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  • Writer's pictureAlyssa Maxwell

Blog: Sugar and Spice, and Not So Nice...

I will admit to having a bit of a fascination with stories set in girls' boarding schools. What could be more disturbing than cherub-faced, sweet-voiced little girls with malice in their hearts and/or poison in their pockets? A couple of movies come to mind. "These Three" starring Merle Oberon, Mirium Hopkins, and Joel McCrea, which was remade in the sixties as "The Children's Hour," which starred Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn, and James Garner. In both versions, misunderstandings become twisted due to the conniving, bullying, theft and lying going on among the otherwise darling student body.

From "These Three"

From "The Children's Hour"

Although the deceit and vindictiveness in these movies is pure poison, no one is actually poisoned. But not so in "The Beguiled," another girls' boarding school movie starring Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, and Elizabeth Hartman. In this story, a wounded Union soldier is taken in at a southern girls' school and nursed back to health. As he recovers, he begins charming his way into the hearts of the staff and older students, until they're at one another's throats. As jealousies and conflicts reach a fever pitch, the ladies decide they were better off without him and decide the best way to rid themselves of his troublesome presence is to cook him a very special dinner.....

Both of these stories are completely contrary to our typical image of sweet little girls, and that's what makes them all the more sinister. Yet, isn't there something also . . . well . . . fascinating in the thought that sugar and spice can be accompanied by a pinch of poison?

Imagine what fun I had, then, when I decided to set book two of my Lady and Lady's Maid Mysteries at the "Haverleigh School for Young Ladies." My sleuth, Phoebe, and her lady's maid, Eva, are holding a charity luncheon at the school to raise money for The Relief and Comfort of Veterans and their Families (RCVF). The school caters to the daughters of wealthy families, but also takes in a certain number of scholarship girls each year. One can only imagine how those two groups feel about each other. To make the luncheon more meaningful, Phoebe and Eva have included the older students in all the preparations, from crafting the invitations to decorating to cooking the various dishes and desserts. Even before lunch is served, it's obvious that rivalries are simmering and tempers are set to boil. But resentments aren't limited to the students. Some of the staff are at each other's throats, too, not to mention acting strangely. When the headmistress chokes on her Madiera cake, Phoebe and Eva have to sort through a veritable melting pot of personalities to find out who slipped in a very wrong ingredient.

Luckily, fiction doesn't tend to follow us into real life. Last week I had the honor of sitting on a panel of judges at the elementary school my daughter attended years ago. Nine families from two classes were competing in a cook off, and it was the judges' job to taste and rate everyone's creations. There was a set list of ingredients that had to be incorporated: peanut butter, broccolini, canned chicken, craisins (there were a couple others but I can't remember), and they were allowed to add ingredients. Doesn't sound very appetizing? I was surprised! These families were so creative they made every dish tasty. My favorites were the individual chicken crescent pot pies, the chocolate peanut butter pudding, and the Asian peanut chicken. Of course, we judges could only have a few bites of each or they would have had to roll us out to our cars afterward. Did the mystery writer in me have a few thoughts about poison, and how such a scenario would take shape right there in the cafeteria? You bet I did (especially since I was sitting next to the headmistress - um, that is, the principal), but wisely, I kept my thoughts to myself!

The judges also played "Are you Smarter than a Fifth Grader?" My opponent was indeed smarter than me. She could name the three parts of a mosquito. I, sadly, could not.

Do you have a favorite devious character or movie scenario? Are you fascinated by dark themes in ordinary life? Leave a comment (any comment) below and be entered to win a signed hardcover copy of A PINCH OF POISON. I'll choose a winner this Saturday, the 10th.

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