cleverly manipulated that it’s doubtful if justice will ever prevail.

Abuse, bullying, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia – they’re all there, and yet the issues themselves aren’t allowed to overshadow the story-line.

If I have a criticism it’s that the profanities are rather overdone. Oh, and the conventional third person sections are weaker than the witnesses’ accounts. And the ending is clumsy and unfinished. But in spite of all that, overall I was gripped by the story and didn’t want it to end.

I do read cheerful books too, honestly! It’s just that the dark and chilling, lend themselves to sharing bloggy kinds of thoughts on VelvetEthics.

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