Letter Perfect By Charles P. Crawford

“What a perfect crime!”

So, how old would you say the kids on the cover are? 10? 11? Well apparently they are high school upperclassmen, and some particularly nasty ones at that.

The Plot: …is a pretty pulpy knock-off of Lois Duncan’s work generally, and Killing Mr. Griffin specifically. That aforementioned nastiness (of the adults, too, not just the kids) does a good job of holding the reader’s interest until everything kind of falls apart at the end, but it’s a pretty wild ride while it lasts.

While a clique of female sycophants love pretentious Mr. Patterson and his way with a sarcastic put-down, best buds Chad, B.J. and Toad are mainly bored and unimpressed. As the book opens, B.J. is silently pressuring Chad to let him copy off his exam, but they both get caught and are hung out to dry in front of the entire class:

“A new breed of man has emerged here in this very classroom,” Mr. Patterson continued. “Homo binoculus.”

“For those of you ignorant enough to think that I’ve just made a dirty joke, let me enlighten you. In this case, ‘homo’ is Latin for ‘man,’ not a colloquial term for sexual preferences. Indeed, ‘Homo binoculus’ seems to be a human subspecies that has emerged fully grown beneath our very eyes, I am speaking of no one else but B.J. Masterson, who evidently has eyes on the side of his head…”

Mr. Patterson goes on for several more paragraphs in this vein, and eventually tells B.J. and Chad to see him after class, informing them that they will split Chad’s grade- if he scores a 96, they will each be awarded a 48 on the exam.

Sulking over the unfairness of the grade, and uselessness of school in general, B.J. has an idea:

“Just for fun, you know, for kicks, let’s plan a perfect crime.”

“For real?” Toad asked. The possibility of a game was turning him on. I could see him beginning to scritch in his seat already.

“I’ve watched lots of television cop shows,” Toad said. “I know what doesn’t work.”

“Our problem is figuring out something that does. All we have to do is decide on what kind of crime we want it to be.”

“Rape,” Toad said.

Um, gross.

They eventually decide on some fairly mild pranks (taking half the brackets out of a set of shelves in the library, putting a bra on the taxidermy warthog in the hall of science, dumping a bunch of stinky garbage in the HVAC unit in Mr. Patterson’s classroom…) before escalating to petty larceny (sneaking into movie, stealing a jug of Ernest & Julio Gallo out of a neighbor’s garage and getting wasted, and an ill-fated attempt to get free meals by putting a dead cockroach in a burger).

As the final phase of their “training” B.J. suggests that they each pick a person to trail as long as they can the following afternoon. Toad immediately goes for Roxanne Spiese, the classmate that he wanted to rape before that idea got shot down; he spends the afternoon Peeping Tom-ing as she makes out with her boyfriend. Gross.

B.J. picks out a little-old-lady who turns out to be a master shoplifter. He’s so impressed that he makes like a boy scout and carries her groceries home, grabbing the receipt out of her bag as “proof”.

But Chad has them all beat, as he announces that he picked Mr. Patterson as his mark, following him out of school, onto a commuter train and out into the suburbs of Philadelphia. As proof he produces a letter that he swiped off the hall table of his apartment building (along with the latest issue of Playboy).

Chad had no intention of opening the letter, but B.J.’s interest is caught by the foreign return address and rips it open. It turns out to be a from an old friend of Patterson’s who is in the Navy, and alludes to Patterson’s discharge after having a breakdown and a physical altercation with his commanding officer.

For B.J. the news is almost too good to be true:

“Jesus, what do you know,” he said . “We should have suspected all along.”

“What?” I asked.

“Patterson’s a psycho! Do you believe it, an honest to goodness looney is teaching us English.”

And so it is decided that the theoretical “Perfect Crime” they will pull shall be- blackmail!

Even for a bunch of high school students, they aren’t exactly master criminals. For one thing they ask for the princely sum of SIXTY DOLLARS. For another they keep sending him notes at school- through the inter-office mailbox and right at his desk. Do you think he’s going to figure out it was his students? Maybe the ones that are especially pissed off at him?

The trio instruct him to throw the SIXTY DOLLARS out of the train window as it passes over a bridge out of town that afternoon. They are initially excited to see an envelope fly out of the window, but when B.J. rips it open he finds a note reading…

To who it may concern:

Go screw yourself.

This of course sets off B.J., who I guess is nominally the sociopath with an axe to grind in the group.

The next day Toad fakes sick in the hallway before class, distracting the class and allowing B.J. to slip another ransom note onto Patterson’s desk, this time demanding… ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY DOLLARS.

Patterson freaks out, especially when plants in the class start pushing his buttons, questioning the literary value of Paradise Lost. Wherein is the problem: unlike Duncan’s Mr. Griffin, who a hard-boiled egg because he insists on holding students to a higher quality of work than his colleagues… Patterson is just kind of a prick. And he also seems pretty unstable and probably should not be teaching:

“Enough!” he shouted. It was almost a scream.

“You know what I should schedule for you? Gladiator contests. Maybe I can arrange for a bulldozer to run over a five-year-old in the gymnasium for you. You’re the kind of group that would drive a hundred miles to watch somebody jump off a fifty-story building!”

After class B.J. and Toad let Chad in on the scheme, and urge him to join in pushing Patterson to his breaking point. Eventually Chad agrees to accidentally-on-purpose dump spaghetti down the front of Patterson’s pants while he is serving as lunch monitor.

But when Chad goes through with it, Patterson for-reals snaps and beats the crap out of Chad in front of the entire student body. B.J. pulls Patterson off of Chad, twisting the knife by adding

“Don’t you know you can’t hit students? Jesus, Mr. Patterson, you must be crazy.”

Mr. Patterson looked at B.J. again. B.J. smiled. It sent a chill down my back. My head ached like a fury.

The incident cools Chad’s enthusiasm to hang out with B.J. and Toad (Patterson, somehow, is not fired over the incident), but without any other friends, he reluctantly agrees to accompany them out to Patterson’s apartment. Once there, B.J. whips out a can of spray paint and writes PSYCHO on Patterson’s front picture-window. He’s just putting the finishing touches on it when Patterson spots them and throws a chair through the window and chases them into the night. Chad has his face sliced open by the flying glass, but they easily escape.

Chad gets pulled into having heart-to-heart about cheating when his sister is caught copying a friend’s quiz and they want his opinion on whether the bad grade is punishment enough or if she should be grounded from TV for a week, and Chad takes a hard line, admitting that if he hadn’t gotten away with cheating the first time he probably wouldn’t have done it again.

This little talk somehow results in a crisis of conscience, and he decides to fess up the whole thing to Mr. Patterson the next day, as well as returning his letter:

“I appreciate the sentiment, Chad, but it is a little late now. You are being very naïve.”

“I’m sorry. I said I was sorry.”

Then he looked up at me and our eyes met.

“Do you think I’m crazy, Chad?”

“No, sir.  I think you are less crazy than I am maybe. You make more sense anyway. Not much is making sense to me these days.”

Dude, you freaked out and attacked your students. TWICE.

B.J. and Toad are not pleased by this turn of events, and confront Chad, even though he left them out of the confession. But the next day B.J. seems to want to make up, stopping by Chad’s locker to apologize… but it is all an elaborate scam! Toad comes strolling up with the assistant principal:

I froze and turned back toward them. As I did I glanced down. Lying next to my feet, on the yellow carpet, were three poorly rolled homemade cigarettes,

I looked up at Mr. Boughman. He had seen them too.

I looked down at my feet again. The three reefers were still there.

Mr. Boughman reached over and picked them up. He held them cupped in his hand as he moved them up towards his face. I could hear him inhale deeply.

“Your parents know that you blow grass?”

Mr. Patterson comes to Chad’s rescue:

“Believe it Boughman,” Mr. Patterson said. “Believe it because it’s true. Those joints are mine.”

REALLY?

Patterson resigns and Chad learns some months later that he’s teaching at a boarding school in New England. He writes in care of the school (and finally rats out B.J. and Toad) and gets a letter back that has an extremely extended metaphor about keeping secrets locked up. He’s also pretty tedious about how he could tell that Chad was a better class of high school turd than B.J. and Toad is not surprised that they aren’t friends any more. Chad reflects upon the many lessons he’s learned. The End.

Except not The End- for some reason we get another chapter in which B.J. tries to get Chad in on a scheme to harass their permanent substitute for English, having forged a note from his mother complaining that Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale is obscene and demanding that she be fired. This is not a very good scheme. Chad warns him off, lying to him that Patterson is going to press charges against him for blackmail. So, I’m not sure what the lesson is.

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6 Responses to Letter Perfect By Charles P. Crawford

  1. Julie says:

    That does sound like a total Lois Duncan rip off. Except, based on your summary, every single character sounds so unlikeable and unappealing! Lois Duncan was able to make you feel something for all but the most evil of her characters!
    BTW, curious if you’ve seen the newest movie version of her books– I’m currently watching the HBO movie of Down a Dark Hall. I’d love to get your take on it.

    • mondomolly says:

      It is really hard to root for anybody here! In some ways it’s sort of a daring choice to make Mr. Patterson such a bastard, but then you can’t really get behind his “redemption”.

      I just recently heard about the Down a Dark Hall being made into a movie! Looking forward to checking it out! Thanks for commenting!

  2. Deb says:

    “…blow grass”. LOL
    Otherwise, this plot is disturbing.

  3. Cee says:

    Oh my God, this sounds hilarious. This is like if Severus Snape were a muggle. Some teachers are just not cut out for the job.

    I’m pretty sure this author also wrote a book called “Bad Fall” which also featured teenagers Going Too Far. *checks* Yep: https://www.amazon.com/Bad-Fall-Charles-Crawford/dp/B000APB1T4

    “Patterson resigns and Chad learns some months later that he’s teaching at a boarding school in New England.”

    Where he then changed his name from Patterson to Jack Torrance and ended up beating up one of his students and getting fired. He is then forced to accept a job as caretaker of a mountain resort in the Rockies during the winter.

    • mondomolly says:

      YESSSSS!!! I almost made the The Shining reference, but thought it might be too obscure, LOL. (I mean, everybody knows The Shining, but does anyone remember the specific incident that sent them to Colorado?)

      I’m going to have to keep an eye out for more of Crawford’s books.

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