The Chatham School Affair: A Novel

The Chatham School Affair: A Novel

by Thomas H. Cook

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Attorney Henry Griswald has a secret: the truth behind the tragic events the world knew as the Chatham School Affair, the controversial tragedy that destroyed five lives, shattered a quiet community, and forever scarred the young boy. Layer by layer, in The Chatham School Affair, Cook paints a stunning portrait of a woman, a school, and a town in which passionate violence seems impossible...and inevitable. "Thomas Cook's night visions, seen through a lens darkly, are haunting," raved the New York Times Book Review, and The Chatham School Affair will cement this superb writer's position as one of crime fiction's most prodigious talents, a master of the unexpected ending.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307434838
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/10/2010
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 9,143
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Thomas H. Cook is the author of many novels, including The Chatham School Affair, winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel; Instruments of Night; Breakheart HillMortal MemorySacrificial Ground and Blood Innocents, both Edgar Award nominees; and two early works about true crimes, Early Graves and Blood Echoes, which was also nominated for an Edgar Award. He lives in New York City and Cape Cod.

Read an Excerpt

My father had a favorite line. He’d taken it from Milton, and he loved to quote it to the boys of Chatham School. Standing before them on opening day, his hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets, he’d pause a moment, facing them sternly. “Be careful what you do,” he’d say, “for evil on itself doth back recoil.” In later years he could not have imagined how wrong he was, nor how profoundly I knew him to be so.
Sometimes, particularly on one of those bleak winter days so common to New England, wind tearing at the trees and shrubbery, rain battering the roofs and windows, I feel myself drift back to my father’s world, my own youth, the village he loved and in which I still live. I glance outside my office window and see the main street of Chatham as it once was—a scattering of small shops, a ghostly parade of antique cars with their lights mounted on sloping fenders. In my mind, the dead return to life, assume their earthly shapes. I see Mrs. Albertson delivering a basket of quahogs to Kessler’s Market; Mr. Lawrence lurching forward in his homemade snowmobile, skis on the front, a set of World War I tank tracks on the back, all hooked to the battered chassis of an old roadster pickup. He waves as he goes by, a gloved hand in the timeless air.
Standing once again at the threshold of my past, I feel fifteen again, with a full head of hair and not a single liver spot, heaven far away, no thought of hell. I even sense a certain goodness at the core of life.
Then, from out of nowhere, I think of her again. Not as the young woman I’d known so long ago, but as a little girl, peering out over a glittering blue sea, her father standing beside her in a white linen suit, telling her what fathers have always told their children: that the future is open to them, a field of grass, harboring no dark wood. In my mind I see her as she stood in her cottage that day, hear her voice again, her words like distant bells, sounding the faith she briefly held in life. Take as much as you want, Henry. There is plenty.
In those days, the Congregationalist Church stood at the eastern entrance of Chatham, immaculately white save for its tall, dark spire. There was a bus stop at the southern corner of the church, marked by a stubby white pillar, the site where Boston buses picked up and deposited passengers who, for whatever reason, had no liking for the train.
On that August afternoon in 1926, I’d been sitting on the church steps, reading some work of military history, my addiction at the time, when the bus pulled to a stop yards away. From that distance I’d watched its doors open, the metal hinges creaking in the warm late-summer air. A large woman with two children emerged first, followed by an elderly man who smoked a pipe and wore a navy blue captain’s cap, the sort of “old salt” often seen on Cape Cod in those days. Then there’d been a moment of suspension, when no one emerged from the shadowy interior of the bus, so that I’d expected it to pull away, swing left and head toward the neighboring town of Orleans, a trail of dust following behind it like an old feather boa.
But the bus had stayed in place, its engine rumbling softly as it idled by the road. I could not imagine why it remained so until I saw another figure rise from a seat near the back. It was a woman, and she moved forward slowly, smoothly, a dark silhouette. Near the door she paused, her arm raised slightly, her hand suspended in midair even as it reached for the metal rail that would have guided her down the stairs.
At the time I couldn’t have guessed the cause for her sudden hesitation. But in the years since then, I’ve come to believe that it was precisely at that moment she must have realized just how fully separate our world was from the one she’d lived in with her father during the many years they’d traveled together, the things she’d seen with him, Florence in its summer splendor, the canals of Venice, Paris from the steps of Sacre-Coeur. How could anything in Chatham ever have compared with that?
Something at last urged her forward. Perhaps necessity, the fact that with her father’s recent death she had no other option. Perhaps a hope that she could, in the end, make her life with us. I will never know. Whatever the reason, she drew in a deep breath, grasped the iron rail, and made her way down the stairs and into the afternoon stillness of a tiny seacoast village where no great artist had ever lived, no great event ever happened, save for those meted out by sudden storms or the torturous movement of geologic time.
It was my father who greeted her when she stepped from the bus that afternoon. He was headmaster of Chatham School, a man of medium height, but whose manner, so expansive and full of authority, made him seem larger than he was. In one of the many pictures I have of him from that time, this one printed in the Chatham School Annual for 1926, he is seated in his office, behind a massive oak desk, his hands resting on its polished surface, his eyes staring directly into the camera. It was the usual pose of a respectable and accomplished man in those days, one that made him appear quite stern, perhaps even a bit hard, though he was nothing of the kind. Indeed, when I remember him as he was in those days, it is usually as a cheerful, ebullient man with an energetic and kindly manner, slow to anger, quick to forgive, his feelings always visible in his eyes. “The heart is what matters, Henry,” he said to me not long before his death, a principle he’d often voiced through the years, but never for one moment truly lived by. For surely, of all the men I’ve ever known, he was the least enslaved by passion. Now an old man too, it is hard for me to imagine how in my youth I could have despised him so.
But I did despise him. Silently. Sullenly. Giving him no hint of my low regard, so that I must have seemed a perfectly obedient son, given to moodiness, perhaps, but otherwise quite normal, rocked by nothing darker than the usual winds of adolescence. Remembering him, as I often do, I marvel at how much he knew of Cicero and Thucydides, and how little of the boy who lived in the room upstairs.
Earlier that morning he’d found me lounging in the swing on the front porch, given me a disapproving look, and said, “What, nothing to do, Henry?”
I shrugged.
“Well, come with me, then,” he said, then bounded down the front steps and out to our car, a bulky old Ford whose headlights stuck out like stubby horns.
I rose, followed my father down the stairs, got into the car, and sat silently as he pulled out of the driveway, my face showing a faint sourness, the only form of rebellion I was allowed.
On the road my father drove at a leisurely pace through the village, careful to slow even further at the approach of pedestrians or horses. He nodded to Mrs. Cavenaugh as she came out of Warren’s Sundries, and gave a short cautionary beep on the horn when he saw Davey Bryant chasing Hattie Shaw a little too aggressively across the lighthouse grounds.
In those days, Chatham was little more than a single street of shops. There was Mayflower’s, a sort of general store, and Thompson’s Haberdashery, along with a pharmacy run by Mr. Benchley, in which the gentlemen of the town could go to a back room and enjoy a glass of illegal spirits, though never to the point of drunkenness. Mrs. Jessup had a boardinghouse at the far end of Main Street, and Miss Hilliard a little school for “dance, drama, and piano,” which practically no one ever attended, so that her main source of income came from selling cakes and pies, along with keeping house for several of the rich families that summered in spacious, sun-drenched homes on the bay. From a great height Chatham had to have looked idyllic, and yet to me it was a prison, its buildings like high, looming walls, its yards and gardens strewn around me like fields of concertina wire.
My father felt nothing of the kind, of course. No man was ever more suited to small-town life than he was. Sometimes, for no reason whatever, he would set out from our house and walk down to the center of the village, chatting with whoever crossed his path, usually about the weather or his garden, anything to keep the flow of words going, as if these inconsequential conversations were the very lubricant of life, the numen, as the Romans called it, that divine substance which unites and sustains us.
That August afternoon my father seemed almost jaunty as he drove through the village, then up the road that led to the white facade of the Congregationalist Church. Because of that, I knew that something was up. For he always appeared most happy when he was in the midst of doing some good deed.

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Chatham School Affair 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For reasons like The Chatham School Affair, Thomas H. Cook is my favorite author. This book, unlike some of his others, does not have the wrenching plot twists we have come to expect from Cook. It does have more subtle character twists. It does bring that that big payoff at the end, which fits very well into this story. The last page changes our minds about the main character. Very smoothly written, easy to follow despite the many characters. Each person has a place and is defined quite well. Cook has very good control over his use of suspense. The 'murder mystery' genre applauds this title. I reccomend reading this title over a few days. It's definitely not a one-day read.
painter1 More than 1 year ago
Beautiful command of the language, plots filled with tension and surprises. Cook never fails to give me a thought provoking read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read all of Thomas Cook's books. He has such great imagination and a wonderful new twist on mystery. Read one and you will be hooked!
venicerose on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, horror, but rarely read them because I don't care for the writing style. So I was so excited when I found Thomas H. Cook who can write like an angel and tell a whopping good story.
adithyajones on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An excellent read..The small town Chatham comes alive in Cook's beautiful writing,characters are so well flushed out that you feel for them...The suspense element is so well maintained,you are in anticipation of what happens next and in a language that can be described as poetic..
CatieN on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Henry is a student at Chatham School. His father is the headmaster who hires a beautiful and intelligent Elizabeth Channing as the art teacher. Henry is quite taken with Miss Channing's stories and her independent spirit and begins to believe that his life is boring and staid and wishes for the freedom to do as he pleases. Miss Channing and another teacher, Mr. Reed, who is married and the father of a young daughter, fall in love, and the story quickly turns dark. Henry sees them as a romantic couple who should be set free to live life with each other, and with words he very much lives to regret, he sets in motion tragic and fatal events that still haunt him when he is an old man and the narrator of the story. Excellent writing with a great twist at the end.
librarygirls on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Chilling portrait of lives that come apart because of love between two teachers at a proper, conservative boys school. The story's narrator is an old man looking back on the events and remembering his role as the adolescent son of the school's headmater. Superb Story Telling!! SS
markatread on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Chatham School Affair occurs in 1927. Elizabeth Channing's father had just died and she had come to Chatham School to be the new art teacher. Her father was a free thinker who believed that the passion an artist feels must be the artist's guide not the morals of others that are there only as a restraiant on the spirit of the artist.. The head master's 15 year old son, Henry Griswald is someone who already feels the suffocation of his own father's world and wants desperately to escape. When Ms. Channing begins a relationship with a fellow teacher who is married and has a child, Henry becomes their ally and wants them to be able to escape from Chatham and all the restraints he feels. This is the simple story that is The Chatham School Affair.There are two ways that the reader can look at this story. The first is the normal view that the author, Thomas H. Cook wrote the book and is solely responsible for the story. From the viewpoint, there is a heavy sense of foreboding from the very first page with the now almost 90 year old narrator, Henry Griswald, slowly telling the story in retrospect. The author tells the story in a very evocative, beautiful fashion, slowly having Henry divulge the secrets from 7 decades earlier. There is a very real sense of withholding information from the reader that is essential for the purpose of increasing the suspense for the reader. But at times this almost feels like the author does not actually have enough story to fill-up his book and is trying to stretch the story out long enough to still have something left to divulge when we get to the end. That in fact the foreshadowing of what will eventually occur feels heavy handed at times, even overwrought and repetitive.The second way of looking at the story is to see the writer of the story as actually being Henry Griswald, not Thomas H. Cook. What this does is change how the reader views the telling of the story. If Thomas Cook is the writer, he is just using Henry as a device to tell his story to us and the deliberately slow pace and the stretching out of the story end up being frustrating to the reader at times. But if Henry Griswald wrote the book, then the very slow and very deliberate pace of the story is very much in synch with how people tell their tales. Children may in fact blurt out what they have done and feel great remorse, but grown-ups who have held back and resisted telling the truth for seventy years, even to themselves, tell the story very delibrately with no need to hurry up and reach the end of the story. Henry is not stretching out the story or with holding details from us, he is slowy and painfully telling us what happened and what he did.If you read this book as if Thomas Cook wrote the book, you will feel frutrated at times and want him to hurry up and tell the story instead of hiding behind the narrator's slow telling of the story. But if you read the book as if Henry Griswald did in fact write the book himself- that he is not just a device used by Thomas Cook - then you will be able to slow down and let Henry tell you the story at his own pace. It is a slow and in the end it becomes a painful story, but you won't need to try and hurry him up. You will come to see that he told the story the only way he could, after not telling it for 70 years, he could only tell it very slowly and very deliberately. And in the end, he finally tells it all, even the part he has never told anyone before.
literati238 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book immensely. It's at once mysterious and well-written.
cequillo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This remains one of my favorite of Cook's novels. Rich in atmosphere and question, it takes the reader into time and place so completely as to make the story remain lingering in your mind long after the last page is turned.
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A deeply suspenseful and atmospheric tale,the setting of which is cape cod in the 1920's. A story of impossible love, deep misunderstanding, obsession and betrayal...and betrayal on so many levels,from so many sources. It leaves you questioning who to blame.
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buryuntime More than 1 year ago
This book was okay, definitely not the best by Cook. It took me awhile to get hooked to the book but once that happened I didn't put it down. The whole book feels predictable until you get to the last pages and you're like "Oh". So when I got to the end it was a surprise but the rest of the book didn't keep me guessing... guess I should have been. =]
Anonymous More than 1 year ago