Simon Lelic’s first book, A THOUSAND CUTS, is a perfect story for our time. Samuel Szajkowski, the grandson of a Polish immigrant and a history teacher, walks into an assembly and kills three students and a teacher before killing himself. Detective Inspector Lucia May is assigned the case, an easy one, because there is no doubt about the identity of the killer. Still, Lucia finds herself returning day after day, drawn to the school because she can’t make herself believe that the crime is as simple as it appears.
Interviewing students and faculty, Lucia learns that Szajkowski was the victim of constant harassment and bullying from his students who have the tacit approval of the headmaster. A victim of sexual harassment as the only woman on the detective squad, Inspector May refuses to rush her report, refuses to take things at face value, refuses to ignore that the atmosphere at the school was poisonous. Neither teachers nor students were safe from the bullies, and Lucia’s boss is giving into pressure from the headmaster. As she probes, Lucia discovers that there has been a conspiracy of silence surrounding the beating of another student and she becomes more determined to prove that the teacher was a victim, goaded into killing because he believed that in killing some he was protecting others.
The structure of the book is unusual and it brings an immediacy to the means by which Lucia gathers the information. The story is told with alternating points of views, from the first person interviews of the students, faculty, and parents to the narrative of Lucia’s investigation in the third person. It is very effective, especially as it is the words of those involved who move the story further and further away from the obvious solution presented in the beginning of the story.
Death by A THOUSAND CUTS is a perfect description of what happens to those who are hounded by those without a moral compass. It is a police procedural only in the most general meaning. It is really about heroism in facing the thing one most fears. There are few who are innocent and many who are guilty because they turned the other way. From the first page, the reader will be compelled to continue to the end.
The book is an indictment of society. Bullies seek out the weak and they are enabled by the adults who tacitly and overtly encourage it and by parents who don’t demand moral responsibility from their children and adults in leadership positions who are afraid to take on the bullies for fear of being bullied themselves.
I posted this review on September 2, 2010, shortly after the book was published. Bullying has gone far beyond the harassment some children have always faced. With camera phones and YouTube, a child’s humiliation can become entertainment for an international audience.