Right, let’s get back into blogging things. This week, three very different novels published this year, beginning with High-Rise Mystery (2019), the debut fictional work of Sharna Jackson.
I don’t know quite how to begin this review, except to tell you that I so enjoyed this book. It tells the story of 11 year-old Anika ‘Nik’ Alexander and her 13 year-old sister Norva, and their discovery and eventual solving of the murder of a resident in the three-towered London housing estate on which they live. An already unfamiliar milieu for a juvenile mystery — publisher Knights Of are predicated on the basis of their catalogue representing as much of the world around them as possible — the genius stroke here is how fundamental the setting of ‘the Tri’ is to the story being told; and even better is how fully Jackson evokes a sense of location through effortless employment of familiarity both among the denizens and in the carefree way Nik narrates events as they unfold.
In a story that takes inspiration from Dashiell Hammett in naming its detectives, there’s an undoubted meld of Hammett and Chandler about Nik’s staccato relating of events. An early championing of order and method sees the frequent, charming use of bullet-pointed lists to show how Nik observes and breaks things down, always with a joyous kiddishness behind it all that feels so perfectly natural for an 11 year-old. Witness how Nik is the brains of the operation and Norva the emotional one who…
[F]eels things in her
Whatever waters are. I try not to think about Norva’s liquids too much.
…and how Jackson catches piquantly the easy, slang-topped argot of the young which is both hilariously on the nose…
To Norva, Mark is mysterious and strong. To me, he’s basic and she’s easily impressed.
…and almost lyrical in some of the eye-rolling disdain of charming immaturity facing a world it doesn’t fully grasp:
Printing was for old, patient people who enjoy noise and heartbreak.
In a turn of events not normally shared by debut novels, I bought the setting and the people of this completely. No, the plot — concerning the discovery of a dead body in one of the communal bins — doesn’t stray far from the expected grace notes (suspicion falling close to home, children waking up to adult behaviour around them, precocious juvenile detectives solving the case before the professionals, etc) but every time their friend George greeted Nik and Norva with his cry of “N-Squared!” it just, well, it felt a little more like home.
“Did someone say ‘bin’?”
There’s a quiet insistence, too, about the girls’ investigation — Hugo, the victim, was their friend, and so they want to find out who killed him — that suffuses the book far more effectively than some sort of affected lèse-majesté: we don’t need a lecture on evil to justify their continuing even as things become uncomfortable, it’s simply a course they take and are determined to see through. Even as they narrow down the suspect list through a piece of fabulous — if, c’mon, specious — reasoning and realise that the killer is going to be someone known to them, there’s no time wasted in debating whether they wish to continue; and for once that doesn’t feel as if it results from the author wanting to write a murder mystery but rather from the character themselves and their own, internal reasons. No mean feat, I think you’ll agree.
The sense of place of the Tri is reinforced by it existing in a world that is recognisably complex. 24-hour news and its assumed incumbent agenda, social media and and unpleasantness that lurks within, the experience of immigrant populations with the police, and even the petty bureaucracies of local councils all play their own small parts in the narrative — weirdly, remove any of those and it wouldn’t work quite as well as it does. And, sure, some of that will be lost on its intended audience, but Jackson has here a great sense of what is necessary to really sell her setting: much like the world at large, you don’t need to understand everything to appreciate that what’s happening is often the result of several accrued small events. That someone wants a wall painting and this leads to another party being suspected of murder…well, that’s surprisingly commonsensical in this setting. As is the reason for keeping quiet about it when the accusation raised and that person arrested. Really, I can’t begin to tell you how damn smartly this whole thing is put together.
Honestly, the only false note is that I can’t believe an 11 year-old would employ “trilled” as her verb of choice for speech attribution, which only stands out because of how keenly I felt the travails of the experience the girls go through. The shifting allegiances when people voice suspicions or seemingly form alliances, the axiomatic delights of the Confrontation Checklist, the sense of generation shift when a cheque is described as “PayPal for olds”…it’s so perfectly realised, so effortlessly balanced, that I hope we get another fifteen of these in 2020 alone.
“That seems unlikely, Jim.”
As I say, the plot doesn’t exactly stretch the bounds of the Young Adult mystery, but there’s a nice piece of — let’s say — wordplay to mislead, and the invocation of Agatha Christie to explain a key aspect of the killer’s plan. The clues laid on the way to the solution are neat, but there’s certainly no argument for this having everything on the page for you to solve it much ahead of time. If you possess some specialist knowledge then you’re in with a shout, but anyone else will probably glom onto a key event without quite realising how it’s relevant. But, well, that sort of clewing would be rock hard anyway, and grousing about imperfect laying of clues would be like picking at The Three Investigators for being a bit unlikely — dude, just, like, enjoy someone doing such a good job. Celebrate the fact that the diversity represented here is used so very intelligently to show a under-examined aspect of society in such a clear-sighted, positive way, enriched with such care and insight that you’d be doing it a disservice of astronomical proportions to wave the word ‘tokenism’ anywhere in its vicinity. That’s the real story here. Along with the murder investigation. That’s…that’s also the story. Just to be clear.
We’re promised at the end that ‘Nik and Norva Will Return’ and I’m delighted to hear it. The setting Jackson establishes is pin-sharp, the characters live and breathe, the potential for this place and these detectives is rich, and all it augurs well for any future time spent in the company of such redoubtable writing. A great start to what I hope will be a very long career for author and characters both; here’s hoping that Knights Of and Sharna Jackson keep us entertained for a good few years yet.