Tim Sullivan’s The Teacher is the newest in his entertaining series of police procedurals whose titles come from the murder victim’s profession and we’ve previously reviewed The Monk. When thinking ahead to 2024, and the kinds of crime books that are likely on the horizon, ones with neurodivergent protagonists seemed quite likely. The success of clever books like Nita Prose’s The Maid and Liz Nugent’s Strange Sally Diamond – winner of our Book of the Year Editor’s Choice Award in 2023 – show Sullivan has been onto a good idea here.
Detective Sergeant George Cross, deemed by his boss to be the very best detective in the Avon and Somerset Major Crimes Unit, is on the autism spectrum. He’s not the easiest to get along with because his understanding of social graces is just about nil. Because he only deals with hard facts, not the distracting possibilities that surround a case, his investigations are a slow process. In this instance, the death of a retired former school headmaster, Alistair Moreton, has plenty of those obfuscating details.
The one detective with the patience to let Cross do it his way is his usual partner, DS Josie Ottey, who is, unfortunately, on temporary leave. In her stead, their boss has brought in detective Bobbie Warner from the Kent police to head up the investigation. Warner is decisive, quick to judge, a stranger to nuance, and you know from the outset that he and Cross will be at loggerheads. The friction starts when Warner moves a desk into Cross’s office. His loud blustering on the phone drives Cross to relocate to a peaceful spot in a basement storeroom.
Cross learns that Moreton, a relatively new resident of his village, had managed to alienate almost everyone there. He wasn’t sociable, it seems he attended community meetings only to object to everything, and he created an expensive delay in the renovation of his next-door neighbours’ home. Resentments piled up everywhere. But Cross also learns that in the last two weeks of his life, Moreton’s behaviour changed. He didn’t go to the pub every afternoon. He didn’t go out. Why?
Moreton’s earlier career yields some tantalising possibilities too. He had been a school headmaster, notorious for caning his students, some of whom, though now well up in years, have not forgiven him. They participate in an online mutual support group and one of them even made a dramatic appearance at Moreton’s grave. Meanwhile, Moreton’s son is pushing for resolution. He’s an outspoken right-wing former member of parliament, recently disgraced and forced to try for re-election.
Kent’s Bobbie Warner cares not at all about any of this. His attention is fixed on the neighbours and he even talks the head of the MCU to attempt a prosecution, as Cross plods on, requesting DNA analysis of dog blood, interviewing former students, uncovering a shady drug connection, trying to figure out what made the weeks before Moreton’s murder different.
Along the way, you’re treated to insights into English village life and relationships, the kinds of people who choose that lifestyle, and those who think they’d like to adopt it. Modern problems, though, are nibbling around the edges, and what seemed a safe haven very possibly cannot avoid them.
Riding roughshod over the criminal investigation isn’t Warner’s only downside. He’s a sexual harasser, and the women in the Avon and Somerset Constabulary don’t plan to put up with it. You realise from the outset that one way or the other, Warner will get his comeuppance. Preferably, sooner rather than later.
This book has a lot of good-natured humour in people’s inability to figure out where Cross is coming from. They aren’t accustomed to such candour, so little waffling. I found myself delighted at every interaction characters have with him, because they show so clearly how much of our communication is vague and, at times, irrelevant. He’s a breath of fresh air. Sullivan has done a terrific job modelling Cross’s character, and we hope to read more of his exploits.
Apart from writing crime novels featuring DS George Cross, Tim Sullivan is a prominent director and screenwriter for film and television. In the crime genre he worked on The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. Great job here!
Also see Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent.
Head of Zeus
CFL Rating: 5 Stars