College applications and the SATs are already part of a stressful time for young people without adding murder to the mix. Much like her contemporaries, though, Nicole Davidson knew death could strike at any time or any place. The young-adult author uses this familiar rite of passage as the backdrop of her 1990 novel Crash Course. The setup is suspicious enough; eight teens in pursuit of higher learning, along with their strict teacher, hole up at a lakeside cabin during the Thanksgiving holiday. This recipe for danger is self-fulfilling once a student dies under strange circumstances. And until help arrives, the other students succumb to their isolation and growing paranoia.
The teen characters of Crash Course are more or less strangers who have been sentenced to five days with Mr. Alexander Porter, a hard-as-nails teacher who runs a program for students planning to take the SATs. The story’s 16-year-old protagonist, Kelly Peterson, is surprised to learn that she’s been enrolled without her consent; her father has signed away her entire Thanksgiving break. Not all is bad because Kelly’s friend and crush are both signed up as well.
In addition to the four popular kids from Thomaston High are four other characters whose social statuses vary. Isabel Smith is the new girl whose Native American heritage leads to some uncomfortable moments of otherness. Kelly is particularly guilty of exoticizing her potential new friend. Meanwhile, Chris Baxter is well known at school, but not for good reasons; the story’s one Black character is a hulking athlete with a reputation for violence. Nathan Grant, who Jeff was somewhat acquainted with prior to the trip, is a misfit in the more traditional sense of the word. Bringing up the rear of this assorted crew is Angel Manson, the spacey girl from another school.
If she had, they might have all survived Thanksgiving vacation.
Davidson doesn’t exactly skip straight to the murders, but once someone does die, the mystery consumes the rest of the book with no breaks or escapes. After all, the cast is stuck at this remote cabin until the bus fetches them on Sunday, and there’s no nearby phone to call for help. Weirdly enough, the author does make the choice to practically reveal the culprit’s identity in the prologue. Anyone who wants to actually read Crash Course would be wise to skip the preface, not to mention this whole recap.
The first and only true fatality in the story happens after Isabel creeps out the others with a legend from the area’s indigenous people; ill-fated young lovers make a suicide pact and drown themselves in Deep Creek Lake so they can be together for all of eternity. Kelly’s best friend Brian Lopez is visibly shaken by Isabel’s campfire tale, but the reason why only becomes clearer when you remember what’s going on with his character. Before going on the trip, Brian was found arguing with his long-time girlfriend Paula Schultz. The possessive cheerleader is upset over the idea of them inevitably breaking up after high school, especially when Brian plans to skip college and instead go to an air force academy. The couple doesn’t get a chance to patch things up, though — Brian disappears after going out on a rowboat in the middle of the night.
With Brian’s body nowhere to be found and Paula claiming a stranger is responsible, Mr. Porter goes off in search of help. The remaining characters then try to solve the mystery on their own, which comes down to nothing more than convenient finger-pointing. Chris shows his violent temper twice, but it turns out that he’s suffering from a severe case of ‘roid rage. The sensitive jock has been injecting himself with anabolic steroids so that scouts would notice him. As for Nathan, his substance abuse and generally unpleasant attitude all stem from a bad home situation. Isabel simply heard popular students were going on this retreat, and she wanted to make friends. Of course her story about the lovers had a greater purpose. Finally there’s Angel, the outlier who talks to animals and inanimate objects. She’s too caught up in her own world to ever hurt someone, though. Plus, Angel is a witness to what really happened on the boat.
With the odd ones ruled out, Crash Course naturally turns to the cool kids. Jeff Mitchell, the Harvard-bound wrestler and Kelly’s crush, is a suspect for a hot minute before we remember he has no real motive for hurting Brian. Keeping that in mind, Kelly figures out who’s truly to blame here. After Nathan is brutally stabbed and left for dead with Isabel’s hunting knife — this is after he learned the attacker’s identity — Kelly draws the perpetrator out into the open. There on the lakeshore where everyone once stood, searching frantically for Brian on that terrible night, Kelly is confronted by the guilty party.
Because, if he fell forward on his chest, the blade would drive straight through him.
There is a hint of the uncanny in Crash Course, though the author doesn’t follow through. The mysticism and tokenism regarding Isabel are already bordering on egregious. Yet, it’s Isabel’s fabled story that partly inspired the crime. As Kelly suspected, Paula is the one who comes to meet her on the shore. She may have tried to silence Nathan, but Brian was a total accident. Like Isabel, Paula knew of the Deep Creek Lake lovers’ legend ahead of time, and that was the reason why she attended Porter’s SAT course and convinced Brian to come. In a dark twist, one that was laid out in the prologue, Paula backed out of her own suicide pact with Brian once they were on the lake. Brian, in an attempt to scare Paula straight after hearing Isabel’s version of the myth, took his girlfriend out on the rowboat. Paula indeed had a change of heart about dying with her beloved. Unfortunately, Brian slipped and drowned.
Brian’s death was an accident; he wasn’t murdered. But Paula worried no one would believe her, or she feared everyone would ostracize her. Despite her three accounts of attempted murder — Nathan and Kelly, along with Mr. Porter, who got off easy with a broken leg — Miss Schultz was sent to a mental institution in lieu of prison. The sequel Crash Landing, published in 1996 but set a little over a year after the events of Crash Course, takes place at a mountain resort near Deep Creek Lake. And as Kelly continues to mourn Brian, she becomes enmeshed in another murder. This time around, however, she’s the main suspect.
The sequel’s mystery begins with the death of Paula during a rather wintry Spring Break. She secretly escaped from the institution to visit where Brian died and to make amends with everyone she hurt. Yet after Kelly forgives her, Paula is found dead from a knife wound. Kelly eventually becomes the number-one suspect as part of the local police’s plan to lure out the real killer. While the ruse doesn’t exactly pan out the way it was intended, Kelly gets to the bottom of not only Paula’s murder but also another crime under investigation.
Kelly turned her head to see the snowmobile zip recklessly through an opening in the trees, then cut straight toward her.
Crash Landing indulges the decade’s prevailing PSA culture. First there’s Nathan’s heavy drinking, and then there’s Kelly’s eating disorder. Neither topic is 100% solved by the end, so at least Davidson doesn’t set unrealistic expectations. Finally there’s the other crime coinciding with Paula’s death; a fellow student named Will has been trafficking guns up and down the East coast. Had Paula not discovered one of Will’s caches of guns, she could have lived a lot longer. The undercover cop tailing Will’s covert activities and protecting Kelly, a 21-year-old named Troy, suspected drugs instead of illegal arms. Regardless, this story was one of many in the ‘90s that hoped to educate young folks about drugs, gangs and guns.
Crash Course is sold as an Agatha Christie style story for the younger crowd, yet it’s more like The Breakfast Club if that movie had been a teen mystery set on a low flame. Crash Landing, on the other hand, feels like a 21 Jump Street episode; it ends up being what can be best described as an after-school thriller. The first book doesn’t have a lot happen in it, whereas the second has maybe too much going on. However, for better pacing and a less predictable plot, the sequel is the better of these two Deep Creek Lake stories.
There was a time when the young-adult section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identified by their flashy fonts and garish cover art. This notable subgenre of YA fiction thrived in the ’80s, peaked in the ’90s, and then finally came to an end in the early ’00s. YA horror of this kind is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories live on at Buried in a Book. This recurring column reflects on the nostalgic novels still haunting readers decades later.