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Two Can Keep a Secret is a young adult murder mystery. All the standard tropes are here: high school politics, Homecoming Queens, creepy townsfolk, romance, various red herrings, and tons of twists. The novel is told from two perspectives. The first is that of Ellery, a high school senior with a penchant for reading true crime. She has a twin brother named Ezra and the novel opens with the two of them moving from California to Echo Ridge, Vermont, their mother’s hometown, to live with their grandmother. The reason for this move being that their mother is in rehab for opioid addiction. The second perspective is that of Malcolm. A high school senior who is the younger brother of Declan, the primary suspect in the murder of an Echo Ridge Homecoming Queen several years earlier.
As you can already surmise, the various relationships and connections in this book are quite complex. It is because of this that the novel is somewhat reminiscent of a soap opera. In fact, the whole thing reminds me a great deal of the television series Pretty Little Liars. Whether you’ve watched the show or not, it’s safe to assume that because of this quality, this somewhat “guilty pleasure” quality, Two Can Keep a Secret isn’t exactly oozing with literary merit.
In addition, the novel features some rather mature themes and imagery. In the beginning of the novel, a vandal is performing elaborate pranks that reference the death of Lacey (the murdered Homecoming Queen) and calls out current students, as if threatening their lives as well. These pranks are grotesque—one even displaying mannequins dressed like Homecoming Queens and hung by their necks.
The most disturbing aspect of the novel though is when the identity of the killer is revealed. In addition to Lacey being murdered, Ellery and Ezra’s aunt (their mother’s twin sister) disappeared when she was a senior. Then, during the events of the novel, Brook (another high school senior) disappears and is eventually found murdered. The big reveal at the end is that all three murders were committed by Malcolm and Declan’s step-father, Peter. Peter didn’t just murder these teenagers, he had affairs with them as well. When Ellery and Malcolm discover Peter’s secret, he takes them at gunpoint into his basement, locks them in, and turns on a generator that will leak carbon monoxide into the basement, killing Ellery and Malcolm. Fortunately, the novel has an overall happy ending—Ellery and Malcolm survive and Peter is brought to justice. The fact that this novel possesses little if any literary merit (we can certainly at least say it’s not canonical) while being filled with mature themes and grotesque imagery, makes this a poor novel to use in the classroom. Perhaps it could be an option for students to do an individual project on, but as a class read it falls quite far from the mark.
That being said, what angle could one take in analyzing this book that would be a good lesson for our students? The more general approach would be to focus on the theme of secrets. You could analyze what secrets are, their moral implications, and perhaps do a survey of how secrets have been used throughout literature. Shakespeare’s plays for instance are filled with characters keeping secrets.
The more specific approach would be to focus on Ellery and Ezra’s relationship with their mother. Opioid addiction is a very real thing that affects many of our lives, whether directly or indirectly, and the effects it can have on a family, particularly on the children, are profound. Despite all of the craziness going on around Ellery, with vandalism and missing students, she briefly points out that there are positives to her new home. Her grandmother keeps a nice home and lives a routine, structured life. She feeds Ellery and Ezra better than their mother did, keeps a better eye on them, even offers to help them pay for college if they keep their grades up (Ellery admits that college wasn’t even an option for her prior to this). An exploration of these dynamics, taken from a psychological or sociological perspective could be a great subject for a paper.
As mentioned in the post on Miss Peregrine’s House for Peculiar Children, mystery stories always present the chance to teach from Edgar Allen Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition.” This short essay is essential reading for anyone hoping to better understand the literary form or to improve their own writing.