The mystery for younger readers I reviewed last week was big on world and short on plot; this week, we redress that balance.
Vanished! (2017) by James Ponti is the second book in his trilogy about Florian Bates and Margaret Campbell, 12 year-old recruits to the FBI’s Special Projects Team — which, essentially, means that they’re sent in to investigate where a normal, adult agent might not be so overlooked. Like, for instance, in the small matter of a series of pranks being played at Chatham County Day School — someone bringing down the school’s computer network, gumming up the locks of some student lockers with glue. Small matters indeed, except for the fact that the school is attended by the scions of so many important and powerful families, including Lucy Mays — daughter of the President of the United States. Lucy might be involved in the pranks, and is certainly implicated, and the school’s headmaster has asked for some assistance in figuring out what is happening.
“With the children of so many powerful people at the school, if there was a hint that the FBI was investigating, it would become an instant scandal. … So the perfect solution would be for you two to go undercover and figure it out.”
Thus, Florian and Margaret join the elite at Chatham, and before long additional mysteries begin presenting themselves: a fire alarm is set off, a series of rupturing friendships come to the fore, and Yin Yae, a Chinese muscial prodigy visiting the school, somehow manages to be practicing the cello in one of the school’s music rooms when also seen in the corridor outside the rooms taking a drink.
I started this trilogy in the middle because the synopsis — and, indeed, the title — made it sound like there may be an impossible element to it and, while the above technically qualifies, it is not this vanishment to which the title refers. That comes much later, though Ponti starts things in medi res and then jumps back nine days to show us what led up to the excitement, and on the way we get some very accomplished plotting and writing. Florian has the Sherlockian talent of reasoning things out very quickly from information provided unwittingly by the objects of his attention — often not declared to the reader ahead of times, so we get the surprise of seeing it linked up as he explains, but the links drawn are good and the conclusions believeable (Florian’s reference to a scandal deduced from watching the school’s promotional video is rather delightful, I have to admit).
This also sets up the game-within-a-game of Ponti sprinkling a bunch of information that comes in useful later and provides some very pleasing moments in the denouement. Given the relative unfamiliarity of some of the ideas herein to the intended audience, Ponto has a great eye for seeding important information with well-worked and clearly-explained examples which sometimes stand out and sometimes fold neatly into the background. Clues abound in dialogue, in homophones, in acrostics, in the musical setting that is in so much of the back of this (Lucy, like Yin, is a hugely accomplished celloist), and even in the ancillary details Florian just happens to pick up on while taking in the details of a room. Given that his reasoning is based on TOAST — the Theory of All Small Things — it’s actually quite a lot of fun seeing how solidly Ponti builds up from that which is provided quite openly and should have been on display for anyone intelligent enough to spot it (“You know, for a secret society, you’re not so good at keeping secrets,” Margaret tells one of the many uptight adults the school contains…and she’s not wrong!). The setting of the elite school, and the practices that have been encouraged in that setting, is well handled and explored, and Ponti escalates up from a pulled fire alarm to something altogether more complex and interesting.
The book has, too, more going for it than just an exploration of why some pranks are happening and how they affect the Important People. Some great work is done on the difficulties of shift allegiances (“The social lives of middle school girls are more complicated than Russian literature.”) and also the way in which, even in this exceptional company, some children are more exceptional that others:
“You know, if you search online for ‘Lucy Mays hair’ you get more than nine hundred thousand hits? Nine hundred thousand comments about a thirteen-year-old’s hair. There’s no way to take that type of pressure and not act out a little.”
Equally, the modest, gifted Yin, leading an itinerant existence on a sort of never-ending promotional tour on behalf of his country, is isolated from those around him by how very different his life and the expectations around him are from the other students: “I am here by permission of my government. I have to go wherever they want me to. I have no choice.” — and neatly worked into this is the admission that, while Lucy and Yin might be deserving of sympathy, they’re also increasingly implicated in the pranks that are being pulled and so the stain of suspicion must be allowed to contaminate the burgeoning friendships that Florian and Margaret might be forming with them.
It all builds very nicely, making leaps that work smoothly in the world of the book and — via a quick stop at the White House where, given the year of publication, the President feels very much like the gentleman who vacated that office the previous year — resolving itself with a chase, some neat deductions, and a pleasing emotional resonance. There’s one element of this which was probably a surprise in the first book, and I’ll go back to that one next, but on the whole you can read this as a standalone without missing out on too much of anything. It’s great, too, to see a novel for younger readers not be in too much of a rush to force pigeon-holing upon Florian’s obsessive, slightly callow presentation, leaving room for him to be as he is without definitely tying it down to a Thing or a Diagnosis. I love the slightly awkward openness of Florian and Margaret’s friendship, I like how the detective role Florian plays ends up potentially distancing him from the object of his endeavours, and these little character touches do far more good work than any amount of labelling ever could.
Mr. Ponti, I am a fan. See you for the Framing…
The Framed! trilogy by James Ponti
1. Framed! (2016)
2. Vanished! (2017)
3. Trapped! (2018)