Meandering Through Middle Grade: The Guggenheim Mystery…

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What an interesting offering I have for you today!  I first encountered The London Eye Mystery by the late Siobhan Dowd back in 2008, a year or so after its release.  The story features Ted, a lad on the Autistic Spectrum, whose cousin Salim goes missing from one of the pods on the London Eye.  It is a brilliant locked room mystery story for middle grade and YA readers with an interesting narrator and compelling mystery.  Sadly, Siobhan Dowd, who was also the author with the original idea for David Almond’s excellent, now-turned-into-a-film book A Monster Calls, passed away from cancer in 2007 and it seemed that Ted and his mystery-solving prowess would be forever confined to a single tale.

Enter Robin Stevens, the author of brilliant historical schoolgirl detective series Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries, and Ted has been given a new lease on life.  Stevens was brought in to continue Siobhan’s story and with only a title to work from – The Guggenheim Mystery – she was thrust into the breach.  We received our copy from Netgalley for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

My name is Ted Spark. I am 12 years and 281 days old. I have seven friends.

Three months ago, I solved the mystery of how my cousin Salim disappeared from a pod on the London Eye.

This is the story of my second mystery.

This summer, I went on holiday to New York, to visit Aunt Gloria and Salim. While I was there, a painting was stolen from the Guggenheim Museum, where Aunt Gloria works.

Everyone was very worried and upset. I did not see what the problem was. I do not see the point of paintings, even if they are worth £9.8 million. Perhaps that’s because of my very unusual brain, which works on a different operating system to everyone else’s.

But then Aunt Gloria was blamed for the theft – and Aunt Gloria is family. And I realised just how important it was to find the painting, and discover who really had taken it. 

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It has to be said that Stevens was a great choice for carrying on Ted’s story, because she can work a mystery like nobody’s business.  Even though it had been years since I had read Ted’s story (and I think I read it twice in quick succession at the time), Ted’s style of narration was immediately recognisable and I quickly remembered the atmosphere of The London Eye Mystery.  Stevens has done a wonderful job of recreating Dowd’s characterisation of Ted, but there is a definite Stevens stamp on the construction of the mystery.

Being out of his everyday context, Ted at first struggles with the mysteries of human relationships, as his cousin Salim and sister Kat seem to be shutting him out for reasons that aren’t clear to Ted.  The early chapters of the book are coloured in part by Ted’s feeling of loneliness as he sees his two closest companions moving on without him.  Once the mystery of the stolen painting kicks off however, and it is clear that Aunt Gloria is being framed (pun intended?), the relationship rifts are quickly healed and Ted even attempts to look at his family’s behaviour from a different viewpoint.

The mystery part of the story felt very much like Steven’s Murder Most Unladylike setups, and it was clear that the theft and its various elements – the timing, the smoke bombs, the suspects – had been tightly plotted.  I did find that this story lacked the emotional connection that was so heightened in The London Eye Mystery – and is present in most of Dowd’s work – but I suspect that was only because this particular mystery dealt with a stolen painting rather than a missing child.  Given that the stakes were not quite as high in this particular story – the loss of the painting not being as emotionally charged as the potential loss or death of an actual person – I enjoyed the story but wasn’t blown away by it.

I think it must be said that Stevens has done a worthy job here of recreating a memorable character in a new setting with nothing more than a title to go on.  It would be interesting to see if this series will be developed further and whether that emotional element from the first story can be reinvented down the line.

If you haven’t read The London Eye Mystery, you should really seek it out.  If you have, you really ought to check out this next offering and see how you think it stands up.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Monday is for Murder: First Class Murder (+ a little extra!)

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It’s Monday, so it’s murder time and today I am catching up on a series I just love to bits. I’ve also got a little extra today, with a short story from the same series.  First Class Murder is book three in Robin Stevens’ wildly popular Wells & Wong series for younger readers that harks back to the golden age of British murder mystery fiction.  I am desperately trying to keep pace with the series, but am still one book behind (soon to be two, as Mistletoe and Murder is to be released before Christmas in a fetching and festive red cover!!).  Let’s battle on then, with the blurb from Goodreads:

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are taking a holiday through Europe on the world-famous Orient Express. From the moment the girls step aboard, it’s clear that each of their fellow first-class passengers has something to hide. Even more intriguing: rumour has it that there is a spy in their midst.

Then, during dinner, there is a bloodcurdling scream from inside one of the cabins. When the door is broken down, a passenger is found murdered, her stunning ruby necklace gone. But the killer is nowhere to be seen – almost as if they had vanished into thin air.

Daisy and Hazel are faced with their first ever locked-room mystery – and with competition from several other sleuths, who are just as determined to crack the case as they are.

first class murder

Plot Summary:

First Class Murder is a tribute to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, not a retelling for juniors, so while there will be familiar aspects – the unexpected stoppage, for example – don’t expect the story to unfold in exactly the same fashion.  The girls find themselves on the train and under the ever-watchful eye of Hazel’s father; the grown-ups seem to think that the girls have got themselves into enough mischief and danger to be going on with and a change of scenery and civilised society should do them a world of good.  Even before the murder happens, Daisy is determined to scent adventure, and after the incident Daisy and Hazel must employ all of their wits and cunning to continue detecting under the nose of a variety of meddling adults.

The Usual Suspects:

There’s a real collection of weirdos colourful characters on the train, including an elderly and angry Russian Countess, a writer of appalling crime novels, a spiritual medium, a world famous magician, a purveyor of diet pills, a wealthy heiress and a familiar face in unfamiliar clothing.  All of them have a motive for murdering the poor unfortunate victim and all seem to have skills that could lend themselves to a classic, locked room mystery!

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

The detecting aspect of the case has an added element of fun in this book because the girls have been expressly forbidden to engage in any detection by not one, but two, authoritative figures after the murder takes place.  This means that a lot of listening at doors and hiding under tables is required in order to get the juicy clues.  The prospect of competition is raised too, as the bumbling Doctor Sandwich and his much cleverer sidekick Alexander, are officially “on the case”.  There are some red herrings left lying about in plain sight as well as a few hints that clever clogs should pick up on fairly early on, but the entire puzzle should remain a mystery until the reveal.

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for the cheering prospect of being murdered in first class luxury

First Class Murder felt like the most fun of the three books I have read of this series.  There’s the light-hearted feeling of adventure from going on an unexpected holiday, the vaguely amusing collection of characters on the train and the lengths to which Daisy and Hazel must go to ferret out the murderer/s.  I particularly enjoyed the introduction of Alexander and the mention of the Junior Pinkertons, as I think the girls can handle a little competition and this sets things up nicely for later books in the series.  It was also a wonderful twist that the book doesn’t just become a retelling of Murder on the Orient Express, because it means that the reveal isn’t a given for anyone who has read that other classic story first.  Overall, this was an excellent, slightly quirky addition to the series and I can’t wait to back up with book four, Jolly Foul Play.

I’m submitting this book under category seven of The Title Fight Reading Challenge: a book with a word or phrase implying victory in the title.  Only one more category to go to complete this challenge! To find out more about the challenge (and join in – there’s still plenty of time!) just click on this large attractive button:

Title Fight Button 2016

Now I told you there’d be a little extra on this post, so I will now mini-review The Case of the Blue Violet by Robin Stevens.  It’s a little ebook novella – book three-and-a-half in the series, if you will – featuring Daisy and Hazel back at school at Deepdean.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

I am the Honourable Daisy Wells, President of the Detective Society, one of the greatest detectives ever known – and also a fourth former at Deepdean School for Girls.

Violet Darby – one of the Big Girls – recently asked me to solve a most puzzling romantic mystery. I knew I’d be able to crack the case, and I did, in just a day and a half. It was one of my greatest triumphs (Hazel Wong, my Vice-President and best friend, is telling me that this is boasting, but it is also the truth). Hazel didn’t believe I would have the patience to write the account of it, but of course, she was wrong. I did write it down, and it came out very well.

I now, therefore, present to you: the Case of the Blue Violet.

blue violet

This novella can be knocked over in under half an hour if you’re quick and is the perfect teaser for when you are in-between the novels.  There’s no murder in this one, but instead a mystery relating to the love interest of an older girl at Deepdean.  I won’t say much about the plot because, this being such a short story, I would give too much away, but the puzzle is just as satisfying to solve as the more complex ones found in the novels.  Keen-eyed readers may have an inkling as to which way the wind is blowing here, but the brevity of the story means it’s loaded with fun and the pace is quick.  I’d definitely recommend this as a perfect pick for when you need a brain-break, or as a great taster for the series as a whole.

Until next time,

Bruce