Everyone loves serials these days. You might blame this on television, what with so many of us stuck inside with Netflix, bleary-eyed from binge-watching the latest imported telenovela (sapopera if you’re watching Scandi-noir; merodorama if it’s a nice juicy anime series). But TV series deserve no credit for inventing series characters. Back in the 16th century, traveling theatre troupes performed commedia dell’arte for the denizens. These plays were improvised off a detailed scenario, resulting in much adlibbed improvisation so that no one performance was ever quite like another. However, every made-up scenario pulled from the same catalogue of stuffed characters (the masters, the servants and the lovers), and people loved gathering in the town square to see another exploit where the adroit Arlecchino pulled one over on the greedy Pantalone.
Now, these were not serialized stories, just series characters, but we have always liked them, too. So many different things happened to the gods and heroes of Greece, Rome, and the like. So many victims fell prey to the magic of Baba Yaga. So much millet was gathered in China due to the exploits of Hou Ji. And in the modern age, we crave new adventures with the likes of Poirot, James Bond, even serial killers like Ripley and Hannibal Lector. Don’t forget that when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, fed up with what he had wrought, dashed Sherlock Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls, legions of outraged fans forced the author to perform a miracle and have Holmes land with a splash.
Those look askance at the massive breadth of a Charles Dickens novel needs must remember that David Copperfield and all of the author’s other children were published in numbers that stretched out for months. The story goes that Americans swarmed the docks waiting to find out if Dickens had killed off Little Nell. And I can tell you that, no matter what we may think of J.K. Rowling these days, she inspired children to read: I can attest to several incidences of standing in an endless line at midnight in the local bookstore, waiting for the release of the latest Harry Potter book and then, once the books were distributed, I observed families sitting in their cars reading the first chapters together.
From Bleak House to Bridgerton, we love our serials. That’s because we have been trained from an early age to embrace serialized fiction and series characters in both our reading and our viewing. Habits. This is especially true for lovers of genre fiction, especially fantasies and mysteries. As a small boy, I favored the former, like the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books by Betty McDonald or the novels of Edward Eager. (If you’ve never heard of Eager, find his books!!!!! I could describe him more here, but the tangent would go on for hours.) Then came characters like Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys, which expanded my tastes but also provided a gateway to Agatha Christie.
The one downside to discovering Christie at the age of 11 was that, for the most part, I then put aside youthful crime fiction and moved to the hard stuff. This means that I only read a few of the novels featuring The Three Investigators, who were much better than the Hardy Boys at embracing detective story tropes. Still, they were clearly books for children, with lighter crimes and a certain adherence to family values that, to be frank, took some of the fun out of the whole murder mystery thing.
I’m happy to say that mysteries for children have grown up. Most literature targeted for young people has, leading to a renaissance in the category of fiction for young people. I know this because I taught young adults and never gave up on that genre. Thus, I had graduated from university when Ellen Raskin wrote The Westing Game, which was one of those clever books that changed the game for kids’ mysteries. Then there was M. E. Kerr, which is a pseudonym for Marijane Meaker. A writer of lesbian pulp novels and non-fiction who had a two-year relationship with author Patricia Highsmith, Meaker was drawn to young adult fiction by friend and fellow author Louise Fitzhugh. (Honestly, if you haven’t read Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret, why are you tagging along with me on this ride???)
As Kerr, Meaker infused her stories for teens with adult themes; she also wrote a trilogy of cracking good stories about a boy named Fell (no relation to Gideon), and I highly recommend Fell (1987), Fell Back (1989) and Fell Down (1991) – if you can find them anywhere. Also in the mid-1980’s before all the delicious controversy of the Dark Materials series, Philip Pullman wrote a delightful set of four books centered around young Victorian heroine Sally Lockhart. These combined my love of crime with my love of those big Dickensian novels I ate up at the time, and the Saga of Sally is full of wonderful adventures, betrayals and surprises. Pullman is an author who pulls no punches with young readers when it comes to making them experience light and dark, joy and sorrow.
Nowadays, ’m always on the lookout for great YA/kid mysteries to read. Fortunately, my friend JJ over at The Invisible Event reports on such works regularly, in a series of posts he calls “Minor Felonies.” Due to JJ’s keen eye, I have become aware of books that otherwise might have totally escaped my attention. (Most high school students don’t read books anymore.) Thanks to him, I have discovered authors as ancient as Enid Blyton and as modern as Robin Stevens. And now JJ has done it again, in spades! He recently talked reviewed two books, one from a series of mysteries for middle readers called Adventures on Trains and the other a young adult novel, the first in the Truly Devious series by Maureen Johnson. To be honest, I have way too much on my TBR pile to concern myself with these books.
I bought both. Not just one book but the entire series. Both of them.
Well, actually when it comes to Adventures on Trains, I did what JJ had not done: I started at the beginning. Writers and friends M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman (who, by the way, looks like Harry Potter all grown up) decided to band together and write four books for kids ages 10 – 14 under the blanket title Adventures in Trains, and I have bought the three that are available to me and started with the first one, The Highland Falcon Thief. This is the tale of Harrison “Hal” Beck, an eleven-year-old boy who, at the start, seems like a pretty normal kid. He lives in Crewe with his parents and is royally pissed that they decided to have another child without consulting him. (He would have preferred a puppy.) His sense of being miffed is intensified when his mom and dad ship him off to travel with his Uncle Nat, a travel journalist, on the final ride of a famed (and, sadly, fictional) steam train, The Highland Falcon.
This is to be a special trip: the train will leave London and travel to Balmoral Castle, where it will pick up the Prince and Princess (who I’m sure are fictional but sure do bear resemblance to Harry and Meghan – I’m just saying!) after which the ride becomes a Royal Tour, meaning the train slows down at every station so that the royals can greet their public. Meanwhile, a select group of friends, both of the royal family and of steam trains in general, will enjoy four days of luxury on this salute to the past, with fine sleeping compartments, gourmet food, a glass observation car . . . in short, my dream vacation!
Hal hates the idea, and one of the best things about this book is how the authors manage to combine the tropes of classic detective fiction with a realistic portrayal of a kid Hal’s age. Why would he want to hang out with his nerdy uncle? How can he enjoy being the only kid aboard a train full of stuffy, rich adults? What’s so cool about an old train?
And here’s where I feel a little sorry for JJ for starting with the third book in the series! (What were you thinking, man?) For, in addition to being a wonderful whodunnit, The Highland Falcon Thief is a fine origin story, chronicling the transformation of an insecure little boy into an accomplished sleuth and train enthusiast. It turns out, first of all, that “nerdy” Uncle Nat is one of those perfect relations we all wish we had. He loves Hal unreservedly and sees all the boys’ gifts – for thinking and for drawing – that will help him solve the crime of the mysterious Magpie, a thief who has robbed some of the poshest parties in England and now appears to be one of the passengers or crew on the train.
Nat trusts Hal explicitly, which our young hero will need as he becomes a top suspect in the rash of thefts that plague the journey. He also inspires a newfound interest in trains and train travel through his own childlike enthusiasm for the ride they’re taking together. And he’s helped here by the fact that Hal is not actually the only kid onboard: Marlene Singh, the train driver’s daughter, has stowed aboard without his permission in order to ride the Falcon one last time. Lenny and Hal become fast friends and partners in detection; best of all, Lenny gives Hal a first-hand look at the workings of the train, sparking a love for locomotion that, I am happy to say, will provide us with three more adventures for Hal and his Uncle Nat. Other trains, other crimes.
I have to say that I was so pleased with how well Leonard and Sedgman adhered to the rules of a good mystery. We have a varied closed circle of suspects in a delightful setting, a great many clues that lead to a great many false trails. Those of us reading this who are past the age of eleven might recognize these red herrings since we know a bit more about life than Hal and Lenny. But I can imagine any burgeoning mystery lover going along with these eager young sleuths, falling into certain traps and then deducing their way out of them.
I mentioned Hal’s drawing abilities, and these are brought to life by the charming drawings of Elisa Paganelli. Pay attention to them, as they provide additional clues, which gives our young sleuth a special quirk that will serve him as well as the little green cells of a certain Belgian who once rode the rails to remarkable effect. I will confess that I identified the Magpie pretty early on and figured out a great deal of his plot – but not all of it and not in any way that detracted from my great enjoyment of this book.
Best of all is the train itself. I admit to being one of those mystery readers who gets through setting descriptions as quickly as I can in order to concentrate on the plot at hand. But the train ride is half the joy of this book, and it is used to perfection in this plot. Wandering through it with the eyes and fleet feet of a child is a special joy. One of my favorite scenes in the book involves Lenny sneaking Hal to the locomotive, where they observes certain special and thrilling rituals needed to run a steam train, and then –
“’Time for second breakfast,’ Joey said, reaching for a spanner. He jimmied three balls of silver foil from behind the pipes, knocking them on to his shovel. ‘These are piping hot,’ he said, tugging back the edges of the foil.
“’Baked potatoes?’ Hall said.
“Lenny bent down by a small cupboard in the tender, taking out three tin plates and laying them on the floor for Joey to put the potatoes on. The crispy parchment skins had split and were hissing and steaming. Hal’s mouth watered as Lenny used a Swiss Army knife from her tool belt to score a deep cross in the top of each potato into which she pressed a chunk of butter.
“Mr. Singh unscrewed the clamp, grabbed a rag and – using it to protect his fingers – lifted down an open can of baked beans from the top of the boiler. The gloopy orange sauce inside bubbles and frost. ‘The boiler gets up to 1500°’,he said. ‘Pity to waste the heat.’
“”Joey took a clean shovel from the cupboard, wiped it with a cloth, opened the furnace and held it over the fire. Lenny passed him three eggs, which he cracked onto the shovel. They sizzled, their translucent innards turning white. A perfectly fried sunny egg landed beside the potatoes and beans on each plate.”
I want to eat a breakfast like that! And I can’t wait to get to Hal’s next adventure, this time in America!
*. *. *. *. *. *
With the Truly Devious trilogy, author Maureen Johnson is taking some big chances. She has crafted a complex mystery saga that presents us with two murder plots eighty years apart, linked together by an intriguing setting – a remote Vermont school for teen geniuses – and by other factors I about which I couldn’t guess. Moreover, it appears from reading the first book that Johnson is going to make us wait for the big payoff: not only don’t we get a solution to any aspect of either mystery at the end of Book I, we are left dangling in mid-air as much as any readers of serials can dangle.
This is mildly frustrating, but mostly I’m thrilled that Johnson pulled it off – with her publishers and with her public. JJ warned us about this going in; indeed, most of the reviewers on Amazon mention the fact. I’m also excited about the faith the author puts in us to follow a character- and incident-packed trilogy of murder and other ill-doings that bounces back and forth between two timelines
In modern times, we are in the company of Stevie Bell, a single-minded young woman who is sick of her average life, her average (Republican) parents, and her average high school, who in a fit of desperation applies online to the exclusive Ellingham Academy in Vermont, a private school where the students essentially chart their own educational paths with the help of an unbelievably understanding faculty. Stevie knows her path: she wants to enter the Academy and figure out the mystery that has remained unsolved since the school opened: who kidnapped the wife and baby daughter of Albert Ellingham, the wealthy founder of the school, and then murdered the wife and another student named Dottie Epstein? And what happened to the baby who was never returned?
The faculty welcomes Stevie with open arms and gives her access to previously unseen material in order to aid her in her quest. They also place her in the same residential house that Dottie Epstein lived in, where Stevie meets an eccentric and troubled group of fellow students who alone could provide enough friends, enemies and potential lovers to populate ten young adult novels. Johnson gives herself a huge task here, juggling Stevie’s attempts to navigate the mysteries of the heart with her detection into the past, as well as an evolving present-day mystery that leads to an actual murder of somebody close to our heroine.
As if that weren’t juicy enough, the story in the present alternates with chapters set in the past that chronicle the unfolding mystery surrounding Albert Ellingham’s family. These sections read like a GAD novel, set in the huge mansion that Ellingham has built for himself, populated by the remaining guests from a long weekend party as well as Albert’s loyal staff. As the crimes occur and the investigation proceeds, we start to see that everyone, living and dead, has secrets that may or may not have something to do with the kidnapping. Is it possible that the devious paths they tread have wound their way into the present? How, if at all, are the crimes of the past and those of the present connected?
While reading Truly Devious, I made a list of the characters in the book. I counted forty-six of them -some past, some present – most of whom have some significant part to play. I then read a couple of chapters of the second book, The Vanishing Stair, which introduces a whole slew of new characters. The question is: can Johnson sustain the suspense through two more books? She has so far found some interesting ways to introduce an plot point early on and then reincorporate it in surprising ways as the story proceeds. I also like Stevie, although she isn’t particularly likeable: she’s prickly and prone to put off the people who like her the most. Given that this is a mystery where it seems nobody should be trusted, I think I’ll Stevie the benefit of the doubt for now.
I will be back as soon as I finish the rest of the books in these series. I feel confident that Leonard and Sedgman will keep me vastly entertained through different crimes on different trains. Johnson has the tougher task, but I must possess some optimism because I just ordered The Box in the Woods, a stand-alone mystery set after the events in the TD Trilogy. It’s coming out in June and features Stevie Bell as she joins a friend at an old summer camp where murder once reared its ugly head.
Maybe she’ll meet Jason Voorhees.