The mere existence of The Guggenheim Mystery is almost a piece of mystery metafiction in itself: the title was discovered among Siobhan Dowd’s papers following her untimely death in 2007, implying its intention as the follow-up to her impossible disappearance novel for younger readers, The London Eye Mystery (2007)…but no more was known. It fell to Robin Stevens to puzzle out a plot from these waifish beginnings and so continue the adventures of Ted Spark, his sister Kat, and their cousin Salim. So here we are — a painting disappears from the eponymous art gallery, the police jump on the most likely suspect, and it falls to this intrepid trio to hunt out the truth, recover the painting, and save the day.
It’s been a number of years since I read The London Eye Mystery (believe it or not, I had a life before I started blogging) but it’s telling how quickly the style and shape of that book came flooding back to me as I read the opening pages of this. Ted Spark is a very special type of protagonist — it is heavily implied that he is markedly autistic — in that his very literal nature almost tips over into making him unreliable at times, though never in terms of the events described. Instead, it’s the difficulty he has in relating to people that provides much of the equivocation, which is central to Dowd’s book and something Stevens captures beautifully here. Sure, she’s also crafting her very own mystery plot, but the footprints around her own are faithfully and respectfully captured.
It is very much a book of thirds. The first builds up the setting, situation, characters, crime, and central mystery. The second establishes a lot of fixed principles — the crime and its commission is very much an understood thing here, seen as having a clear progression and shape that is repeated so that there’s no doubt what went on — and then the third, from a detective perspective, is where the real fun begins. That second third having established a few guaranteed concepts, they’re suddenly blown away as idea follows insinuation chases deduction tumbles after false solution in a dizzying race to the truth. The gleeful upending of certain facts accepted and drummed into the reader is one of the joys of this genre, and Stevens is clearly having a ball in all the possible interpretations she can put on the information gathered to that point.
As with her Murder Most Unladylike books, there’s also a great sense of these teenagers as actual, y’know, teenagers. The whole “youths solve a crime where the adults fail” subgenre is always going to be a little twee as there must by necessity be an element of taking a lot of what is said at face value to further the plot. But there’s a lot of acknowledgement here of the flaws in faulty reasoning, and of young minds leaping at the wrong conclusion, that stops this simply being three precocious Mary Sues having a wonderful time. And, as mentioned above, that reasoning applies as much to Ted figuring out the people around him as it does the clues and events they’re unpicking. One of my favourite moments is where Ted, wondering why Kat and Salim have barely acknowledged him since his arrival in New York, suddenly finds out that they’ve been wondering the same thing about him; there’s a great sense of having to learn how to be a person here that a lot of novels about Young People can miss.
But, of course, we’re generally here for the disporting in the fields of fictional crime, and so you’ll want to know about the mystery. The structure mentioned above, undoubtedly the result of the intended younger readership, may seem to drag at times for we older minds, but there are some excellent nuggets along the way, including one absolute doozy of a clue I’m probably never going to forgive myself for missing. If you’re an adult and you’ve read a lot of this kind of thing you’ll probably pick the who, but the how of the vanishing painting is where Stevens really lets fly, clearly having a ball at being able to invent so many different solutions and then shoot them down one by one. Yes, it is simplified, it has to be, but within that simplicity there’s also great preparation of the complexities of the genre that it is to be hoped the intended audience of this go on to discover:
It’s true that most people only see things when they aren’t normal. They can walk down a street and not see that there are ten men and twelve women and five children on it, and that the third building along has three windows on the first floor and a tree in front of it that sticks out of the pavement one metre from the shop front and is encircled by twenty-seven thin grey bricks. They only notice when something is odd or out of place, like someone wearing a flamingo hat.
So, all told, we have here a legit reason to complain that Young People Today Have It Better Than We Did At Their Age, because the quality of this as an entry into detective fiction can’t be denied. I’m off the scour websites in the hope of finding other authors doing this kind of thing this well, and if you’re between the ages of, say, 7 and 14 then you really don’t know how lucky you are!
13 thoughts on “#288: The Guggenheim Mystery (2017) by Robin Stevens”
Thanks JJ for the review. 🙂 As a YA novel it sounds like a genuinely worthwhile read in the vein of the golden-age tradition. Would it be a worthwhile read for adults too…?
I, as a borderline admissible adult, really enjoyed it — the four star rating above it your proof of that. Seeing someone working so assiduously in this genre is always worthwhile…!
A friend of mine was asking for recommendations for mysteries for a friend’s daughter who loves the Unladylike series (I really should try one of these!) I have passed on your recommendation of this to her! I’m with John . . . should I read this? Or should I wait . . . until you have read Ellen Raskin?????
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Oh, dude, I am on the ne plus ultra of book-buying embargoes at the moment. My TBR is insane. I shall make Ellen Raskin’s acquaintance, I promise, but not this calendar year. Well, maybe this calendar year. Term has already slowed my reading to a crawl — I finished this this morning and then had to type to review super-quick to meet my own deadline — and not until I shave a good fifth of the Pile of Death am I even contemplating buying anything else. Certain people in my life would not forgive me otherwise…
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I totally sympathize! It now takes me anywhere between three weeks and six months to finish ONE book, what with the work schedule and pressures I keep. Meanwhile, my own pile keeps growing and growing and . . . I get it! You and I are sitting on pretty massive piles!
The worst thing about it is that I’m having difficulty getting through books that I don’t love. Case in point: The Punch and Judy Murders. I’m having trouble getting into it, and I’m 100 pages through. But Carr isn’t an author I like to give up on, nor is he someone I can skim. Plus, I’ve already started the blog post on this one. But this is what work can do to you!
So relax. You’ll get to Westin one of these days. She’s worth it and a lot of fun!
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By the way . . . can you explain to me how Kate is managing a different review every damn day?!?
There are five of her. The whole thing is a massive scam. Something to do with getting citizenship or something, I wasn’t paying attention when she told me. Whatever it was, she required my bank details.
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“There are five of her”
The same plot idea is used in a French mystery, where there are three of them. I will not mention even the author, as it may be a spoiler.
You sure know how to tempt someone into adding another title to his already bloated, ever-expanding wish list, but The London Eye Mystery has priority on that list. Purely for chronological reason, you understand. 😉
“I’m off the scour websites in the hope of finding other authors doing this kind of thing this well.”
Have you been able to find any copies of Bruce Campbell’s Ken Holt mysteries or William Arden’s The Mystery of the Shrinking House? They’re not exactly contemporary juvenile mysteries, but they’re exactly what you’re looking for.
My investigations into the Campbell books came to a swift halt when I saw how damn expensive they can be; I’ll need to rely a little more on luck there, methinks, and I’m in no rush to add to my own TBR at present.
The Arden I’ll possibly buy in chronology when I get that far along…we shall see how enthusiastic I’m feeling about the Three investigators once I’m six or seven books in. Hopefully they’ll still be a load of fun, but it never pays to get too far ahead of yourself in this game… 🙂
TomCat – How is Ken Holt different from the Hardy Boys?
No idea. I’ve never read the Hardy Boys and only recently came across the Ken Holt series, but, from what I know of both, I suppose the Ken Holt stories are far more mature in tone with stronger, puzzle-oriented plots resembling the detective stories from the Golden Age. But keep in mind this based solely on having read one Ken Holt novel and secondhand information about both series.
Your enthusiastic description and that excellent quote are definitely making this appeal – despite a vastand growing list of books that are demanding to be read simultaneously (if I get a superpower – it could happen – this is on my list). But, hey, I have two nieces and they need more quality detection in their lives. And then I can steal this off them later.
This also prompted me to wonder if Emil the Detective is as good as I remember. Must look it out again to check.
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