Cozy to Cold-blooded: Boarding School Mysteries

by Sara Farmer
published in Reading

A boarding school furnishes the perfect setting for a mystery/thriller. They provide the claustrophobia of the locked room mystery and are often in an isolated location. They also have a long history of teenagers and their combustible emotions, which gives the perfect opportunity to incorporate the supernatural (sometimes explained away, sometimes literally supernatural). My favorites include a healthy dose of female rebellion, rage, and even revenge. I don’t think I’m alone in this. From the Salem witch trials to Stephen King’s Carrie, there is ample historical and literary evidence of fascination with both the power of women and their anger when they are pushed too far. 

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

I couldn’t wait to read this book. It has two storylines – one in 1902 at a girls’ boarding school called Brookhants School for Girls (It’s even pronounced “BrookHAUNTS.”) and the other in the present day mostly in Hollywood and then Brookhants. In 1902, sweethearts Clara Broward and Florence (Flo) Hartshorn die tragically in the school orchard (Which has Black Oxford apples! Creepy!), a copy of Mary MacLane’s book The Story of Mary MacLane next to their bodies. They were both obsessed with it. Subsequent strange happenings at the school are followed by the death of another student and talk of a curse. 

Decades later, It girl Harper Harper, former child star Audrey Wells, and author Merritt Emmons find themselves at Brookhants filming a movie of Merritt’s book about Clara and Flo. Once again, strange happenings point to ghosts and a curse. Is it movie magic or something more sinister?

The past, the present, two books, a movie, a curse, and ghosts? Not to mention the positive and complex portrayal of queer women and their relationships and the humor of the narration, particularly in the footnotes. (Yes, the footnotes! Make sure you read them.)  It’s 600+ pages, but it flies by. I know I haven’t fully captured its magic here, because it is such a sprawling, intricate, multigenerational/multi-location saga. It’s fantastical and mystical and weird. Just go read it. Seriously, right now. 

The Swallows by Lisa Lutz

This book is a deeply feminist exploration of extreme sexual harassment perpetrated by teenage boys and the group of their female classmates who work to take them down. Teacher Alex Witt arrives at Stonebridge Academy fleeing baggage of her own. (But there’s a reason it’s called baggage.) Alex discovers the Darkroom, a website run by a group of boys who call themselves editors. It’s full of chatrooms where the editors (the most popular senior boys) talk freely and filthily about their female sexual partners. In the innermost secret room, they rate their sexual conquests among the female students. The one with the highest ranking receives the Dulcinea Award. But the girls of Stonebridge don’t know about this contest until the current group of editors get careless. Then the current group of girls start getting even. Alex unwittingly pushes this rebellion to a whole new level. 

Even as this book made me angry, the ensuing gender war and the girls’ unwillingness to back down, their embrace of their rage, was so empowering. The ending was perfect and fit the story. Some might disagree with me or be horrified by that opinion, but it just seemed right. 

You might have guessed at one of the meanings of the book’s title. But it has several layers, both beautiful and grotesque, and it, too, is perfect. And, damn, the cover is gorgeous. 

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

This book centers around Hetty, Byatt, and Reese, students at an island boarding school called the Raxter School for Girls. (The island is also called Raxter.) Raxter’s inhabitants, both animal and human, are infected by a strange illness called the Tox. Many have died and only about sixty students, a teacher, and the headmistress are left. Those remaining are quarantined to the island as the government searches for a cure. The humans, animals, school building, and the island itself are all growing wild and disintegrating little by little. 

It’s a feminist Lord of the Flies, but also much more than that. The writing is swooningly beautiful in parts. The perils of puberty and womanhood in this world are pretty obvious subtext, but not in a bad way. (The Tox seems to appear at the onset of puberty.) It’s deeply satisfying, sad, and inspiring. The feminist ire, the sheer beauty of the writing, and the compelling plot set this book apart. That and the amazing cover art. 

Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is the one on this list that hews closest to a boarding school mystery. And what a twisty, twisted mystery it is. When we first see The Goode School and its students and staff, it is early morning and they are gathered around a grisly scene. A student hangs from the front gate. Who is she? Ellison promptly sends the reader months back to new girl Ash Carlisle’s arrival on campus. Ash is from Oxford, England, and just wants to blend in. But her height, style, and run-ins with queen bee Becca Curtis get her noticed and envied. 

Goode is a tough school housed in a very old (for America, as Ash once points out) building. Unsurprisingly, there are ghost stories, one of which is based on a true crime, the murder of a young girl whose dead body was found in the school arboretum. Ash doesn’t believe in ghosts, but how else to explain the whispers and the feelings of being watched?

This is another one I found hard to encapsulate, especially while still avoiding spoilers. Just trust me that the female rage and spookiness are there. Good Girls Lie is a page-turner I could hardly put down. The characters are compelling, the story fascinating, and the pace perfect. 

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

St. James is one of my new must-read authors. This work preceded this year’s The Sun Down Motel (which I loved and discussed in a previous column). Both of these books scared me to death (but in the most delightfully creepy way). This author knows how to ramp up the tension before she reveals her ghosts. The reveals live up to the anticipation. 

In 1950, four roommates at girls’ boarding school Idlewild Hall tangle with the resident ghost Mary Hand. Mary Hand supposedly perished back when the school grounds held a private home. She was accidentally locked outside one night in the freezing cold. She has spent the intervening decades trying to get a student to let her back in. When one of the four disappears, the remaining three are left to find out what really happened … and if they are next. 

In 2014, reporter Fiona Sheridan is trying to solve her sister Deb’s murder. In 1994, Deb was found on the sport field of abandoned, decrepit Idlewild Hall. Fiona is not certain the man serving time for the murder actually did it. When Fiona discovers that the school is being remodeled in preparation for reopening, she decides to write an article about it and gains unprecedented access for her investigation. She is right that there is more to the story, but it hits much closer to home than she expects. 

You can’t go wrong with a boarding school as a setup for mysteries and thrillers. Decades (or even centuries) of history combined with the intensity of teenagers and the pressures of school produce a spine-tingling brew. Just sit back, read, and be glad high school wasn’t this scary for you. (I hope.)

Sara Farmer lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, three kids, and two cats. When she’s not chasing kids and cats, she reads and writes mysteries. You can find her at and on Twitter @avonlea79.

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