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!