Book Review: How to Lead a Life of Crime

How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller. February 2013. 9781595145185. Gr. 9-12.

I am not a criminal. Far from it.  Sure, I have a couple of speeding tickets on my record, and once was cited for having a dirty license plate (can you believe that? I did appeal that one, and it was dismissed. Thanks, State of Minnesota! Keep your license plates clean, people).  But, for the most part, I walk the straight and narrow.  The great thing about books is that you get to be exposed to experiences outside of your normal life.  This is why a book like How to Lead a Life of Crime appeals to me; it is a gritty, dark, and sometimes gruesome story that is wholly unlike my life.  Do you want to experience the seedy underbelly of society without running the risk of incarceration?  This book is for you.

Flick comes from a rich and privileged family, but is living on the mean streets as a thief, stealing what he needs to get by.  Ties to his family were severed when his abusive, alcoholic father beat Flick’s brother to death and Flick’s mom committed suicide.  You quickly see that life has been grim for Flick, and he understandably holds his father in great contempt.  Flick wants nothing more than to avenge his brother’s death by getting back at his father.  Flick’s remaining bit of humanity is preserved by Joi, who he visits regularly at her shelter, which welcomes kids from across the city that have had difficulties of their own.  Joi is a kind-hearted person who Flick is obviously attracted to, but wary of letting get too close.

Flick is soon propositioned by a mysterious man who wants him to steal some documents from a house.  When the man is satisfied that Flick is skilled enough, he offers him to study at the prestigious Mandel Academy.  Flick soon finds out that the mysterious man is Lucian Mandel, who runs the academy, and who also holds the key to exacting revenge against Flick’s father.  So, Flick agrees to become a student at the school.  It turns out that the academy’s reputation for academic excellence is a front for something far less traditionally academic—students are taught how to get ahead by using criminal tactics.  At the Mandel Academy, courses such as “Partnering with Corrupt Regimes” and “Hand to Hand Combat” are on the schedule, and students battle for positioning in the school’s hierarchy, where there are great rewards at the top, and great consequences at the bottom.

Flick excels in the Academy, but is shaken and surprised when a new recruit shows up, and makes his “education” much more personal.  He has trouble focusing on his ultimate goal of getting revenge on his father, and begins focusing on taking down the corrupt school, all the while being guided by the spirit of his dead younger brother.

Kirsten Miller has come up with a great concept here; at one point, Flick describes the Mandel Academy as “Hogwarts for Hustlers” and this combines with a Hunger Games-like survival theme to make a unique read.  I loved the concept of the students battling for criminal supremacy.  Despite its darkness, there are some surprising moral themes that can be gleaned from the story.  One theme I particularly liked was how a character showed that progress could only be made to overthrow the evil school by banding together, and that starts by getting to know the strengths of all students, not just the ones that are high achievers.

How to Lead a Life of Crime is literary escapism at its finest.  You can go anywhere with a book, even the darkest corners of society.

Ryan H.

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