I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I judge books by their covers.* This book drew me in on cover alone. Then I read the front flap:
“Meth dealer. Prostitute. Serial killer.
Anywhere else, they’d be vermin. At the Mandel Academy, they’re called prodigies.”
How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller is the story of teenage runaway Flick, who finds himself enrolled in the Mandel Academy. The academy is led by heir of the Mandel fortune, Lucian Mandel, a man who has a not-so-ethical interest in the school’s students. Flick, in his attempt to unveil his (alumni) father’s dark past, becomes top student, and therefore top victim. But rising to the top of his class has nothing to do with English an arithmetic. No, Flick and his classmates are lectured about assassination techniques, cyber surveillance, an chemistry (the art of drug-making). An excerpt from the course catalog:
Waste Management: Polluting for Profit
The world’s companies produce over 400 metric tons of hazardous waste every year. Environmentally safe disposal of these materials can be costly. Fortunately there are much cheaper alternatives. This course will teach you how, when, an where to dump everything from radioactive substances to use batteries.
Flick uses cunning wit to get him out of life-threatening situations, and his quips are hilarious. Miller created a multi-layered character out of Flick; a cut-throat, violent boy who the reader just has to root for. Her other characters are just as engrossing and quixotic – Flick (and readers) are unsure of how he should feel about them. A couple of them come into their own a bit late in the book, which I felt wrapped up a bit too quickly and neat. I wish Miller had dedicated more pages to the high-impact conclusion, though it fit the rest of the book well in that it kept moving and moving. The plot never stopped, which I found surprising in a 434 page novel.
I cannot wait to recommend this book to teenage male readers, and girls that like fast-paced thrillers. Young boys will like the grit. There is an element of romance, but it never overtakes the main theme: revenge. Don’t let the size of the brick (er, I mean book) deter you from picking it up or recommending it. The story is well worth staying up late to finish.
I am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells has similar gore and action, but with a solo character, where Miller’s has a whole cast.
Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen would be a fantastic non-fiction follow-up read to How to Lead a Life of Crime. Larsen’s detailed descriptions of H.H. Holmes’ criminal exploits is an appropriate jump from the fictional blue-collar crime described in the Mandel Academy Course Catalog.
[…and I just realized that at no point did the students mention a library. With all of the great crime fiction out there – not to mention the memoirs and biographies of criminals – I highly doubt that the Mandel Academy, were it a real place, wouldn’t have had a library.]
*I encourage readers of all ages to do so (with new materials…classics don’t count), because if a publisher doesn’t put any thought or care into the cover, I assume they likely didn’t put much care into what went inside of the cover.