well strained

Well-Schooled in Murder

Well-Schooled in Murder is a crime novel by Elizabeth George first published in 1990. Set in the late 1980s at an elite public school in the South of England founded in 1489, the book, which is a mystery novel in the tradition of the whodunnit, revolves around the strict yet unwritten code of behaviour prevalent at independent schools which says that under no circumstances must pupils ever tell on their schoolmates, no matter what they have done. Accordingly, when a 13 year-old boy goes missing one Friday afternoon and two days later is found dead in a churchyard an hour's drive away, Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and his partner, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, both of the Criminal Investigation Department of New Scotland Yard, are up against a wall of silence as none of the 600 pupils of Bredgar Chambers School seems to be willing to co-operate with the police and communicate what they know.

Plot summary

Lynley and Havers's investigation yields some unexpected results. The boy, who has been cruelly tortured and then murdered, was attending Bredgar Chambers on a scholarship; his parents, who are lower middle class Londoners, were his adoptive rather than his natural parents; in fact the boy was half-Chinese although he did not look it. Also, he was not tortured to death but died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Lynley and Havers also find out that security at that boarding school is practically non-existent and supervision of pupils extremely lax: Anyone could have left the school premises during that weekend without being noticed; they could even have done so by using one of the school's minibuses. The prefects themselves seem to have skeletons in the cupboard. For example, towards the end of the investigation it turns out that one of them has been illicitly leaving the school grounds on a regular basis and has fathered an illegitimate child who has Apert syndrome. At the same time, whatever the pupils do and whatever school rules they break, there is constant fear among them of being found out, being expelled from the school and of forfeiting their chances of going on to Oxbridge.

The masters also have secrets which, if they were found out, would cost them their career. In particular, it is one of Lynley's former schoolmates from Eton whose collection of child pornography, found half-burned on a pile of rubbish, cannot easily be explained away. The headmaster himself is a puppet controlled by an influential journalist on the Board of Governors whose estranged son, an upper sixth boy, also attends the school.

Lynley and Havers solve the case in a few days. However, although a lot of bullying has occurred at the school, it is the consequences of a dysfunctional family life rather than anything else that has come to the surface during the police investigation which have led to the murder.

The two subplots of the novel revolve around Thomas Lynley's aristocratic descent (he is sometimes referred to as "Lord Asherton")—shown through his working relationship with his working class colleague Barbara Havers from Acton and his unrequited love for a Lady Helen Clyde— and the strained marriage of two of his friends, Simon and Deborah St. James, all of them recurring characters in George's books.


We live by codes, he [Lynley] thought. We call them our morals, our standards, our values, our ethics, as if they were part of our genetic make up. But they are only behaviours that we have learned from our society, and there are times to act in defiance of them, to fly in the face of their conventions because it is right to do so.

Release details

  • 1990, UK, Bantam Press (ISBN 0-593-01973-3), Pub date 25 October 1990, hardback (First edition)

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