Each month I’m picking a topic or a theme for my Tuesday posts, and for November — inspired by my recent discovery of The Three Investigators, Robin Stevens, and the excellent Mystery & Mayhemcollection — it’s going to be detective novels for younger readers. I have what I hope will be four very different books lined up, starting with this impossible disappearance.
The setup is classically simple: a man walks into a room with only one exit, which is under constant observation, and when someone else enters the room several hours later he has vanished. How’s that exit observed for several hours? Well, by security camera, of course. And so the only conceivable way out is if he finally perfected the invisibility technology he was working on…wait, what? Cue a number-obsessed twelve year-old girl recently flushed with success from a squirrel-finding case — she wasn’t looking for squirrels, but squirrels is what she found — and you’re ready to go. And, honestly, this whole thing is a lot of fun.
I presume — possibly wrongly — that my readership is comprised primarily of adults blessed with a certain amount of life-won cynicism, all of which makes this focus on literature for little folk something akin to blog suicide now I come to think about it. Oh, well, it’s too late to back out now. See, this book is not written for you; you’ll get the central trick, I’m sure, and possibly not buy fully into the family drama that surrounds it, but that’s not to say you won’t be able to enjoy it. Because it is very, very good, and augurs well for the standard and type of detective fiction currently available to young minds that will prepare them superbly for the sort of joys that lie ahead from the masters of the genre. And seeing someone do that is kind of wonderful.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways….
Rubin’s tone is note-perfect, particularly in the realisation of the slightly-askew Alice. Nothing is ever explicitly stated, but her obsession with numbers and counting, and the faint reluctance with which she faces the real world outside of Goldbach’s Conjecture, hints at an aspect of autism in her personality that is all the better for never being directly addressed. She’s no genius, she just loves a puzzle and has an insight into rigour that sets her apart:
The problem was, all anyone had seen was the tape of Dr Learner disappearing from a locked room, and they had jumped to conclusions before learning all the facts. It was sloppy, bad logic and it made my skin itch.
There’s perhaps a little too much life-won weariness and adulthood in her to quite ring true — the coffee fixation, using phrases like “what I knew didn’t even amount to a hill of beans” — but the younger, aspirational audience this is aimed at will undoubtedly eat this up. And there are some beautiful turns of phrase (“I could see dreams of insider access coming off my father in concentric rings”) mixed with enough humour to more than win through:
Sammy stood in the doorway wearing a maroon paisley dressing gown with satin lapels. He looked like he’d walked straight out of a Sherlock Holmes novel.
A certain suspension of disbelief may be required to accept the hiring of a 12 year-old to look into the crime, if crime there was, but in fairness this is no more ridiculous than Richard Queen allowing his son to wander into and all over crime scenes, or a lexicographer compiling a magnum opus on drinking customs ending up involved in crime of a peculiarly fiendish complexity. Actually, the in-universe explanation given is pretty good all told, as is the justification used for her father to be more than happy for her to get involved, but, dude, it’s fiction and we try our hardest not to get hung up on these trifles. Do you wanna watch a baffling crime being unpicked, or do you wanna spend 300 pages with 12 year-olds being kept out of everything and sulking about it in their bedrooms?
Where Rubin really flies, though, is in what would ordinarily be called “clewing” on this blog, but which I will instead here call “preparation”. There are several key moments throughout that rely on a very specific set of facts being known to the reader, and each time you’ve been set up perfectly — I’d hate to give anything away, because a lot of it is so deftly done, but the moment where it is necessary to cut some tape…it’s been staring you in the face perfectly for a few pages, and pays off effortlessly. Equally, one logical connection is made by the use of information that is easy to overlook but carries real heft because of how slyly it was delivered. They’re not really clues, not in the traditional sense, but they do justify certain connections or admit certain actions, and it’s done with a level of skill that it would be unfair to overlook. This is very high quality writing, make no mistake.
However. The elephant in the room.
I think it’s fair to say that the working of the disappearance is not without problems. It probably, if your squint and tilt your head a little to the right, probably just about works, but there’s not quite the necessary explicit reference to a couple of things — one of them rather key — to leave you completely convinced. But that’s you, my cynical adult audience, I’m referring to here. Rubin isn’t quite short-changing her target market with what it offered up, and as a first foray into this kind of thing it’s a perfectly workable introduction at rationalising away the irrational — it shows up the falsity of misled reasoning, and opens up all sorts of chances for consideration of such things, and would prove a grand jumping off point for someone of the appropriate age who then wanted to delve further into these things.
Thankfully, the marvellous work done prior to all this isn’t spoiled by a slightly underwarm finish because, honestly, the final few developments — like the why behind the how — are genuinely quite moving. It’s not going to destroy anyone’s world, but it tugs a little at your heart in some of the things that unfold — and not always in a sad way either; indeed, one of the closing similes is really rather beautiful. So if not quite for the cynical old fogies out there, it’s something of a treat for the pre-teen who needs a shove to discover the delights of detective d…fiction. Twenty years from now, they’ll appreciate it all the more, too.
The Alice Jones novels by Sarah Rubin:
1. The Impossible Clue (2016)
2. The Ghost Light (2017)