By Naomi Leslie
When I was in seventh grade, I discovered the joys of mystery novels (or more accurately, my mother decided to pass on her own addiction by handing me Sherlock Holmes). I spent the next two or three years reading my way through every Sherlock Holmes story and every Agatha Christie novel available at my local library. Then, I went searching for fresh territory. Lowbrow and prescribed though mystery novels may be, the formula, done well, is always satisfying; what can equal the pleasure of an escapist setting, a series of well-placed and preferably misleading clues, a witty investigator, a fillip of romance, and a proper and orderly resolution?
Of course, mystery novels for adults have been popular for decades. I discovered the growing popularity of children’s mystery writing when I was thrown one summer into teaching an elementary school forensic science course&-the mere existence of the course should be a good clue to how the popularity of mysteries has spread for all ages. Now, with the expanding market in young adult literature, kids who loved watching Blue’s Clues and reading Olsen twins mysteries can satisfy their cravings while they wait to be old enough for Tony Hillerman. Following are a few recommendations.
By Paul Haven, Illustrated by Mark Zug
New York: Random House, 2009
Twelve-year-old Oliver Finch is in exile from his beloved hometown, New York City. Of course he knows that living in the Middle Eastern country of Balabad is a fantastic opportunity for his father, a foreign correspondent, and for his mother, an art historian&-but to Oliver, Balabad is dusty, hot, lonely, and desperately lacking in good pizza.
Oliver does have two friends, though: Mr. Haji, the entertaining carpet salesman, and Zee, the wealthy, British-educated aristocrat. When a valuable sacred carpet is stolen, and the prime minister of Balabad disappears, Oliver discovers that his two friends have more important ties to Balabad history than he ever knew. Not only that, they are in danger from an unscrupulous villain trying to recover the long-lost treasure of Balabad’s ancient King Agamon. Together, Oliver and his companions have to find out, not only who stole the carpet, but how to find the treasure themselves and secure it for the nation of Balabad.
With its historical background of tribal warfare and division, Balabad is meant to remind readers of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, this novel is based upon the 1978 discovery of the Golden Hoard of Bactria in Afghanistan. The setting will undoubtedly be a draw for some young readers, especially those interested in international affairs; while Haven avoids the issue of American occupation (the book is, after all, set in Balabad and not Afghanistan), he vividly recreates class and tribal conflicts. Mostly, however, readers will enjoy following along as the mystery unravels, especially as they will usually be able to stay one or two steps ahead of the characters.
By Lauren Henderson
New York: Delacorte Press, 2009
Scarlett Wakefield’s first kiss turned out to be a disaster when popular, charming Dan McAndrew had a severe allergic reaction to some peanut oil on her lips and collapsed dead at her feet, writhing and foaming.
Since then, Scarlett’s discovered a few things that have made her stop blaming herself and start searching for the person who was really responsible. How did the peanut oil get on the corn chips at the party anyway? And who stole the Epi-pen Dan always carried in his jeans pocket? Scarlett is determined to clear her name and to rid herself of trauma so that she can be free to kiss her new crush without fear. With the help of her tough future detective friend, Taylor, Scarlett heads to Dan’s family castle in Scotland to see what clues she can discover.
This novel is a sequel to Kiss Me Kill Me (the book in which the deadly kiss actually takes place), but it stands on its own as a fast-paced, entertaining teen mystery. Henderson is an author of the temptingly named subgenre known as tart noir mysteries. Kisses and Lies is slightly more tart than noir, but its combination of swanky British prep-school sophistication and teen mean-girl intrigue make it an irresistible vehicle for a few hours’ escapism. Teen readers will enjoy every bit of it: the romance, the friendship politics, the dirty secrets of the rich and fabulous, and, of course, the possible unknown murderer waiting around every corner of the castle.
By Philip Pullman
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985
Sixteen-year-old Sally Lockhart has always lived with her father, a retired army officer who has made sure she can ride, shoot, and add up accounts as well as any man in Victorian London. It has never occurred to Sally that she has had an unusual upbringing, and certainly she has never imagined life without her loving father. But now that her father has vanished in a mysterious shipwreck, she discovers that his business turns out to be in much worse shape than anyone had suspected, and also finds that her unusual accomplishments do not endear her to her conventional aunt. However, some anonymous friends of Sally’s seem to suspect a great deal of foul play, and her good aim and head for business turn out to be useful as she sets off on a quest to solve the mystery of what really happened to her father and his company. In her adventures, Sally learns about the dark secrets of the opium trade, tracks down retired officers involved in the Indian Rebellion of the 1850s, and joins forces with a friendly photographer and his actress sister.
For those teens who like their escape reading leavened with a bit of historical critique and social conscience, Sally’s gender-bending exploits in imperialistic, industrialized Victorian England will both entertain and inform. Throughout the four-novel series, Sally not only discovers rigid gender mores, she also learns about terrible labor conditions, exploitation of Jewish immigrants, and the burgeoning international Socialist movement. Pullman, who is most well known for the fantasy series His Dark Materials. retains his signature dark outlook and sharp sense of social critique when writing mysteries (I should note that for Pullman fans of all ages, this is a definite plus). The biting historical commentary does nothing to detract from the action-packed plots and intrigue of Ruby in the Smoke and its sequels; opium-hazed visions, dangerous seductions, and backstreet fistfights, staples of the mystery genre, are, after all, best enjoyed in the vicarious pursuit of justice. As always, Pullman’s prose tends to be fairly sophisticated, but teens who have already enjoyed His Dark Materials are unlikely to be fazed.
Don’t Forget the Oldies But Goodies
Although I opened this review with reference to the two authors responsible for my current depraved devotion to mystery novels, they bear another mention. Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and Agatha Christie, dame of the British mystery novel, may have written for adults; but until the recent expansion of novels written for teens, young adults avidly read and enjoyed these books. Contrary to popular opinion, a book does not have to be filled with hipper-than-thou slang for a teen reader to understand and enjoy it. Doyle may have written at the turn of the twentieth century, but his prose is eminently readable by many middle and high school age students, as is Christie’s. There is a reason why a new Sherlock Holmes movie comes out every generation, and why PBS keeps searching for new Miss Marple for its Masterpiece Theater series; it’s because Doyle and Christie wrote fantastically entertaining stories that readers, and viewers, still love. We are fortunate to have an embarrassment of riches&-mystery novels of all kinds and for all ages&-but your teens can handle old favorites, even ones that predated the existence of the teen publishing market.