Contrary to certain opinion, the new wave of novels for adolescents hasn't explored every sensational topic after all; mainly because the adult author doesn't live in a world as corrosively conformist or as criminally cruel as that of the teenager. Breathy novels about drugs, sexual liberation and sub-proletariat gang warfare let off scot-free the majority of young readers, who are virtually all middle-class, who deny drugs are a problem, and who are amazingly prudish about other people's sex lives.
Lois Duncan breaks some new ground in ["Killing Mr. Griffin"], a novel without sex, drugs or black leather jackets. But the taboo she tampers with is far more potent and pervasive: the unleashed fury of the permissively reared against any assault on their egos and authority. A group of high-school seniors kill an English teacher who dares trouble them with grades, homework and standards.
Before all this is smiled nervously away as a sick fantasy, let's meet the perpetrators, familiar figures all. There's Jeff, the jock, who suspects his teacher, Mr. Griffin, of lying awake nights "trying to think of questions that don't have answers." Jeff is never likely to learn that this is a central point of education.
There's Betsy, "the all-American girl—head cheerleader—homecoming queen" who has eliminated enemies before, without violence, and is in complete possession of a mother who assures her that her cuteness will last.
There's Mark, who would not like me for failing to list him first. He's been crossed even less often than Betsy. There's madness in his eyes, and in his psychiatric history. But his charisma and talent for delegating authority will make him the most familiar figure to young readers. This is a book for people who've learned in the schoolyard where nice guys finish.
The nice guy is David, senior-class president, quietly sincere, thoughtful, fond of a challenge, and political enough to know that Mark's malevolence takes precedence over Robert's Rules of Order. The novel is of two minds about who the central figure is. It's either David, or Susan—"a little creep with glasses"—early conscripted as a decoy in an asexual seduction by The Group. When she receives this brief acceptance, her parents are thrilled.
We've even come far enough from the 1960's to see the victim clearly. Mr. Griffin is a professor who's given up trying to teach the classics to college freshmen who can't pronounce the words….
His students dislike his punctuality, his necktie, his irony. They're triggered by his assignment of homework on a basketball night. They plan to kidnap and terrorize him into a sort of pedagogical impotence, so he'll be like the rest of the faculty. But the book's title has reached the reader before this plan does. And the scheme becomes feasible to the schemers for the most airtight of reasons: They remind one another that legally they are minors. Not only are they untouchable, they're not guilty.
You don't stop reading at this point, though you well might. The value of the book lies in the twisted logic of the teen-agers and how easily they can justify anything. But then the plot descends into unadulterated melodrama. One murder leads to another. And a murder attempt at the end is evidently meant to establish the comparative innocence of one character at the expense of the others. The book becomes "an easy read" when it shouldn't. But there's veracity unto the end: the parents are the last to lose their innocence.
Will this book give the impressionable unspeakable ideas? I doubt it. They already have them. The impulse toward crime is surely to be found nearer...
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than a book: the paranoia of the permissively handled and the unlikelihood of punishment for anything. Adolescents have witnessed far more graphic scenes of teacher humiliation and brutalization in their own schools, in terms more immediate than this book.
And besides, who will read it? Teen-agers won't choose to identify with these meticulously unflattering portrayals, though they'll see their friends in them. Parents won't go near the book. Nor will school administrators, who spend increasing time, not in dealing with school crime, but in keeping it out of the newspapers. Perhaps it's a book for teachers.
Richard Peck, "Teaching Teacher a Lesson," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 30, 1978, p. 54.