Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Shadow of the Lions, by Christopher Swann

Prep school boy goes back as a teacher to solve the disappearance of his friend.

Shadow of the Lions

Algonquin Books, 2017, 368 pages

How long must we pay for the crimes of our youth?

It has been almost 10 years since Matthias graduated from the elite Blackburne School, where his roommate and best friend, Fritz, fled into the woods, never to be heard from again, in the middle of their senior year. Fritz vanished just after an argument over Matthias' breaking of the school's honor code, and Matthias has long been haunted by the idea that his betrayal led to his friend's disappearance.

Years later, after hitting the fast lane in New York as a successful novelist - then falling twice as hard - Matthias is stuck, a failure as a writer, a boyfriend, a person. When he is offered the opportunity to return to Blackburne as an English teacher, he sees it as a chance to put his life back together. But once on campus, Matthias gets swiftly drawn into the past and is driven to find out what happened to Fritz. He partners with a curmudgeonly local retired cop and tries to solve the case, dealing with campus politics, the shocking death of a student, Fritz's complicated and powerful Washington, DC, family, and his own place in the privileged world of Blackburne.

An odd choice that I only picked up because I like books where the writer makes a writer the main character. In this case, Matthias Glass, who is not exactly an author-stand-in (as far as I can tell), but Swann is clearly drawing on his PhD in Creative Writing and his boarding school background to create characters he knows. Matthias, a middle class kid on a scholarship, graduated from the elite Blackburne School, became a writer, wrote one best-selling novel, then his marriage to a beautiful New York model fell apart, he stopped writing, and so by only slightly contrived circumstances, he winds up back at Blackburne, this time as an English teacher.

On the surface, this might look like it's going to be some deeply Literary Novel, or maybe a modern version of A Separate Peace, especially with the backstory about Matthias's friend Fritz who ran away and disappeared the night he found out Matthias had violated the school's honor code. Fritz was never found, assumed dead, and that has haunted Matthias ever since.

Matthias's conflicts with fellow staff members while he quietly pursues the cold case of his friend's disappearance, and then an apparent suicide at the school, which uncovers drugs and gets Matthias framed, seem like the expected trajectory of the book. The guessing game the author plays with the reader about whether Fritz will turn out not to have died after all was resolved in a manner that didn't really surprise me — but some of the other plot twists, in which the story veered in a couple of unexpected directions, did and made this a bit more of a traditional mystery.

It's a very literary mystery novel, and sometimes it wasn't clear whether the author was going for a tragic bildungsroman or a modern tale of family secrets and surprise twists. There is plenty of both and Shadow of the Lions is very well written. The characters are all distinct and the dialog actually sounded like real people talking. I liked it — this not really a very exciting book, but it's a nicely crafted novel.

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Tags: books, reviews

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