So asks DI Lucia May in A Thousand Cuts (originally published in the UK under the title Rupture), the debut novel from author Simon Lelic. May is the detective charged with investigating the seemingly open and shut case of a shooting at a North London comprehensive school (the equivalent of an American public high school) that leaves five dead, including the gunman. The investigation that unfolds is not so much a whodunit as a whydunit, as it is clear from the outset that the shooter was one of the school’s teachers, Samuel Szajkowski, who opened fire during a school assembly killing three students and a fellow teacher before turning the gun on himself.
Szajkowski, a young man new to both teaching and the school, is described by students and faculty alike as having been somewhat of a misfit, odd and aloof, who never quite found his footing at the school. This, however, does not seem to DI May to be sufficient explanation for Szajkowski’s murderous outburst, and her interviews with students and faculty indeed uncover a truth which is much more sinister.
Lelic reveals the events which led up to the shooting through chapters that alternate between DI May’s first person perspective and monologues from various people – students, parents, faculty – involved with and affected by the tragedy. The monologues are meant to represent transcriptions of interviews taped by DI May during the course of her investigation, but they omit May’s side of the conversation. It’s an interesting technique, one which lets the reader imagine what was said by May to elicit certain responses, to feel almost as though they were the one asking the questions.
Unfortunately, they are questions which neither the school’s headmaster nor May’s boss seem to want asked, let alone answered. Szajkowski, it turns out, was the victim of bullying from both students and teachers, bullying which slowly escalated from merely verbal disrespect and defiance, to malicious pranks, and finally outright physical violence. And Szajkowski wasn’t the only one. DI May learns that bullying seems to have become endemic at the school, and that only a few days before the shooting a student had been attacked and beaten so viciously that he ended up in the hospital.
Throughout the course of the story Lelic presents an interesting juxtaposition of the bullying occurring at the school with sexual harassment being experienced by DI May in her CID unit, where she is the lone female member. And just as the school’s headmaster was willing to turn a blind eye to the bullying within the halls of his school in order to maintain the school’s positive public perception, May’s boss seems equally willing to take an ‘it’s not my problem, it will sort itself out’ approach to the increasingly aggressive and hostile treatment May is receiving in the squad room. And it’s the question of precisely how repeated bullying and harassment, left unchecked, sorts itself out which is explored by Lelic through Szajkowski’s and May’s stories.
Given the recent suicide of Massachusetts high schooler Phoebe Prince after months of relentless bullying at the hands of her classmates (six of whom now stand charged with crimes in conjunction with her death), A Thousand Cuts is both timely and thought provoking. Simon Lelic is definitely an author to watch.