The Teacher’s Pet was originally one of the true crime podcasts that became a cultural phenomenon. It was downloaded over 30 million times, and made front-page news with each new episode drop. Now the journalist behind it, Hedley Thomas, has laid out the story in a book of the same name – The Teacher’s Pet – to commit the whole, extraordinary tale to the page. The terrific publishing team at Macmillan were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
In case you missed the story the first time around, here are the bare-bones facts: in 1982, Lynette Simms (then known as Lyn Dawson) disappeared. Her husband Chris reported her missing, weeks later, and police seemed happy to accept his version of events – that she had abandoned her home and two young children, without contacting any of her loved ones or co-workers. They didn’t think to investigate any further, despite the “marital difficulties”, despite Chris’s public affair with a 16-year-old student at the school where he taught, despite Chris installing that same student in Lyn’s house and bed to act as defacto wife and mother just a couple of days after her “disappearance”.
It wasn’t until forty years later, in 2022, that Chris Dawson was held accountable for the murder of his wife – thanks, in large part, to Hedley Thomas’s headline-grabbing investigation.
Chris Dawson was not a criminal mastermind. Police incompetence, the trust of Lyn’s family and the passage of time had conspired to help him get away with murder.The Teacher’s Pet (Page 219)
The blurb of The Teacher’s Pet promises a “blow-by-blow” account, and it delivers. It’s a big hefty book, around 500 pages, with the genre-standard glossy inserts. The devil is in the details, sure, but I couldn’t help feeling at times that Thomas was overdoing it a bit – at times, The Teacher’s Pet reads like a never-ending list of people who say they “believe” Chris is guilty, without being able to point to a body or a crime scene. There’s a character list and timeline at the end of the book, but that might’ve been more helpful printed at the start, because the revolving door of interviewees with similar names can feel overwhelming.
It’s a journalistic true crime book, not a literary one, so don’t come to The Teacher’s Pet expecting evocative prose or earth-shattering insights. Leigh Sales called it “a masterclass in investigative journalism”, but I must say, I was surprised by Thomas’s approach. He went in with explicitly preconceived notions – that Chris Dawson was guilty of murdering Lyn Simms – but doesn’t interrogate that at all for the reader, or make any concessions to open-mindedness in journalism.
I was similarly surprised by some of his choices in storytelling, like mentioning (twice) discussing the case with Matthew Johns without mentioning Johns’ own history with historical criminal allegations. I guess I’m just more used to more reflective true crime writing that incorporates self-examination and individual motivations into the narrative.
The Teacher’s Pet is a comprehensive and interesting account of the unravelling of Chris Dawson’s crimes – but a revolutionary work of true crime literature? Not so much.
Buy The Teacher’s Pet on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)