IMPULSE by Frederick Ramsay. Poisoned Pen Press 2006, 245 pages, $14.95

Private boys’ schools have supplied rich fodder for novelists over the years. Witness Charles Dickens and the horrors of a 19th Century British school in “Nicholas Nickleby.” Witness “The Catcher in the Rye,” J.D. Salinger’s classic 1951 tale of Holden Caulfield, an abysmally unhappy and conflicted student in the process of leaving an eastern boys school. Witness John Knowles and his widely acclaimed 1959 novel “A Separate Peace,” which takes place at a New England prep school.

Now comes Frederick Ramsay with his 2006 mystery, “Impulse,” set at a fictional Baltimore school, Scott Academy. Ramsay’s protagonist, mystery writer Frank Smith, returns to Scott from his Arizona home for his 50th class reunion while under police suspicion for his wife’s disappearance several years earlier in the Arizona desert.

At Scott, Smith quickly finds himself involved in another missing persons’ case–the mysterious disappearance 25 years earlier of four Scott students who wandered into the woods adjoining the campus and never again were seen. Ramsay, himself the product of a prep school and later a professor in the Maryland School of Medicine and an Episcopal priest, skillfully develops a multi-layered story that shifts between reunion scene and the dogged work of a police detective in Arizona who is convinced of Smith’s guilt in his wife’s presumed murder.

The tale transports Frank Smith back to his own days at Scott, where his father had been a longtime and embittered faculty member and where his older brother, also a student, had been accused of homosexuality, leading to his suicide. As Frank gets drawn reluctantly into probing the students’ disappearance, he gains an investigative colleague, Rosemary Mitchell, the widow of a classmate, whose interest in him seems to go beyond simply helping to solve a decades-old mystery.

As the scenes alternate between Arizona and Maryland, the author maintains a uniformly high level of tension and credibility in his third-person narrative. He also draws back the curtain to expose the internecine machinations in the administration of a prep school that seems more concerned about its image and its finances than in the well-being of its students, past and present.

Perhaps most important of all, the reader comes to care about the fate of the story’s central character, an absolute must in any work of fiction, mystery or otherwise.

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