Sometimes you like a book more for the way it’s written than the actual content, an attitude that would generally sum up my feelings on the works of Josephine Tey. This third entry in Martha Freeman’s Chickadee Court mystery series is one such book.
To deal with one potential issue first: yes, for a Christmas Day review I should really have gone with the first entry in this series Who is Stealing the Twelve Days of Christmas? (2003), but if you think I’m organised enough to know in advance that I’d be reviewing this on Christmas Day, well, you’ve obviously not met me. I know I seem like an up-together, organised, probably very fashionable man on here, but we all know about Snapchat filters and, er, other stuff in social media being used to present a fictionalised version of ourselves in order to give the impression of serenely sailing through life’s troubled waters as a lodestar of trigger points for the insecurities of everyone enviously scrolling through our, uhm, photos or whatever. So, yeah, that. That’s me. Probably. I am simply part of the problem.
I do not remember how this book came to my attention, but its core plot sounded interesting, and might even have had a whiff of the impossible about it:
Teen sleuths Alex and Yasmeen have sworn off solving mysteries. But when Alex’s baseball coach — dressed in his Uncle Sam getup — disappears into a Porta-Potty on Memorial Day, no one else can figure out what happened.
It’s marketed for the 8-12 year-old bracket, as is a huge amount of the juvenile fiction I review on here, but I’d place it firmly down the younger end of that scale. Quite apart from the fact that swathes of information in here is unguessable to the point of nonsensical and so requires little in the way of reasoning on the part of the reader to solve, what little reasoning there is takes place at a simple level necessary only really to pad the book up to novel length. For all the ‘investigation of a crime’ hand-wringing that goes on, there’s really very little content here…even if that content is quite charming.
The essential setup is as above: Alex’s baseball coach dresses as Uncle Sam every year to lead a 5 km race around the town, and uses a portable toilet at the starting line to change into his costume. Technically he then vanishes from said toilet, but not before the Fourth of July fireworks stored in a shed nearby are ignited, enticing the entirety of the crowd over the see what help they can give and the observe the firefighters put out the blaze. When everyone returns, Coach Banner has disappeared! And then, several hours later, he emerges from a completely different portable toilet with no memory of what has happened. Except it’s not a different toilet! Somehow it’s the same toilet in a different place! However could that have happened? It takes 200 pages to find out…
Thankfully, the non-mystery elements around this non-mystery are of a higher standard. Like our narrator Alex during the baseball game that opens the book saying:
I glanced over at my parents in the stands. They were easy to pick out because my dad was next to my mom, and my mom was behind a fat newspaper. My mom loves me and all, but she says her life is busy and she’s going to have to multitask if she’s going to get everything done.
Elsewhere, Freeman shows a wonderful gift with visual analogies such as runners “bounc[ing] around like hot popcorn kernels” at the start of the race, and a keen show-don’t-tell restraint in the characterisation of Alex who is “really hungry” after school one afternoon having not eaten “since two bologna sandwiches, some chips, an apple, carrots with ranch dressing, and cookies at lunch”, and reflecting how at Yasmeen’s house over dinner with her parents “conversation is supposed to be ‘of general interest’, which means no fighting allowed”.
As with The Last Chance Hotel (2018) last week, its difficult to know quite what aesthetic this exists within. It wants to be a sort of young investigators mystery, but possibly the most enjoyable parts of their investigating is the way Alex’ cat Luau is always on hand to offer a pointed mmmrrrrrr or somehow signal an interesting piece of reasoning. For all the hilarious shenanigans of the Five Find-Outer’s dog Buster, he’s yet to actually display any independent reasoning skills…and its this utilisation of Luau which is partly why I say this feels like a far more junior book than expected.
Certainly most of the detection is based on a very simple level of reasoning, some deliberately incorrect leaps not fooling anyone who’s ever been outside for more than the length of time they take to read. And yet some is pretty sure-footed, such as the reasoning behind a suspected allergy to chemicals used in the toilets, or the manner of how the coach was rendered incapable at a specific time (though this stinks of an over-simplified explanation and better is anticipated, but alas does not arrive). And then it veers back into way-too-junior rationalising with things like an internet search for the signatory of a ransom note and deciding that, because there’s no website for the group claiming responsibility, the group therefore cannot and must not exist. Like, who thought that way even in 2008? Hell, there were still some sizeable companies who had an underwhelming web presence in 2008.
And yet, and yet…it can’t want to be aimed at too young an audience because there’s a moderately heated discussion about the morality of the hippie movement following the Vietnam War (two veterans of that war are interviewed, and both imply terrible things were there to be seen) as well as the legacy of the war itself, and the ego-driven nature of professional sports being exclusively about money and avarice comes into play…likely to go over the heads of anyone who believes a lack of website implies non-existence Though, in fairness, this element does give rise to one of the very few surprises the book contains, a well-handled reveal about someone which doesn’t quite dismiss suspicion around them in the way the narrative seems to think.
“D-do I have a website? Do I exist?!?“
And when the explanation for that vanishing coach comes around, meh. I requires a level of machination, luck, strength, and luck on an almost inhuman scale (and also lots of luck and strength — so much luck and strength that a key part of the working is hazed over quietly). It doesn’t bother me in the least that this isn’t an impossibility, but it feels more like an excuse to write about the evils of monetising sport than it does a mystery plot with any sound ideas in it.
I’d hoped for more, but such is life. The intriguing idea of setting these mysteries around holidays — other titles deal with Hallowe’en, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve — might just turn out to be an intriguing idea rather than a great series, but for the lower end of the specified age range there’s probably charm enough to get reluctant readers interested. This, however, is not another Freeman for me to develop an obsession over just yet.
Apologies all round for this not quit being the Yuletide gift I’d hoped it might. It is sincerely to be hoped that this does not intrude on the happiness of the holiday for those of you celebrating — Merry Christmas!