Upon reflection, I realized that it’s a bit more challenging to write a well-crafted mystery for juvenile readers than it is for young adults; that is if you really want to hit a home run. If you are of my generation, you cut your teeth on The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (I read plenty of both). They were fun to read and sometimes challenging. Times have changed. The forensics, types of communication and variety of things that scare the heck out of kids are a lot more prevalent and/or sophisticated these days. The challenge, to me at least, is that YA readers have a greater wealth of experience and understanding of the world, so writers can assume with some degree of certainty that most of their readers will be able to understand plot elements without much ‘spoon-feeding’. The challenge then, for writers of juvenile mysteries, is to create a story line that grips readers and gives them enough meat to keep them pulled in without having to over-explain or dumb down the plot. These are pretty steep challenges, methinks. Having said that, how, then did this years nominees fare?
First up is 13 Hangmen by Art Corriveau. We meet soon to be thirteen Tony DiMarco. He’s not a very happy camper as the book begins. He’s 25 pounds overweight, not particularly good at athletics and is harassed almost constantly by his slimmer, far more athletic older twin brothers Angie and Mikey. He’s home alone when the postman knocks. He has a package for Tony that must be signed for. Inside is an old baseball cap and a cryptic message from his great uncle Zio who he only met once when the elder gentleman flew from Boston to spend Thanksgiving with Tony’s family. Is it possible that the cap really did belong to the late Ted Williams? Michael, their dad, is a a vegetarian Buddhist working on his PhD in history at the University of Michigan, while Julie, Tony’s mom, is supporting the family by doing freelance book prep for academic publishers and scholars.
Michael has just returned from a conference in Boston with good news/bad news. The bad news is that his uncle Zio Angelo is dead. The good news is that he left his historic Boston townhouse in the North End to Tony. Nobody seems to know why Tony is the recipient, but off they go to Boston to live. Their excitement turns to dismay at the sight of the new home. It’s in sad shape. The bequest stipulated that Tony had to have the room on the fourth floor and couldn’t sell the house until he turns 21 unless an emergency situation arises.
Things quickly become complicated. Benedict Hagmann, the man owning one of the adjacent townhouses is very interested in buying their new place, so much so that when he’s rebuffed, he calls the police, strongly hinting that Michael murdered his uncle Zio. Dad’s carted off to jail and the three sons are faced with the daunting task of figuring out how to clear him. Tony very quickly becomes involved in one of the dandier and complicated plots I’ve encountered in some time. Art Corriveau does a stellar job of weaving historical fact and some dandy fictitious history together. There’s hidden treasure somewhere in the house and Hagmann’s family has been trying to get at it since revolutionary times, only to be thwarted by friends and members of Tony’s family, generation after generation. The plot involves several thirteen year olds who can’t always see each other working together to outwit the bad guys. To say more might spoil the story for those wanting to read it.
Younger readers who get pulled in will not only find a dandy story awaiting them, they’ll be treated to what amounts to some living history because the author has included many events from Boston’s history over the past 200 years to help make the story work. And work it does.
Next up is Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage. You’ve all heard the expression southern hospitality. Well if that were a book, this would be it. A quick read, endearing characters, well described setting and a double mystery (maybe even a triple one), woven nicely together. Mo, short for Moses, is eleven. She lives behind the cafe in Tupelo Landing, North Carolina with the Colonel and Miss Lana who have one of the odder relationships you’ll encounter in a work of fiction.
Mo spends most of her time wondering about and trying to find her Upstream Mother, the woman who placed her on a broken cafe billboard the night she was born during a hurricane and set her adrift on a raging river. That was the same night the Colonel crashed his car, lost his memory and came to just as Mo floated up. They, and Miss Lana are a family of sorts. Every time someone in the village heads out of town, Mo gets them to carry a sealed bottle with a note to her upstream mother, asking her to come find her.
Right after the book begins, Old Jesse, a cantankerous skinflint who lives on the river not far from the cafe turns up dead, his head bashed in. Enter Lawman Starr from Winston-Salem who steps up and begins the investigation. Mo’s best friend Dale Earnhart III is an early suspect because he ‘borrowed’ Jesse’s boat so he and Mo could go fishing. They ended up not going since they had to help out at the cafe because the Colonel was off somewhere and Miss Lana needed their help. When they con Jesse into offering a $10 reward, Dale returns the boat and collects the money. Unfortunately, he was seen by Mo’s arch nemesis Celeste, leading Dale and Mo to seek help from lawyer-to-be Skeeter, a classmate of theirs.
Mo and Dale decide the way to clear him is to form their own detective agency, charging for people cases, but finding pets for free. The plot develops nicely, with clues dropped at perfect intervals as Dale and Mo, along with his older brother, Lavender (aspiring NASCAR driver and Mo’s secret crush) start putting things together. When the Colonel fails to return before the third day rule is invoked (an agreement he and Miss Lilly have about being away from the cafe), things heat up. Is he a suspect too? Then Miss Lily is kidnapped right before a hurricane hits and everything goes into overdrive. Who’s good? Who’s bad? Who’s not who you think they are? All of these are dancing about waiting for the reader to barrel through to a dandy conclusion.
Young readers (and adults, for that matter) will really like and identify with the cast of characters in this book. Every one has their own unique kookiness, from Mo’s obsession with finding her Upstream Mother, Celeste’s (AKA Atilla) overt meanness and the reasons for it, the Colonel’s struggle to remember his past, Lavender’s love of building race cars, Officer Starr, the ladies in the Azalea Garden Club. Well, there isn’t a shallow character in the lot. Add that to a well-crafted mystery and a feel-good finale and you have another very strong contender.
Just when I think I’ve read the top contenders for this year’s award, I pick up another pleasant surprise. Quick Fix by Jack Ferraiolo has one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve ever seen in a juvenile book. I repeat it here because it’s so cool: “She stood out from the Monday morning hallway traffic like a gazelle in a herd of cows. She had big blue eyes and blonde shoulder-length hair, carefully styled to look carelessly towel-dried. She was thin and athletic, and I’m pretty sure her legs would’ve kept going if the floor hadn’t been there to stop them. She was tapping her right foot, making the light blue miniskirt of her official Franklin Middle School cheerleading uniform bounce in a rhythm that hypnotized every age-appropriate male within four hundred yards. Her name was Melissa Scott. She was as close to a celebrity as you’d find at the Frank, and at the moment, she was leaning against my locker.”
I picked this book up at 11:45 and closed it just before 3 AM. Believe me, what followed the opening paragraph got better and better. Matt Stevens, young private eye, is hired by Melissa to follow her superstar basketball playing boyfriend Will because she’s worried he’s been acting strange. No, she’s not thinking he’s two-timing her, he just seems worried about something and he asked her to keep a small wooden object for him, but not tell anyone that she has it.
In short order, the action introduces a cast of characters that will remind older readers of kids they went to middle school with who somehow were genetically altered with DNA from characters in Raymond Chandler’s mystery novels with a pit stop at the Rockford Files. The dialogue is dead funny , but never slops into adolescent or campy, no mean feat when you’re writing for younger teens. Matt ends up with the mystery cube after it’s passed through a couple of unsavory characters (a goth brother and sister), but he can’t figure out what makes it such a big deal. It has a funny carving on one side and when he shakes it, he can hear something inside, because it’s really a cleverly designed box. We then meet Vinny Biggs and gang. Vinny was the kid everyone bullied until he got wise and turned the tables. He’s now the school’s equivalent of a mafia don, selling everything from test answers to hall passes and enforcing his law with a gang of goons who have a unique way of terrorizing everyone in the school. Step out of line, or make Vinnie mad and his henchmen will hit your crotch with a squirt gun making it look like you’ve peed your pants, leading to chants of pee-pee pants and instant ostracism. Yes, it sounds like something so out there it wouldn’t work in a story, but the author describes the emotional aftereffects so graphically, you start buying how traumatic this is to kids who one day were uber-popular and the next lower than whale poop.
Matt gets caught in trying to sort out what’s going on between Vinnie, Cynthia (the head of the cheering squad), Will, Pete (former co-star of the basketball team and addicted to doctored Pixie-Stiks), Liz, the chess-whiz and the girl who Matt is beginning to realize is, or could be way more than his best friend, plus a host of lesser, but still important players. Figuring things out is complicated by the biggest unsolved mystery in his life, what happened to his dad when he disappeared 11 years earlier, leaving a cryptic cipher on a piece of paper in the glove compartment of his car at the airport. That disappearance left Matt’s mom scrambling to make ends meet, working two jobs and barely having any time to spend with him, but their relationship is pretty neat.
By the time you reach the climax, you’ll feel like you’ve just exited a dandy roller-coaster ride and the surprises near the end are revealed very nicely. This is a sequel to The Big Splash a book that just jumped onto my TBR list
The fourth nominee gets a nod for the longest subtitle in ages. Fake Mustache: How Jodie O’Rodeo and her wonder horse (and some nerdy kid) saved the U.S. Presidential election from a mad genius criminal mastermind is by Tom Angleberger. Juvenile readers and many librarians will know him from his Origami Yoda series (which I haven’t read). I really expected this to be a book I’d read, but sorta shrug after closing the cover. Not so. While it’s a fairly lightweight, campy romp, it’s definitely fun and held my attention. Think Captain Underpants meets Sherlock Holmes after having a quick lunch with Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Lenny Flem is the nerdy protagonist (at least for the first half of the book), who makes the mistake of loaning his fellow twelve year old, Casper Bengue, ten dollars so he can buy the Heidelberg Handlebar #7 fake mustache, the only one of its kind, at Sven’s Fair Price Store. The prop, fashioned from facial hair belonging to an evil arch criminal, has hypnotic properties that, when coupled with the uber-fancy suit Casper bought just before obtaining said mustache, will set him on a course that will turn Lenny’s boring, but happy life upside down in a hurry. Lenny, in conjunction with erstwhile pre-teen TV star Jodie O’Rodeo, must find a way to retrieve and destroy the fake facial hair. It’s not an easy task as Caspar is intent upon ruling the world. How Lenny and Jodie go about returning the town of Hairsprinkle (and the entire country) to normalcy, makes for a really fast and fun read. It’s a perfect book for kids who are just getting into chapter books.
The final nominee is Spy School by Stuart Gibbs and it’s able to hold its own with the other nominees. Twelve year old Ben Ripley is a math whiz who isn’t particularly outstanding at anything else. When the book opens, he’s returning from school and finds Alexander Hale, hot-shot CIA agent in his living room, waiting to offer him a slot at the super secret CIA spy school. Ben’s intrigued, but cautious. Why would the CIA even know about him, let alone his fantasy about becoming a secret agent. Was it all the time he spent playing games, etc. on the website they created for kids?
In short order, Ben finds himself sworn to secrecy and whisked off to the school which looks pretty drab compared to the images in his mind. No matter. He’s attacked by an assassin his first night there, and this is after he’s been run through a simulated hit on his way into the school (just part of the testing, you know). All isn’t bad, however as the person who drops out of nowhere is a girl named Erica who makes the one Ben was attracted to at his old school look like someone’s grandmother.
It doesn’t take long for Ben to learn that the food is awful, the CIA’s rife with agents who are dumber than dirt and that there’s a hidden agenda behind his sudden recruitment in mid-semester. Erica is a puzzle, terribly cold and serious, but sometimes sending Ben mixed signals. It turns out she’s the daughter of the agent who recruited him and no matter what she accomplishes, it’s not going to earn her any points from Dad. There’s also a mole planted among the students and faculty and part of the reason Ben was recruited is to create a smokescreen that is supposed to fool the mole and the bad guys who hired him into thinking Ben is a cryptography genius who has developed a cipher cracking program that works on everything.
What follows is a fast-paced series of adventures and misadventures as Ben and Erica team up to unmask the mole before he/she does something really bad. The number of red herrings dragged across pages, coupled with the action and really good dialogue make for a fast, fun read.
So, which book wins the 2013 Edgar? First let me say that Last year I thought the YA nominees were really good. This year, they were a bit disappointing. The 2012 juvenile nominees were a mixed bag. This year, however, all five are really good selections. I’m eliminating Fake Mustache from contention because it’s a little more lightweight than the other four, despite being a book I’ll suggest to a lot of younger patrons. That leaves four really great reads who are incredibly close in quality. I’m casting my vote for Three Times Lucky simply because it has a higher ‘feel-good’ index than the others and I’m a sucker for a happy ending. No matter who wins this year, kudos goes to the selection committee for doing a stellar job of making the selections..