I love a good boarding school novel. Kirsten Miller’s Mandel Academy is different—and far more disturbing—than any other fictional boarding school I’ve come across. The main character, Flick, dubs the school “Hogwarts for hustlers,” and the course catalog reads like a series of ugly jokes. “Mining the Masses: Big Profits from Little People” and “Let Them Eat Cake: Exploiting America’s Obesity Epidemic” are just two of the courses at this school that also teaches the fine arts of hacking, blackmail and assassination.
Flick, a skillful pickpocket, is a “legacy kid,” the son of a Mandel alumnus. But Flick enrolls in the academy not because he aspires to be like his dad but because he longs to take him down and expose his secret, murderous history. As Flick rises to the top of the class, he discovers just how sinister the academy is. When his “one good thing,” his girlfriend Joi, winds up at the academy, too, she shows him that there may be another option, one that will keep Flick alive while maintaining his moral integrity, one that will turn Mandel upside down.
In How to Lead a Life of Crime, Miller has created a gruesome school environment, one in which ambition turns bloodthirsty and loyalties are tested. Along the way, she raises significant questions about the origins of evil, the capability of the individual and the distribution of wealth and power. Readers might not want to enroll in the Mandel Academy, but their time spent there will certainly make them think.