A high-school teacher’s course on evil through the ages bears unexpected present-day fruit.
Before he shot himself and inflicted a head wound that turned him into a recluse, Jack Branch’s father was a legendary teacher in Lakeland, Miss. To honor him and give something back to the community, Jack returns to Lakeland in 1954 to begin a stint in the classroom. There he designs a new course focusing on villains: Iago, Benedict Arnold, Jack the Ripper. Jack asks his students to each choose a subject for a report. Eddie Miller, a hitherto unremarkable student, wants to write a paper on his father, Luther Ray Miller, the so-called Coed Killer who abducted and murdered a Lakeland senior years earlier. Drawn for reasons he can scarcely explain to help the boy come to terms with his family demons, Jack is stunned when the boy’s questions lead to Jack’s own father, and ultimately to a catastrophe that Jack’s narrative has been hinting at from the beginning.
Cook, normally the master of the retrospective thriller (The Cloud of Unknowing, 2007, etc.), offers a case whose lack of tragic inevitability is only heightened by his insistence on heavy-handed Had-I-But-Known foreshadowing.