Tuesdays in March were dedicated to YA detective fiction from the Golden Age — just here on this blog, I mean, you didn’t miss a memo or anything — and Tuesdays in May will be YA detective fiction from the 21st century. First up are Tanya Landman’s first two Poppy Fields novels, Mondays Are Murder and Dead Funny (both 2009).
Why the first two? Well, they’re pretty short — 101 and 115 pages respectively — and in all honesty I finished the first and immediately wanted to read more, so picked up the second straight away (always a good sign). If I had to guess, I’d say these are probably aimed at the 8 to 12 year-old market (I assume that’s a thing), and as such are able to fixate on the plot without it seeming weird that they avoid larger issues of “older” books. I absolutely commend the role literature plays in helping people, young or otherwise, make sense of the world around them, but it’s also nice that sometimes a novel about a couple of 11 year-olds solving a murder can just be about a couple of 11 year-olds solving a murder.
Not that Poppy and her partner in crime-solving Graham aren’t without their problems, but it’s refreshing to see Poppy’s anti-social attitude and Graham’s facts-and-figures nerdiness played as strengths that make them good at what they do rather than weaknesses that they’re good at what they do in spite of (yeah, that sentence is ungrammatical, live with it):
At weekends I know exactly how to brush my hair and precisely which clothes to wear to remain unseen. I’ve got a wardrobe full of uninteresting garments in indeterminate shades of blue and grey that get me through most situations totally unobserved.
It’s not because I’m shy, it’s because I’m fascinated by other people. My mum says I study their behaviour with the same curiosity that a scientist gives to the inner workings of a termite colony. She’s probably right. To pursue my hobby I’ve learned to camouflage myself. No one ever notices Poppy Fields.
These first two books each take an archetypal classic detective setup — respectively, We’re On An Island And Someone Is Killing Us and We’re In A Country House And Someone Is Killing Us — and spin out very good junior murder mysteries with some legitimate clewing and some nice misdirection…in short, doing exactly what a novel of murder and detection should do. And Poppy and Graham make a pleasingly entertaining central duo, with Poppy’s narrative voice very difficult indeed not to warm to:
I suppose we were sheltered from the full force of the wind by the hills. They were purple — covered in heather, I guess — and bunched together like a group of grumpy old ladies complaining about the price of butter.
Mondays Are Murder — named, presumably, for the alliteration rather than anything to do with the deaths all happening on that day — sees Poppy and Graham among a group of youngsters invited to try out a new outdoor activities centre on an isolated Scottish island. Before too long — it’s only just over 100 pages, remember — the adults begin to die in some quite nasty circumstances: the first perishes whilst climbing in what would appear to be an impossible turn of events, another is killed while alone in the centre and there apparently being no way for a killer to get away from the scene without being spotted, and so on. It’s your classic And Then There Were None slaughter-fest, and clearly Landman is having a lot of fun.
I especially like two things about this one: firstly there’s a nifty piece of misdirection used as…let’s just say “something else” that enables the whole scheme to come off, and secondly there’s a very good line in how events are presented and interpreted. That “murder while alone in the house”, for instance, does a very small thing that casts doubt on the actions of a character — not enough to condemn them outright, but just enough to raise questions. And the way the killer is able to get away from the scene without being spotted is a lovely puncturing of that very trope in classic GAD style (I freely admit a metaphorical face-palm when it was explained…but, in my defence, I was having a wonderful time…). I’m a 35 year-old man who has read the overwhelming majority of the two most proficient and prolific authors ever to take up this challenge, so I spotted the guilty party, but even that is a classic piece of structuring and misdirection that is great to see at this junior level.
And it helps that this is really well written: the low-key discovery of one corpse is actually quite moving, and the killer’s motive when revealed is…sort of horrifying when you think about it. Younger minds may not dwell on it too much but, dude, for all my youth it has stuck with me. Yes, the killer is revealed by happenstance rather than deduction, but I’m not so concerned about that: in 101 pages we’ve got a pretty decent sweep of what a detective novel should do, and a lot of eager you minds are going to be delighted when they graduate from this to the “grown-up” fare of Christie and Carr.
Dead Funny takes Poppy, Graham, and Poppy’s mother Lili to the USA, where Oscar-winning movie star Baby Sugarcandy has enlisted Lili’s professional services — she’s a landscape gardener — to remake the grounds of her mansion in the image of the English countryside. Alas, Baby Sugarcandy (real name: Biddy Ford) is murdered in the prologue, and Poppy et al discover her body. And then others start to die…
Again I’m not really sure what the title means, nor the cover strap-line of “Can you die laughing?”, because neither really applies in this case. There’s never any indication of laughter having any connection with their murders, but at least the motif that does emerge from all the killings allows for one of the chapters to bear the title of one of my favourite Carter Dickson novels (and I refuse to believe that’s accidental). And Poppy is again on form — being given sugary tea after finding the body because it’s “good for shock” her immediate thought is “I wasn’t particularly shocked. Surprised, yes. A little excited, perhaps, but mostly absolutely riveted”. Ha, how can you not love that?
I enjoyed, too, how Graham is the voice of reason in the face of Poppy seeing menace at every turn. When Poppy tells him she’s suspicious of a character who seems to always be smiling with a feigned manner, his response is:
“This is Hollywood, everything’s fake. I should think that most of the women here have had cosmetic surgery … I gather Botox injections freeze certain areas of the face. If she’s had that particular treatment it might explain why her expression seems insincere.”