Well, what do you know? Today marks my second anniversary as a blogger. Words fail me (really, Brad?!?) in trying to express how much fun I’ve been having sharing my thoughts, mostly on classic mysteries (but occasionally touching on theatre, films and even some real world stuff) and trading ideas with so many brilliant people. Sometimes I get a bit insecure because I feel that I don’t write enough – look at the amazing posts coming out daily from Margot Kinberg and from Kate at Cross Examining Crime. I tend to average about one post a week, at least during the school year. Each time I amass a new follower, I want to make sure I’m giving everyone enough bang for their buck! (I’m talking to you, tamperevidentsecuritylabelreview, and to you, Chinesecommercialcorrespondence! How the heck do you think I’m doing, belikewaterproduction? Your opinions matter to me!)
A recent post by JJ at The Invisible Event – where he announced his decision to steal re-launch the Tuesday Night Bloggers – reminded me of those halcyon days when I was turning out at least two blogs a week. That’s because I had deadlines to keep and fellow bloggers to refrain from disappointing. Maybe JJ’s co-opting of someone else’s idea brilliant re-imagining of that grand old group will inspire me to increase my output. I know one of the topics I want to tackle more frequently is the prevalence of great crime fiction for younger readers. And there’s no better time to begin than now (even though it’s a Sunday.)
I hope you’ll bear with me while I get personal here for a minute. I promise we’ll get to the book . . . eventually!
Who can say why some of us turn to mysteries at an early age? I’ve been a voracious reader since I can remember. At first, I wasn’t terribly picky about what I read. When I was in grammar school, Scholastic Publishers had a program called Arrow Books. Several times a year, our teacher would pass out a catalogue of titles to every student. We would pore over it at home, fill out an order form and return it to our teacher with payment. Some time later (it seemed to me to take forever), we would return from recess to find our classroom full of boxes from Scholastic. I would go all goose pimply as our teacher passed out our new purchases and then gave us time to savor them.
My selections ran the gamut of genres, but I tended to gravitate toward fantasy. Mind you, I didn’t particularly like the whole elven/dwarfish/ogrish/world building stuff. (And I still don’t! If the inside blurb contains five invented words and every character’s name looks Welsh, I put the thing down.) I have always preferred my magic or sci-fi to fit into the natural world. I loved Edward Eager and his Half Magic series. I loved Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s cures for naughty children. I loved Scott Corbett’s “Trick” series of tales about Kirby, a typical boy (like me!) who found magic in relatively normal places, like his chemistry set, and always got into terrible trouble because of it.
Frankly, the mysteries I bought were the most disappointing of the lot. They felt babyish, like they were holding something back. Oh, not just the violence one might argue should be withheld from a children’s book, but every other element of a logical murder puzzle. No, I got what I needed from the Charlie Chan movies that played on TV every Saturday afternoon or favorite TV shows like Perry Mason and Burke’s Law, but the literary mysteries I read frustrated me. I might have given up the genre altogether if my enlightened baby sitter hadn’t regaled me one night with a bedtime story about ten strangers trapped on an island who, one by one, died in horrible ways. A year or so later, I stumbled upon the author of that story in a rack of books at a local pharmacy. I never looked back.
It turns out that my timing was off by about twenty years. Mysteries for young people have grown up! In the 1970’s, Ellen Raskin delivered clever, clue-driven mysteries like her classic, The Westing Game (which I didn’t discover until I was in my 30’s). Writers like R.L. Stine and a whole posse of imitators capitalized on the popularity of Stephen King and 80’s slasher movies, injecting serious violence into young adult novels and keeping many of their plots in the whodunit mode. If I had had access to books like this when I was a kid, I wonder if I might have postponed discovering Christie and Company. Would my whole approach to the mystery field have been different, more mature perhaps but with less of the enthusiasm we develop for those things we discover through the dazzled eyes of a child?
I have to wonder what would have happened if Robin Stevens had been writing for my generation! I have a feeling that tattered copies of all her books would inhabit a place of pride on my shelves. If you don’t know anything about Robin Stevens, you should probably pause and listen to this podcast hosted by JJ and Dan, from The Reader Is Warned, in which they interviewed the author on the eve of publication of The Guggenheim Mystery, an out and out sequel to the late Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye (Eye now sits on my TBR pile thanks to these guys. Thanks, guys!) I want to point out the most important piece of information you will learn about Stevens: she was born in California, so all the stuff about moving to England and being raised in an Oxford college and living in Great Britain and having a cute semi-British accent is all gravy. The important thing is that, like yours truly, she was born in California, so we get all the credit for her work!)
Almost simultaneously, my friend Viv texted me, asking for some reading suggestions for a young friend of hers who happens to be into mysteries – including the Wells and Wong series by none other than . . . Robin Stevens! I recommended both books in The London Eye series, and it occurred to me that, if I’m going to recommend it, I should read some of this stuff. Of course, America being the backward nation that it is, no bookstore seemed to carry any of Stevens’ books. Fortunately, after three tries, I found the first two Wells and Wong books, inexplicably renamed for U.S. audiences, in the public library. I also found a new cause: the promotion of children’s and YA crime fiction. So expect that to be my TNG blog mission . . . whenever I can get around to it.
Murder Most Unladylike, (Murder is Bad Manners in the U.S.) is the first book in a series set in the 1930’s and featuring Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, two chums who meet at Meadowbank School for G – Deepdean School for Girls, start a detective service, and soon find themselves confronting their first murder! You can’t blame me for the Meadowbank crack because, from the start, this novel has Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons written all over it. If you’ll recall, one of the biggest complaints about that novel is that Hercule Poirot is in it. There are two wonderful schoolgirls named Julia Upjohn and Jennifer Sutcliffe who should be that book’s detectives so, in a way, Stevens is righting a great wrong here. Hazel Wong finds the body of Miss Bell, the school’s science teacher, in the gymnasium. She sounds the alarm, but when she returns to the gym with the others, there is not a body in sight! With great enthusiasm (Daisy) and intense nervousness (Hazel), the Wells and Wong Detective Society intends on identifying her killer. But first, they have to find the body and prove she was murdered.
When I was a kid, the most I could hope for when reading a kid’s mystery was something involving Betsy and Billy finding an old clock in their attic, taking it to an antique shop, and then being followed by mysterious folks hell-bent on stealing the clock. Often, the stolen object would contain something like Confederate gold or letters from a German-Jewish child, an unfair way for the author to sneak something educational into the narrative. Nobody ever died. The most we could hope for was that Betsy would disappear in Chapter 11 and Billy would have a deuce of a time finding her – until the end of Chapter 12. Seldom were there clues that needed solving or criminals that needed unmasking. The concept of asking the reader to present a character one way and then expose that character as something else altogether seemed too sophisticated for children. We would have to wait until Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? to experience the surprising unmasking of a criminal – and that wasn’t much of a surprise since the mastermind was always the only guest character in the episode! (“It’s Mr. Moreland, the park ranger!!!!!”)
This mystery-light business really rankled! I longed to take the training wheels off and get down to real business. Christie, Carr and Queen settled that, and I lost track of kiddie book capers for a long time. Even coming to Murder Is Bad Manners, I couldn’t help suspect that given the fact that Julia and Hazel are only 13, the whole murder aspect would turn out to be a misunderstanding or hoax. I intend to give very little away about what happens, but I want to say here and now that Stevens does not cheat her readers of with a cheesy, baby ending. The book is lovingly couched in the tropes of classic mystery, and it delivers in the end.
I couldn’t help asking myself who Stevens considers her intended audience to be. The book is marketed for children – probably girls – between nine and thirteen. It deals with the concept of death by violence, but there isn’t anything too gory about it. Perhaps its best aspect is the characterization of the detective team. Daisy Wells is every inch a little girl, but she is also the consummate egoist. Her natural childlike ghoulishness for all things having to do with “foul play” is befitting to her representation of those classic detectives whose eagerness to treat each case as an intellectual problem is matched by a callous dismissal of the emotional burden that murder bestows on a community. She is perfectly balanced by Hazel Wong, my favorite character, who narrates the book and serves as Daisy’s Watson with equal parts admiration and bemusement. Hazel’s backstory is a fascinating tale in and of itself: shipped off to an English boarding school from Hong Kong by a father who is obsessed with British culture, Hazel endures varying degrees of racism, as well as the usual ragging on of an 8th form girl who is bad at games. Even Daisy’s friendship smacks of patronage as she relegates Hazel to her place as secretary and assistant to the Great Detective until Hazel repeatedly proves herself worthy of respect. But Hazel is also warm and human. She understands that the possible murder of a teacher involves both great loss and great danger, and while she succumbs to the excitement of solving a case (quickly eliminating two promising suspects from their list “in one fell swoop” feels “oddly disappointing”), she also is sensitive to the darker aspects of murder and even sympathizes in the end with those responsible.
The thing is, Stevens imbues her story with so many juicy aspects of GAD fiction that I’m tempted to say her intended audience might be a little older than the publishers suggest. How many little girls are going to get all the references to Cat Among the Pigeons or Daisy being referred to as “Young Miss Marple” (a reference she disdains)? Some of the characters seem to be lifted straight out of Christie; even their motives and secrets often play off Dame Agatha’s own plotlines. Long time mystery fans will enjoy the dramatis personae listed at the beginning and the notebooks full of alibis and motives, but we grown-ups must be prepared for a simplification of the elements of detection, given that our sleuths are eighth graders without benefit of police machinery or the social status of a private detective. The novel is light on clues and heavy on snooping down dark corridors and hiding in cupboards. My biggest disappointment as a mystery fan was how Daisy and Hazel essentially stumble upon the truth rather than detecting it. I figured out some of what was going on, but it all ended up being more of a guess than through any cleverness on my part.
Still, Stevens doesn’t hold back on some pretty adult concepts of behavior, and she does a wonderful job confounding the expectations or initial findings of both her heroines and her audience regarding the suspects’ motivations. Best of all, she doesn’t relegate Hazel to the common position of fawning acolyte to a brilliant detective. These girls need each other! Hazel is willing to give Daisy some of the adoration she craves and to let Daisy lead, even to the point of engaging in some outrageous stunts to gather information. (The episode with the ipecac is appropriately gruesome.) Yet she also pulls Daisy down from her Holmesian cloud and makes her see sense more than once.
In the end, the purpose Robin Stevens serves here is two-fold: she is satisfying her own instincts as an author to engage in the classic mystery fiction she enjoyed reading as a girl in boarding school, and she is creating a training ground for young people to serve as an entry point into the Golden Age of Detective fiction, if they should ever want to enter. And why wouldn’t they?!? I had Steve the Babysitter to get me started. Kids today have Robin Stevens and, hopefully, more like her. I think I shall have some fun exploring these possibilities myself. Stay tuned!