KRIMES FOR KIDS: The Curse of the Middle Child

Earlier this spring, I read the first book in not one but two series of mystery novels for kids, thanks to the diligence of my buddy JJ who spends a significant amount of time over at The Invisible Event digging up juvenile gold in the mystery genre. You can catch up to my initial thoughts here, but if you’re pressed for time, one of the series, perfect for middle readers, was Adventures in Trains by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, while the other was the more complex and (young) adult Truly Devious trilogy by Maureen Johnson. 

I decided to return to both of these, and I did so with some trepidation. When you’re dealing with a trilogy, the “middle child” syndrome tends to pop up. The second book in a trilogy must do so many things well: it exists to bridge the beginning and ending and yet it must be a good story on its own in order to pass muster. The Two Towers picks up after the joys of The Fellowship of the Ring and contains two major betrayals and, I think, a big battle; honestly, I can’t remember much of what happens there. The second volume of the Hunger Games, pretty much repeats the patterns of the first, only with different death traps. Honestly, the only time I can remember the middle book being the best one was in the first Star Wars trilogy, and that, as you are well aware, was not a book at all . . . 

Anyway, here we are again, exploring the second book in the Trains series – which turns out not to be a trilogy at all as a fourth and fifth book have been announced (more on that below) – and the middle book in the Truly Devious trilogy – which indeed is a trilogy, although a fourth, stand-alone, mystery featuring the same protagonist will be released in the fall. (So, spoiler alert, I guess she survives the trilogy.)

To write about both of these together is to invite comparisons. This proved easier the first time around because, after reading both books, it turns out we are dealing with very different animals . . .

*.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *

Look. I know it’s not normal for children to help solve crimes, but we’re going to be in Emeryville in a few hours. Do you want to be the police officer that didn’t listen to a kid and let the people involved in the Reza kidnapping get away?” 

So says Harrison “Hal” Beck, the detective-hero who solved his first railway crime on a fabulous British steam train in The Highland Falcon Thief and now returns to accompany his Uncle Nat on a ride across America aboard an Amtrak Silver Bullet in Kidnap on the California Coast. The Hal we meet here is a far cry from our first meeting: for one thing, he solved his first crime at the ripe old age of eleven-and-three-quarters, and now he’s fully twelve and as much in love with trains as his journalist uncle. 

On bis first trip, Hal exposed a jewel thief that had been victimizing the upper class for some time. Everything about that case was imbued with elements of Golden Age detective fiction: a gallery of interesting suspects, well-placed clues, even a gathering in the library (yes, that train had a library!) at the end where Hal laid out his denouement, practically twirling his great moustaches as he did so. As we can’t help but be aware by the title, this second case involves a kidnapping – of a child! – and the nature of such a crime can’t help but ramp up the emotional distress placed on Hal. This causes some havoc in the relationship he has with his uncle, so the stakes this time seem even higher. 

As a birthday present, Uncle Nat has invited Hal to fly to the U.S. (Hal finds his first transatlantic flight far less impressive than a train ride!) and accompany him on a trip aboard the California Comet so that Nat can cover a press conference given by August Reza, a tech entrepreneur who’s like a cross between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates: fabulously wealthy, a bit mysterious, and dedicated to figuring out ways for technology to improve our lives. He has pulled his beautiful young daughter, Marianne, who is Hal’s age, out of boarding school in France to accompany him, and Reza is so rich that he has his own train car, “The Silver Scout”, an antique which has been fabulously decked out and attached to the Comet for this trip. (In the authors’ afterward, we learn that really rich people can do this when they want to – except that most of them choose to fly around in their private luxury jets instead.)

On the Highland Falcon, Hal had complained about being the only kid – until he found a friend in the stowaway daughter of the train’s engineer. Here, there are kids a-plenty, and they are a marvelous bunch. First off is Marianne Reza herself, as dedicated to drawing as Hal is but also willful and less excited about living the life of a billionaire than one might expect. Then there are the Morettis, Hadley and Mason, a brother and sister accompanying their dad, a professional comic, to his latest gig in Reno. Mason is a budding impressionist and Hadley a magician – and if you don’t think their skills will come in handy as the case unfolds, then you are reading the wrong genre, my friend!

Hal’s skill as an artist gives him insights into the case: like Poirot’s little grey cells, they make him attuned to trouble ahead and observant of significant actions and objects. (The illustrations of these drawings and of the characters, again by Elisa Paganelli, are delightful and genuinely helpful to budding armchair detectives). Before the train even embarks from Union Station in Chicago, bound for Emeryville in the California Bay Area (that’s where I live!) Hal is sketching the various people who will make up the suspect pool, and he is on the scene when, in a daring moment during the trip, a child is snatched in front of everyone. 

Once again, the authors have come up with a winning combination of classic crime and kid’s adventure. I’ll confess that kidnapping is one of my least favorite in the pantheon of crime, and the monster behind this particular snatch seemed a little obvious to me. (Since I’m about ninety years older than the target audience, I don’t think this should bother anyone if they’re buying this book for a junior mystery lover.) The true delight here is the partnership between Hal and the Morettis and the increasing strain Hal feels about his uncle (which resolves itself beautifully, thank God, so that they can keep going on train rides.) We also get a stirring description of the cross-country ride aboard this modern train. (Sam Sedgman made the sacrifice of dragging his partner over to America and taking the comparable trip as “research,” and it certainly pays off for us readers.) 

With each case Hal solves, his reputation grows, leading to an expansion in the places he goes and the people he meets. I cannot wait to dive into the third book in the series, Murder on the Safari Star, which is set in Africa and finally pits a little boy and his delightful uncle against an actual killer! And, as promised, I’m excited to tell you that Leonard and Sedgman have announced a fourth Hal Beck mystery/adventure, Danger at Dead Man’s Pass, set in Germany and coming out this fall . . . and an as-yet-unnamed fifth adventure taking place in Australia and coming out next February! 

Personally, by then I hope to have met and become BFFs with the authors so that I can accompany them on the inevitable ride aboard the Orient Express. I mean – come on! It has to happen!

*.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *

There is a principle often discussed in murder mysteries. Agatha Christie even wrote a book with the title: Murder Is Easy. The idea is that the first time is the hardest, but once you transgress that barrier, once you take a life and get away with it, it becomes progressively easier each time.”

I include this quote from Truly Devious, the first book in Maureen Johnson’s trilogy, to hammer home my beliefe that if you drop Christie’s name into your book – or Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes, both of whom are mentioned here more than once – you are going to associate your work with a certain genre, the whodunnit. (You should also get your reference right. Johnson got the reference wrong. Sure, she might have been trying to combine a Christie title with a completely unrelated idea, but it’s also possible that she either forgot the actual meaning of the Christie title – that murder is easy when you are a person considered by everyone to be beyond suspicion – or she has not read it. )

And don’t get me wrong: Johnson has worked hard to craft a double whodunnit, one set in the present and one in the past. But she’s also a modern YA author, so she has to provide a lot of other things, too, like teen angst and teen romance and teen troubles. That is the way with modern authors, of the young and not-so-young adult variety, and it can sometimes lead to bloat. I have learned the hard way that excessive page count does not always improve matters, at least in a whodunnit. Yet, despite all the classic crime references and the setting of the past murders in the Golden Age of 1936, Johnson is clearly aiming for something . . . bigger. And this turns out to hold both disappointments and promise, at least to this classic mystery lover who also reads young adult fiction on a regular basis.

Truly Devious introduced us to Stevie Bell, a teenager obsessed with true crime and with one unsolved case in particular, that of the kidnapping/murder of Iris Ellingham, wife of 1930’s millionaire Albert Ellingham, and student Dottie Epstein, on the grounds of his private school in the Vermont mountains. The culprit or culprits also spirited away Ellingham’s baby daughter Alice, and she was never seen again. Stevie applies to the exclusive Ellingham Academy and declares as her “major” the solving of this crime! To her surprise, she is accepted and enters into a world of eccentric geniuses and moody, young men, all of them gorgeous in a different way. One of these studs dies while Stevie is helping him make a student film about the Ellingham tragedy, and soon after that another housemate of Stevie’s disappears. At the end of book one, Stevie’s parents drive up to the campus and whisk her back to the safe mediocrity of public high school. 

Complicating the narrative in the best way is that Johnson inserts chapters set in 1936 – 8 which chronicle the triple tragedy and its aftermath. We meet the small circle of people in Ellingham’s household at the time and then, through newspaper clips and transcripts of FBI interviews, we piece together the unsuccessful investigation. Other revelations are made – in both time frames – but the major risk author Johnson takes is to leave us mystery lovers hanging, without any sort of solution, until the next book. How would Book Two, The Vanishing Stair, fare? Would it keep chugging along, like Adventures in Trains, or would it go off the rails? 

Turns out that it doesn’t do either. The problem is that, for far too long into the book, it doesn’t do much of anything . . . 

Stevie’s immediate problem, that of being pulled back into her parents’ world, is resolved immediately, and when she arrives back at the Academy, the large cast of characters we met in Book One (I made a list of forty-six names) basically give Stevie a hug and then return to their business. Most of the major characters from the first part make cameo appearances here. Only David, the hottest of the hot roommates (and arguably the most troubled) has interactions of consequence with our heroine – and yet these are few and far between. Halfway through the book, Stevie is offered an internship with Dr. Irene Fenton, a professor at UV Burlington, whose book Truly Devious: The Ellingham Murders is considered one of the foremost texts about the case, and things start to pick up . . . a little. Fenton is an interesting character, a woman who has achieved a fame of sorts for one thing and appears to have been warped by that achievement. She also has a nephew, Hunter, a university student who – shades of Twilight – is also hot in his own way and interested in Stevie. 

As it turns out, we’re not in romantic triangle territory here. We do get a lot of the hot-and-freezing relationship between Stevie and David. Stevie does a lot of research, and she does find her missing friend and solve one of the major mysteries set up in the first book. And here is where Maureen Johnson performs an act of betrayal to me, the classic mystery reader, by not following the correct protocols of how a detective solves crimes. Heck, lady, the kid on the train was perfect at it, tracking down clues and piecing them together before our eyes. Here, Johnson hands Stevie the answer with two pieces of information that make everything clear. You know that moment when Poirot picks up a button and his eyes go green and he says, “Voila! Hastings, I know everything now.” Imagine how that scene would go down if Poirot had picked up a note that says “Cousin George is the killer!” That’s basically what happens to Stevie.

We also get far less of the past here. A couple of potentially interesting characters are introduced at the start but are then all but dropped from the story, and we get a nice confrontation scene toward the end. Johnson knows how to write scenes, but too much of this book leaves us stuck in Stevie’s frustrated head. 

There’s a nicely nasty drop at the very end that will send me reading the final book, The Hand on the Wall, at some point in the semi-near future, now that I really know what kind of story I’m dealing with. But I can’t help thinking that The Vanishing Stair felt too much like padding. Two books, maybe, but three? I’m not convinced that any whodunnit needs to be packaged in a trilogy, even if it gets Stevie through school and helps her find a career and a boyfriend.

Meanwhile, I will be back with more Krimes for Kids. The third Adventures in Trains awaits, and I think I have found the perfect book (by a different author) to pair it with. All aboard . . . . . . . . . 

One thought on “KRIMES FOR KIDS: The Curse of the Middle Child

  1. I’m looking forward to diving into more by Leonard and Sedgman — they seem like they’ve worked out how to do this sort of thing well, and I’m exctied to see where the earlier (and later) books go with the premise.

    As for The Vanishing Stair…meh. I started it thrice, and it’s not doing anything for me. I admire your optimism that the series could stretch even to a brace: givne how little is resolved in the first, and how little seems to have happened in the second, I get the impression it was a single book p-a-d-d-e-d out to maximum revenue, I, er mean…yeah, no, it’s a units thing and nowt more.

    Like

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