Most murder stories focus on investigative processes. The best provide a side dish of social inspection. But Death, Unchartered takes an additional leap into complexity by providing the subplot of an inner city teacher’s efforts to help disadvantaged children at all costs – even possibly sacrificing her career to make a stand on their behalf – and this adds an extra dimension to the story of a child’s death, creating a riveting production pairing a murder mystery with ethical and moral conundrums.
Teacher Sylvia Jensen is the last person who should be a candidate to become an investigator: she’s already fully vested in her students, and has been for many years. This is exactly why she suspects the mysterious little skeleton unearthed during excavation for a new charter school site is one of her students, and why she’s so readily able to connect the dots to link the outstanding mystery of his disappearance with these remains.
Even with this certainty and evidence, there are still many unanswered questions, which Sylvia pursues with a gusto the police could never match on a ‘cold case’ like this. Why was Markus murdered? Investigative reporter J.B. Harrell also wants to know the truth, and the duo join forces to probe the past events leading to a child’s death and their possible present-day threat to others.
Under another’s hand this story could have become a P.I. probe; but underlying insights on corporate greed, manipulation, deadly deals, and motives that would lead one to kill a child involve “Ms. Sylvia” in a story that directly dovetails with her passion for defending the schoolchildren under her care.
There are also astute insights on Sylvia’s personal life and choices, which are nicely woven into the scheme of things: “There was another truth, too, which I never admitted to anyone but myself. I was afraid that if I had children of my own, they would eat me alive. I’d offer myself to them on a plate like I did with my students, and because they were my progeny, they’d feel entitled to demand seconds and even thirds.” How much will she give of herself, to serve her students? When will her efforts be enough?
Her changing viewpoint about activism on her own turf and how she changes in response to it is also an intrinsic part of an evolving story that draws readers not just into a murder mystery, but issues of educational challenges, union activism, and forces of social inspection and change: “I crossed my arms over my chest and watched in horror as Teresa grabbed the hands of two children, pulled them from the middle of a crowd of picketers, dragged them to the front entrance and deposited them in the door. With long, angry strides, she went back and threw her body between one of the picketers and the mother of the children. As I listened to the picketers’ vile language and watched the ugly scene unfold, a seismic shift took place inside me. Any residual ambivalence I had about the union drained away and was replaced by a combative defiance that infused every fiber of my being. The union had crossed a line. It had proven itself unworthy of its association with the union movement. Something had to be done. The violence had to be stopped.”
Political activism, forces of corruption that affect public education funding and pursuits, and issues reaching from the 1960s tumult to modern-day graft create a story that is filled with many possibilities and much insight. Teachers, particularly, will find many of these scenarios and concerns true to life, linking classroom and socialization objectives with bigger pictures of societal and political forces overseeing teaching choices and approaches to education.
It’s this broader perspective that makes Death, Unchartered more than just another murder ‘whodunnit’ but an unrelenting probe into the impact of greed and special interests on the educational system. Readers who turn to Death, Unchartered for a murder mystery genre read will find the story compelling, complex, and injected with the protagonist’s personal reflections and transformations, which keep the plot moving quickly and crafts a gripping read with a surprising outcome.