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an age where detection is eschewed in grown-up circles — with unreliable narrators prevailing, and amnesia conveniently repealed at the 85% mark to hurry in a conclusion because clewing has failed — it heartens me to know that younger generations are being raised with access to the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.
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.
“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.