At some point or another (often at several points!), most people have to take some kind of exam. Starting in primary school, students take in-class exams; later, they take graduation or exit exams. People also take exams in order to be admitted to medical school or law school. Many other graduate programs also require exams; so do Ph.D. programs. Exams can cause a lot of anxiety, especially when they are high-stakes exams. There are even people who have committed suicide after finding out they haven’t passed an exam. And, of course, I’m sure you’ve read/heard of cheating scandals, where high exam grades were bought, or where someone was paid to take an exam for someone else. With all that rides on exam scores, it’s not surprising that exam time is tense. And that tension and anxiety can add a layer of character development and suspense to a story.
Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party features the Reynolds family, who live in the community of Woodleigh Common. When thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds is murdered at a Hallowe’en party, detective story writer Ariadne Oliver (who was at the party) asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. As you can imagine, he speaks to the members of the victim’s family. One of them is her older sister, Ann, who was also at the party. When Poirot and Mrs. Oliver interview her, she’s deep into preparation for her A-Level exams, and she is surrounded by a pile of study books. She’s in the midst of studying, but she has time to make some interesting comments about her sister. Ann’s studying isn’t a main aspect of the novel. But it gives a hint about the amount of work young people do, and the pressure they’re under, to do well on exams.
There’s still an extreme amount of pressure in today’s world to excel on exams. We see this, for instance, in Natsuo Kirino’s Real World, which takes place in modern Tokyo. The Japanese education system includes extremely difficult, high-stakes entrance exams for university placement, and Toshiko Yamanaka, like most of her peers, attends a cram school after her regular school day is over, to prepare for the exams. She and her friends are under a great deal of stress, both internal and external, to do well, and that anxiety is part of the backdrop of the story. Everything changes, though, when Toshiko becomes a sort of witness to a murder. She hears a loud series of crashes from the house next door, then nothing. When the noise stops, Toshiko assumes that all is well again, and goes off to cram school. Then, she sees the boy who lives in the house – about her own age – bicycling away as fast as possible. When his mother is found dead, there is a real possibility that he is responsible. Now Toshiko has to decide what she’ll tell the police. And that decision has far-reaching consequences.
Exams are not just stressful for those who take them. The stakes are also high for those who administer and proctor them. For example, Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn features The Oxford Foreign Examinations Syndicate. This group is responsible for administering and supervising exams for students in other countries that follow the British education tradition. This means that it’s got a lot of power in the academic world. The decision is by no means unanimous, but the Syndicate decides to accept its first Deaf member, Nicholas Quinn. One afternoon, Quinn is killed by a poisoned drink. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate, and they soon find several motives. Almost everyone in the Syndicate is keeping secrets, including a possible academic scandal, and it seems that Quinn found out something it wasn’t safe for him to know.
There’s also exam pressure in Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic. Cassandra James is a member of the English Literature faculty at St Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge. One day, she goes to the home of Margaret Joplin, who heads the English faculty, to pick up a group of student exam papers. They have to be handled very carefully, so that none of the papers goes missing; as you can imagine, that would be disastrous. When James arrives at her boss’ home, she finds Joplin dead in her pool, and the papers scattered all over. At first, there’s a possibility that this is a case of suicide. But James doesn’t believe it, and she starts asking questions. In the meantime, she takes over the role of department head, with all of its stresses. She’s also got to account for every student paper, and that proves to be a challenge. In the end, she finds that Margaret Joplin had secrets that made her vulnerable.
Of course, professional adults take exams, too, to be promoted or to apply for certain positions. For example, in John Grisham’s The Firm, we are introduced to Mitchell ‘Mitch’ McDeere, a recent Harvard Law School graduate. He’s smart, ambitious, and has an excellent law school record – just the sort of candidate that a lot of law firms really want. He’s got a lot of offers, but he ends up choosing an irresistible offer from the Memphis-based firm of Brendini, Lambert, & Locke. In the U.S., lawyers are licensed by the state, not the federal government, so before McDeere can really take on his duties, he’ll have to pass the Tennessee Bar Exam. The exam is difficult, but McDeere’s new colleagues coach him to help him pass. He’s welcomed into the firm, and all seems to go very well at first. Then, McDeere begins to have some questions. It seems several former colleagues have died, and McDeere wants to know why. He starts looking for answers, but by the time he starts to see what’s going on at the firm, it may be too late. He’s going to have to find a way out of the situation if he’s going to stay alive.
Exams are a part of most people’s lives at some point or another. So it’s realistic to think that characters would face those challenges, too. And, even when an exam isn’t the major plot point of a story, it can still add interesting tension and suspense. These are only a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sailor George’s Exam.