Review for The Headmaster's Wife, by Jane Haddam

The Headmaster's Wife is the only Gregor Demarkian novel I've read by Ms. Haddam, and I think it'll probably be the last.

Mark, a young teen who thinks he's possibly becoming mentally ill, calls Gregor from his private boarding academy outside Boston to tell him he might have seen a body on campus. And oh, by the way, his roommate hung himself. Gregor, having issues with wanting to investigate any more murders, goes up to Boston thinking he'll just help out the unstable young teen, since the suicide seems pretty solid. But then he gets sucked into campus politics, and campus-town relations, and then someone else dies. Already in place among the town's police, Gregor finds himself solving yet another murder case.

The characters were all very well formed in this book. Dare I say, over-formed? The first chapter introduced a dozen people, bing bang boom, most from their own POV. The result was a bit muddling and overwhelming. Long backgrounds, personality details, philosophical perceptions, previous employers...the list of details went on and on. And not just at the start. Large swaths of this book slowed down to cover furniture, history, historical philosophers, and other details irrelevant to the plot. One spot had a character muse for two pages on an anecdote about a character who wasn't involved in the current story at all. It did make the characters feel more realistic, but in a way I've usually heard advised against: if it's not related to the plot, it doesn't need to be there. I nearly put the book down more than once, so turned off by the blubber.

I don't live on the East Coast, so a lot of the references were lost on me. I don't collect old furniture. I don't use politics as a way of life. I don't live defensively, automatically covering my tracks in case I might get attacked for doing something someone powerful doesn't like. I don't have negative opinions toward poorer people moving into rich people's circles due to hard work. I just couldn't relate to many of the characters in this book, and found myself not caring who the killer was.

I found the title of this book highly misleading, as the only thing spectacular about the headmaster's wife is that she's a sociopath who doesn't get identified as such (I hope the author intended for people to pick up on that: she presents a dozen excellent examples of sociopathy in her character, then has her think fondly of a psychopath and use similar tactics to him, if far less violent). Otherwise, the book isn't really about her, not in the way you think it will be.

On the psychopath: he's a character introduced at the beginning of the book. Yet not until halfway through does anyone seemingly notice or mention his crazy, violent obsessions. Then, suddenly, everyone does. It's like he's two different characters. It made no sense, and artificially postponed the revelation of his psychopathy until a teacher came across a paper by the student, which he hadn't graded yet, in order to reveal a plot detail. What, he hadn't ever assigned any writing to this student, all year? The story takes place in February! I call shenanigans and forced plot density.

The plot itself didn't strike me as very tight. The premise that got Gregor to campus was a little shaky, though presented well through the POV of the self-doubting Mark. However, once Mark's mind cleared enough to think more rationally, no more sense was ever made of the "body in the snow". The repetition of its mysterious circumstances showed up multiple times in the book, and yet never had more detail added to it, until it was fully solved all at once. That happened a lot, the repetition of details. Even the temperature of that first night, nine degrees below zero, must have been said ten times. Was it ever important as nine versus eight or ten? No.

The multiple POVs did help to hide who the killer was. Everyone had a secret, and some were hiding things you didn't expect them to be hiding. There were only a couple of clues as to the identity of the real killer, and they were completely swamped in the myriad other details, most of which were completely irrelevant.

I found myself irritated by the end, in which one murder seems to remain unsolved. The way it was handled left Gregor seemingly apathetic again, and the cops incapable of a five-minute Q&A with the kitchen staff in order to clear it up. There is certainly implication as to who committed that murder, but I didn't see any reason for it not to be looked into. The author just let them get away with it.

The writing in this book is either exceptionally long-winded, repetitive and boring, or it's operating in a meta-level where its very prose addresses and mirrors the rarified atmosphere in which many of its elitist characters seemed to live and breathe. I honestly can't tell, not having read any other books by this author. Either way, I'm disinclined to search further.

2 of 5 stars.


  1. Wow, you do a lot of reviews! I hope to add more to my repertoire as my quest to read more in 2011 unfolds :)

  2. You are completely on target about every aspect of this long-winded, pretentious screed. Thank you!