In the early 1900s, Edward Stratemeyer devised the Stratemeyer Syndicate of children’s books, where multiple volumes of the same series could be written by various authors and published under a common nom de plume. Two of its more famous alumni were The Hardy Boys by ‘Franklin W. Dixon’ and the Nancy Drew mysteries by ‘Carolyn Keene’.
Well, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, because The Secret Key (2018) is the first in a series that currently runs to three volumes featuring teenage sleuth Agatha Oddlow and has been produced as a collaboration between publishers HarperCollins and “literary management company” Tibor Jones. On the HarperCollins website it says:
HarperCollins and Tibor Jones – a new boutique packager – have developed the series with a talented team of new writers, who work collaboratively with a creative and dynamic approach echoing the TV script writing model. Agatha Oddly will be published under the fictional author name Lena Jones.
Given the authors featured on the Tibor Jones website, I’m crossing my fingers in the hope of this book being the co-creation of Wilbur Smith and Bernard Sumner, and nothing anyone says will make me believe any different. And just to be clear: I’m not criticising this approach at all; if anything, I’m surprised it’s not used more, especially with younger readers where the name that attracts them is the series rather than the writer. And, hey, that’s not to devalue the work done by great authors in bringing great stories to life, but I’m sure hordes of you have fond memories of reading The Hardy Boys that are in no way sullied by there being about five different people writing those books. If standards can be maintained, and it’s a way to ensure a high volume of books that young readers can get enthusiastic about, I’m all for it.
So, more importantly, is this opening salvo any good? Well…no.
“I’d better get the others, then.”
Part of the reason I was inspired to search out details about Lena Jones — and it’s not like HarperCollins are hiding this ‘written by committee’ thing, but equally it’s mentioned neither in the book itself nor on the Agatha Oddly website — was my bafflement at anyone going to the efforts of producing such a bland character and plot. Agatha herself is a loose collection of hipster quirks — oversize tortoiseshell glasses, conspicuously chewed and chipped nail polish, Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster on her quirky attic bedroom wall, scorn for all things mobile phone-related, shopping in charity shops — crammed into a 13 year-old in the sort of blithe wish-fulfilment nature that 9 year-olds crave. Add a dead parent (killed under Mysterious Circumstances…) and a me-against-them scholarship to a posh “you-don’t-belong-here” school for extra Harry Potter points and voila. The more I read, the more I felt that the book and the character had been compiled from a Buzzfeed list of What’s Hip for Young Kids and, yeah, it turns out she pretty much has. Man, Bernard Sumner’s work has really dipped in quality, eh?
This is particularly sad because of the lack of thought that’s gone into creating an interesting character for younger readers. It may be counter-culture-cool to disdain the way people wander around glued to their mobile phones, but Agatha’s problem extends to not even viewing the mobile as a source of, like, all the information in the world — something the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Sherlock worked in brilliantly (and we’ll be returning to that version of Mr. Holmes in due course). This is like Peter Diamond in Bloodhounds (1996) by Peter Lovesey proving what an Old School Detective he is by not trusting or liking forensic science. For an apparently brilliant mind, it’s a curiously idiotic oversight. As is the fact that Agatha disguises herself when leaving the house because she might be under surveillance…but, like, anyone watching the house wouldn’t see a 13 year-old-sized person clamber out of a skylight and down a tree and think “Well, that’s obviously not who I’m after”. And if they’re not watching the skylight or the tree, the fact that she’s leaving at 11 o’clock at night when no-one of that appearance has entered the house would surely give it away, no? Have your fun, book, but be intelligent about it at the very least. Other, better authors in this genre and age group manage it.
There’s also the blatant recycling of “the words float in the air to show how deductions come together” from Sherlock, except that, y’know, they’re just printed on the page at weird angles and in funny fonts and so it loses the dynamism that television can provide:
Additionally, and perhaps even more unforgivably given the sheer number of people listed in the back of the book and so responsible for making this happen, the writing is both poor and lazy. I mean…
“I’m going now. Are you coming or not?” I hiss.
…can you hiss a sentence stripped of a single sibilant sound? You might argue it’s a touch fussy of me to raise such a point, but equally the word “hiss” has a meaning and its not like there aren’t plenty of other verbs for dialogue attribution. I’ll fully admit fastidiousness being at the root of my equally disliking
“Oh…Paris.” I say dumbly.
…because you can’t say something dumbly, since “dumb” means “unable to speak” — but I have to cede that the meaning of that word is being slowly filched by American English to mean “stupid” even if, y’know, I have frankly huuuuge issues with that connotation. And aside from simply misapplications of the English language, the writing rings entirely false from a simple narrative perspective. Never mind that the notion of Hyde Park in London being abandoned at 8.37 on a weekday morning is complete nonsense (I spent a year crossing the park at that time of day, trust me) but also simple things like Agatha needing to catch a bus but “I have no money left” when every single school-age child in London has a travelcard that guarantees them free bus travel. Sure, sure, it could be some alternate London in which the Oyster card doesn’t exist, and in which Hyde Park is shut off from the public until 10am…but so little effort is put into this wider world that there’s really no reason to assume that’s the case.
“We got here as soon as we could.”
Did I like anything about this? The plot, involving the poisoning of London’s water supply, is just batty enough to get swept up in, though authors like Robin Stevens with her Murder Most Unladylike series, Sharna Jackson’s High Rise Mystery (2019) — the sequel to which is out in a few weeks, people — and even End Blyton’s Five Find-Outers do a far better job of convincingly rendering a situation enabling children to excel where adults couldn’t. For a book that draws repeated comparisons to Agatha Christie’s work (yes, that’s why she’s called Agatha, and she has Hercule Poirot as an imaginary friend — scarcely less of a facsimile here than in anything Sophie Hannah has written — and has read all Christie’s works…but, like, no other detective fiction) this has an alarming air of Destination Unknown (1954) about it. It would be a thriller if you could engage in it long enough to be thrilled, with only the unpicking of a code requiring anything approaching smarts, and even that gifts Agatha a magic key and access to a super-secret organisation in which her mother was a top agent lkgakva0-3r
Sorry, I just sighed so hard that I lost consciousness there for a minute or two. Er, what was I saying?
Oh, yeah, it’s moderately charming that Agatha is known to all the doormen or front-desk people of all the nerdy places in London — the Royal Geographical Society, the British Museum, etc — and the fact that Christie-obsessed Agatha called her cat Oliver is allowed to simply happen without being rammed down your throat How Subtle an Agatha Christie Reference It Is was some consolation. Everything else, from the School Bully Who Actually Might Be A Good Person Underneath to the Monologuing Villain Who’d’ve Gotten Away With It if He Could Shut The Hell Up, just seems to be trying too hard to please too many people. There’s a reason TV is written like TV and books are written like books; the guiding hand of one or two people to keep a book on course is far more important given the deeply personal nature of the storytelling involved. Done badly like this, with adults no doubt Blue Sky Thinking up the Next Big Thing, you’re left with a book that wants to be TV and isn’t really good enough to be a book in the first place.
Still, as least it’s not as obnoxious as Ruby Redfort.
The Agatha Oddly series by ‘Lena Jones’
1. The Secret Key (2018)
2. Murder at the Museum (2019)
3. The Silver Serpent (2019)