#387: Minor Felonies – Alice Jones: The Ghost Light (2017) by Sarah Rubin

I am aware that some (many/most/all?) of my readers do not share my fascination with the current Young Adult detective fiction scene, and to a certain extent I sympathise.  But in an age where detection is eschewed in grown-up circles — with unreliable narrators prevailing, and amnesia conveniently repealed at the 85% mark to hurry in a conclusion because clewing has failed — it heartens me to know that younger generations are being raised with access to the rigorous principles that delight so many of us.

Sarah Rubin’s first Alice Jones novel, The Impossible Clue (2016), took a good swing at this, and would encourage a younger reader new to the genre to consider how such an investigation ever really proves anything.  Those principles — the danger of leaping to conclusions, the importance of seeing the possibilities for alternative explanations, the need to speculate only based on discernible truths, and for explanations to consider all the information available — are developed even further in The Ghost Light (2017), which adds in the beginnings of multi-threaded puzzle plotting and a few Christie-esque touches on the way to delivering one of the most solid YA detection reads I’ve yet encountered.  On this evidence, man, I hope there are about another ten of these books planned.

In essence, the plot revolves around the staging of an old play at the derelict Beryl Theatre in Philadelphia.  The theatre partially burned down 90 years ago during the first performance of this play, and its revival is part of an effort to raise money for renovations before the site can be bought and ‘rejuvenated’ as a multiplex cinema. Alas, with a week to go before opening night, a slew of unfortunate events — breaking and vanishing props, and a near-miss accident involving the Hollywood leading man brought into generate as much interest as possible — it would appear that someone is out to prevent the success of this endeavour.  And, with her twin sister Della in the cast and their mother on costume duty, Alice is co-opted into trying to find out what is going on…and, of course, Kevin Jordan, with whom she bonded in the first book, is also along for the ride.

These sorts of endeavours — especially for a younger audience, who won’t exactly sit awe-struck while Freeman Wills Crofts figures out the origins of a railway ticket — could go either way: simple chase-and-speculate plotting, or slower, less showy, reasoning-to-the-point-of-lecturing Dan Brownification.  And this is another reason I take so much joy from reading these juvenile mysteries; when they’re written well, and this is one is extremely well written, they balance these two aspects wonderfully, never taking for granted the attention of their audience in the way that books aimed at an older market can, and expositing while also achieving character beats or building into the larger scheme.  The best of GAD was like this, and it’s delightful to see these skills are not lost, merely biding their time, waiting to inspire the next generation.

four-little-chow-chow-puppies-portrait-waldek-dabrowski

“Please explain.”

Least likely suspect?  Covered:

Kevin had a point, but I didn’t like the idea of leaving Matthew out as a suspect just because he was famous.  That’s not how a good detective works.

Getting ahead of the evidence?  Covered:

Starting with an assumption is no way to solve a mystery.  It’s also what I’d been doing ever since Della asked me to look into the problems at the Beryl.

Seemingly-unrelated events contributing to a larger picture?  Covered:

Now that the Beryl’s equation was starting to add up to sabotage, I had to wonder if there was more to the graffiti bandit than just some bored kid looking for trouble.

Equally, there’s a clear strain of the importance of physical evidence in supporting as much as denying a thesis: an absence of footprints on a dusty floor, shiny scratches on the heads of old screws showing they’ve been recently unfastened, and — before you start to think this is all rather below even a Detection 101 course — a beautifully clear explanation and deployment of the refraction index of certain materials (that caught you out, hey?).  It’s the unravelling of these things by a 12 year-old in a manner that a 12 year-old would unravel them that really makes this work; Alice is smart, yes, but she’s also restricted by access to materials, knowledge, and opportunities to investigate without her mother finding out.  The best of these YA undertakings give us protagonists who are realistic in their world, and it’s because Alice and Kevin feel so strong — from which their work in this particular idiom is drawn — that this all works as well as it does.

four-little-chow-chow-puppies-portrait-waldek-dabrowski

“Sure, I get it.”

Elsewhere, Rubin captures the setting of not just the Beryl but also the wider world of theatre life in general very piquantly: explaining superstitions around the use of real jewellery, painting the setting as equally enthralling and threatening, and giving us a cast of highly-strung actors:

Vivian took a deep breath and nodded bravely, waiting for someone to ask her what was wrong.  She probably still felt upstaged since Matthew Strange was the one who got all the attention at the hospital.  Of course, he’d been the who who’d actually been injured, but that wouldn’t matter to Vivian

…and the equally highly-strung and slightly unusual people who find themselves drawn to such work (the director “flitt[ing] back and forth between the two stars like a butterfly having a panic attack”, a prop-wrangler who gets far too excited over the ability to reuse items from that original, doomed production).  A few of the characters blend together, sure, but the possibility of one of these people being behind the sabotage is something that is keenly felt among those in the know, and as the reader you are encouraged to feel this same sense of disquiet at someone in this menagerie being responsible.  Sure, it’s not quite “Who is stalking and killing us all on this isolated island?”, but it’s a shorter hop away than you’d think.

Given this rich seam of characterisation, the eventual culprit was, for me, a bit of a let down, even if it does make sense from both an internal and external perspective.  Far more pleasing was the revelation lightly dropped in the closing chapter of the sort of misdirection at which Agatha Christie excelled.  It has no bearing on the plot, it’s just a salutary lesson in how to mislead in small ways without ever being explicit, and it bodes well for Rubin’s skills in this direction should more plots featuring Alice emerge.  I for one sincerely hope that this is not the last we see of either of them.

~

The Alice Jones novels by Sarah Rubin:

1. The Impossible Clue (2016)
2. The Ghost Light (2017)

22 thoughts on “#387: Minor Felonies – Alice Jones: The Ghost Light (2017) by Sarah Rubin

    • Absolutely, it might even be a bit too simple for them if they’re fairly advanced (I’m bad, though, at picking precisely what age something is pitched at). But it’s a fun, pleasant read that isn’t going to confront anything upsetting for younger readers.

  1. Thanks for the review, and I have to confess I was looking at the apricot chow-chows rather than scrupulously dissecting your analysis. 😛

    Would Nancy Drew Case Files feature anytime soon?

    • I was enamoured of the first Nancy Drew book when I looked at it a few months ago, but if there’s a title that does something interesting I’ll certainly consider it for future. Any suggestions?

      • I grew up reading the Nancy Drew Case Files series, as the entries in this series appeared more focused on the mystery, as opposed to the regular Nancy Drew novels that focused more on the adventure.

        I’d go so far as to say: if Agatha Christie established my taste for fair-play GA mysteries, and if Christianna Brand widened my taste beyond Christie – the Nancy Drew Files claim the credit for developing my taste for mysteries novels at first instance.

        I’d read most of the entries in the Files series, up to #59. (I moved on to Christie after that.) The standouts, based on titles I can (vaguely) recall, were:

        #9, False Moves: for what I recall to be a fair-play solution. 🤩
        #24, Till Death Do Us Part: if anything, because Ned broke up with Nancy. ☺️
        #29, Pure Poison: I can’t remember why, but I recall finding the story interesting. 😅
        #59, High Risk: the solution caught me by surprise.🤯

          • Just to say that if you do get round to checking out “High Risk” – there are 2 Nancy Drew novels with the same title. I’m thinking of the one where Nancy’s boyfriend is an insurance investigator. Not the more recent one where Nancy goes for flying classes.

      • PS These files novels are available quite cheaply on Kindle. 🤑 I myself am tempted to revisit some of them…

  2. This sounds rather charming. Too old for my daughter to read it anytime soon but I will see if we stock it and keep it in mind for reader’s advisory questions.

  3. I know the question was not directed at me but I personally liked the original Nancy Drew series better than Hardy boys because their was much more detection and investigation and lesser adventures/ chases/ kidnappings/ ambushes etc. I remember really enjoying The witch tree and The scarlet slipper .

    But I really can not recommend anything from either of the current series. I had the misfortune of reading a hardy boys adventure published last year (Cant recall the name) and it was awful. There was no mystery, no plot, no story to speak of. Nothing but 100 odd pages of the brothers running after and fighting with the villains.

    • My sole experience of Nancy Drew — well, I read some of the newer ones while at school, but they’re lost to memory — distinctly lacked in detection, as the post on this very site will attest. Doubtless they got better, even if only occasionally, and so while I wouldn’t rush out to read more, or commit to something crazy like reading them all, I’d definitely look at something were anyone able to convince me of its merits in advance.

      As for The Hardy Boys — never read ’em, not to bothered by that. Would rather find more, affordable Ken Holt books if I’m being honest, because I loved the one I read and definitely would commit to reading the rest if I knew I could get them without also having to give up food and rent for a year.

    • “…I personally liked the original Nancy Drew series better than Hardy boys because their was much more detection and investigation and lesser adventures/ chases/ kidnappings/ ambushes etc.”

      I recall thinking that when I was a young reader – that there was more detection in the Nancy Drew novels than the Hardy Boys novels. I felt slightly left out as all my schoolmates in my youth were into Hardy Boys – and so I glad that someone else thinks so too. 😬

      In fact, for me, I liked the Nancy Drew Files series even more than the regular Nancy Drew novels, as I found the element of detection more pronounced. 🧐

      • Never read any Nancy drew File. Didn’t know such a thing existed. But then there are so many series and crossovers of Hardy Bous and Nancy Drew!
        Thanks for pointing that out. Will keep an eye on them.

  4. Well, I do enjoy a YA mystery, at least if it’s skewing to the fair play side of things, so definitely no complaints from me when you write these posts. This sounds like an interesting series that I’ll probably have to track down.

    I just finished the first book in the Murder Most Unladylike series, which was also pretty damn good. Which is good, since I picked up three of them when I bought them… 🙂

    • I’m planning on doing the first MMU book at the end of this month of posts — something else for next Tuesday, but that should be the book I look at in a fortnight. Shhh, don’t tell anyone.

  5. I remember reading the Flavia de Luce books a little while back.
    The first had a decent mystery plot with a genuinely creepy part of the solution but also had some filler that was a bit boring.
    I don’t remember the second book at all but I do remember really enjoying the third and fourth books.
    Have you ever read any of the books?

    • I read the first one (and had pretty much your reaction to it) and the second (which, yeah, I don’t really remember — something to do with gypsies and a puppet show?), but no more. I’ve always intended to go back to them, becaue they were enjoyable without being brilliant, but I suppose my overall feeling can be summed up by the fact that I haven’t read the third one in the two or so years since reading the second.

      One of these days I’ll get back to them, especially if you had such a strong reaction to the third.

    • I’ve already commented on them elsewhere, and my opinion still stands. They are dull as dishwater. And as you said, full of filler. I’m not exactly sure where I checked out, but I think it was somewhere in the middle of book three.

      (It should also be said that they are not YA novels, despite having a young girl as the main character and the detective.)

      • Huh, contrasting opinions on book 3 here; doubtless the internet will remain on tenterhooks until I cast the deciding vote.

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