House of Anansi Press: 6/13/17
eBook review copy; 399 pages
The Substitute by Nicole Lundrigan is a highly recommended psychological mystery.
Warren Botts is a socially awkward man pursuing his PhD in Biology who decided to take a break from his lab. Warren accepted a position as a substitute science teacher at the middle school where the principal is his academic adviser's brother. When he notices Amanda Fuller, a student, standing by a tree in the backyard of his rental house very early one morning, he chooses to ignore her and goes for a run instead. This is the same girl who repeatedly stopped by his house asking him to help her with her science and he was advised to tell her he could help her at school but she had to stay away from his house.
When Warren returns from his run, he looks out the window and sees Amanda hasn't moved. Suddenly he notices the rope and realizes what has happened. After he calls the police with a garbled message, he clearly is the prime suspect in the girl's murder and public sentiment in the small community turns against him.
Warren's chapters alternate with the first person account of an anonymous narrator who is likely one of Warren's students and clearly the one who planned Amanda's demise. This person is a burgeoning psychopath who is extremely intelligent, but emotionally damaged, stunted, and detached from any meaningful interpersonal connections. The one exception is the younger sister nicknamed "Buddon."
As the narration progresses in the alternating chapters, it appears that the two stories are going to intersect and combine, but the truth is not revealed until the very end of the novel. The Substitute is not a nail-biting tense, fast-paced novel of suspense, but rather a slowly emerging story of two solitary people who have more in common than either of them realize. It is also an in-depth character study of these two people. The tension comes from the treatment of Warren Botts over Amanda's death and the suspicions of who the anonymous narrator is and what they might do next.
It is a beautifully written novel. Lundrigan captures Warren's obsession with numbers and counting things along with his socially awkward ineptness perfectly, while also introducing us to the chilling mind of a young psychopath. If there is any drawback to this fine novel it is due to the slow pace. (Another drawback would be the intelligence of Warren's choice to be a substitute teacher at a middle school.) Although it is a superior work of fiction, it is not a novel that compels you to stay up too late at night reading. The excellent writing, however, will help you persevere to the end. The end will be worth the time invested. It totally surprised me.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of House of Anansi Press.