Anne Wilson puts the knife into governing in her latest murder mystery. Reva Klein reports
Governing can be literally murder according to Anne Wilson. In her second crime novel, Governing Body, there is nothing metaphorical about the back-stabbing. The chair of governors is stabbed to death after a meeting and the headteacher is found standing over him with a knife.
The book portrays a dysfunctional governing body presided over by Tony Thornley, a pot-bellied, womanising bully whose only interest in being a chair of governors is in how it will look on his CV.
Black headteacher Mona Pearson, who just before Thornley's not untimely demise lays into him for laying into her and everybody else, is as virtuous as he is rotten. Her commitment to her multi-cultural student body is as unassailable as a lioness's to her young.
Despite the sometimes unrelenting details in her book, Anne has never been a school governor herself. But her husband was until the beginning of term a parent governor at the primary school in Acton, west London, that two of their three children attend.
Acton just happens to be where the book is set. But Wilson takes pains to stress that her husband's years were happy ones, without a single murder. She has heard, however, of chairs of governors who, like her odious Thornley, are cynical bullies who alienate everyone and set col-leagues against each other.
If a governing body is not the typical terrain for a crime thriller, neither is Wilson's heroine, Sara Kingsley, the typical sleuth. For a start, she's a counsellor who has been called in with a colleague to mediate among the wrangle-ridden governors of Arkwright High School. She also has an up-front political analysis of all that she sees. Her description of the governing body from hell - not to mention the former Conservative government - should send chills of fear, loathing and recognition down the spines of all governors.
"When Mona had first asked us to come and help break the deadlock among the governors of Arkwright High School, I could hardly believe her account of the backbiting, the bitching and betrayals, the allegiances and double-crosses which had preceded our intervention. It sounded more like a multinational company than a secondary school.
"But then, that's just the sort of approach the government wanted. Mona had had the misfortune to be made head at the time when local management of schools was just coming in and middle-management mini-Hitlers were queuing up to show those lefty teachers a thing or two about how to manage a budget.
"Suddenly, heads, teachers, politicians, business people and parents were supposed to work together as a body to make all the major decisions about a school. It was a recipe for disaster."
Somehow, you can't imagine Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon getting embroiled in the politics of education reforms. But he wasn't a single mother living in London in the late 1990s. In the new and burgeoning genre of crime novels with female heroines, Sara is a distinct peculiarity. Where other women sleuths embody the "empty fridge" syndrome - they have no domestic life - Sara has two kids asking awkward questions at inopportune moments and requiring feeding at alarmingly regular intervals.
Wilson wanted to create a different sort of protagonist from the single-minded single women with the empty fridges. The fact that she was pregnant with her third child when she set about writingit led her to try, she says, "to extend the genre to include a woman with kids. I thought that if she was a single mother, the kids could go off to their dad sometimes."
It also means that Sara has an interesting, if complicated sex life with not only a long-term lover (boring but reliable) but a 23-year-old toy boy on the side (delicious, but he's boring too).
Wilson decided to set her novel among governors because, she says, "I was intrigued by the idea of the inappropriateness of a market corporate culture coming in to overtake educational values. Also, I really admire my children's teachers - and I was aware that the challenges Sara deals with as a counsellor in an inner city community are those that teachers in the state sector deal with day in and day out."
As a crime writer, she found that focusing on a governing body is like, in her words, "a locked room mystery: you have a circle of potential suspects all in one place".
Which is one way of looking at governing bodies. But something tells me that Governing Body is just the beginning for governors.
Today, crime thrillers. Tomorrow, who knows? Maybe governors in space. Or emergency room governors. Or even Scully and Mulder investigate the aliengovernors. Watch this space.
Governing Body by Anne Wilson is published by The Women's Press, price Pounds 6.99.