After a couple of attempts reading mysteries for older younger readers a few months ago, I think I’m happy that my niche is to be found in stories probably aimed at 12 year-olds — older than that, hormones get involved and there’s as much time spent swooning over someone as there is trying to solve all the, y’know, murders happening at their elite private school.
The Goldfish Boy (2017) by Lisa Thompson is perhaps best thought of as a less horny version of the Shia Labeouf-starring Disturbia (2007) — I think of that movie more as another superb villainous performance in David Morse’s locker, but that reference might not land with most of you — which was itself a very, very horny version of Alfred-Hitchcock-Top-Ten masterpiece Rear Window (1954)…based on the novella It Had to be Murder (1942) by Cornell Woolrich, who has recently caused me much delight (everything is related, hey?): trapped in his home, 12 year-old Matthew Corbin wishes to investigate a crime on his doorstep, but must form an alliance with those around him to overcome his own inability to venture too far into the outside world.
There are essentially two mysteries at the heart of this book. The plot-based one concerns the disappearance of 18 month-old Teddy, grandson of Matthew’s next door neighbour Mr. Charles — not an impossible vanishing, you understand, but more that he is playing alone in the front garden one morning and the next time anyone thinks to check on him it is discovered that he has been taken. The second mystery concerns Matthew himself, terrified of germs and suffering under a handwashing compulsion that has escalated in the last year, who watches things develop from the safety of either the upstairs office that was to be the bedroom of a younger brother who died in childbirth or from his own bedroom — it is Teddy’s seven year-old sister Casey who dubs him “goldfish boy” after seeing him watching them day after day.
As a means of enabling Matthew to occupy the outsider role the detective must take, Thompson’s use of his germ obsession is very smart. Not only is he viewed askance by people in the street on which he lives:
Occasionally Jake Bishop from number five would shout things up at me — things like “Weirdo”, “Freak” or “Nutter”. It had been a long time since he’d actually called me Matthew — but then he was an idiot so I didn’t realy care what he said.
…but there are also ramifications within his own family that leave him more isolated still — his father’s impatience, his mother’s desire for anything to be wrong with him except the problem he is actually struggling to overcome (“Desperation, that’s what it was — willing me to have something treatable, something with an end in sight”) and his own spiralling self-reproach, the cause of this behaviour, which fear alone keeps him from mentioning out loud (“The guilt of what I’d done lived inside me like a vicious black beetle, scuttling around inside my stomach”). Matthew watches his neighbours through this window, yes, but is equally distant from the people inside his house.
One of the things this book does superbly is show the casual way people — especially young people — make and break bonds with small actions whose significance is difficult to appreciate at the time. The way Matthew is culpable of supporting the bullying aimed at the allergy-afflicted Jake through nothing more than simply failing to stand up to it as a result of childhood peer pressure, say, or the sense of mystery conjured up around certain neighbours that results in them being viewed as suspicious when their stories are in fact simply sad or quite plain. Mr. Jenkins, PE teacher at Matthew’s school and his next door neighbour on the other side from Mr. Charles, represents so many of the anxieties about returning to school or admitting his problems to other people, and has his own entirely unwitting part to play in Matthew’s deepening anxieties. Seen through the eyes of a 12 year-old who hasn’t the emotional depth to appreciate this explicitly, it’s all rather brilliant.
The actual plot of the book, concerning Teddy’s disappearance is…less successful. The way the denizens of the street come together in supporting Mr. Charles is well observed, but too much mystery-making — in part through that distance from these people mentioned above — proves to be simply filler. Old Nina leaves her light on for reasons I’ll not spoil here, but then it gets turned off for a few days and then switched back on…for probably no reason at all that I could determine; the police seem put out when Mr. Charles starts mowing his lawn; Mr Charles offers Matthew a glass of lemonade and reacts with bitter vituperation when turned down; Casey obsesses over an old doll and then sort of forgets all about it; Nina goes shopping and is gazing through the window of the pharmacy at some nappies…enough wherefores are raised only to be left unaddressed that it starts to feel as if the mystery is no mystery at all and we’re simply trying to get to a word count that allows this to qualify as a novel. And what’s even more frustrating is how every single one of those instances above could have been used to give some indication of the truth, but instead just sort of happen and then the next event hoves into view to be swept aside when something else occurs. The TLA here might not be OCD, but ADD.
The memorable moments and well-judged developments all concern Matthew: his delight at the police forensic team in their white jumpsuits and latex gloves (“If I had access to that kind of clothing to wear all the time I’d be fine”), his interpretation of Mr. Charles’ daughter staying in a nearby hotel rather than with he father once she returns to the country following Teddy’s disappearance (“I wondered if it had more to do with her being used to hotels, what with all the business travelling she must do. They probably felt like home to her”), the way his hand-washing continually disrupts his life and disturbs his own peace of mind — written about with genuine restraint and an awareness of how debilitating this can be:
My knuckles were cracked and bleeding from my constant washing; the blood had freaked me out, so I cleaned them over and over but they just bled even more. Around and around I spun, on my stupid wheel.
If I told you that some of the best parts of this book came from the conversations a 12 year-old has with a piece of wallpaper that in his mind looks a bit like a melted lion it might sound like I was stuggling for positives, but those are the sorts of things I’ll take away from this.
Typos don’t normally bother me (unless we get a frankly absurd density of them), but it’s a shame in a book for younger readers that someone is said to pay avid attention to a magazine because they “pour through it” or that Jake’s bike is powered by “peddles” — easily done, but it’s the details like this that need extra attention paying to them. I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t a little bit affected up come the end, however, although I was probably reading it in a dusty room (sorry, Matthew…) and so there might have been something in my eye. Still, the impact of our narrator will, for me, outlive the impact of the plot, and it would be to see how his story develops that I would return for the follow-up, The Graveyard Riddle (2021). Books doing this good a job tackling difficulties like this for younger readers are wonderful things, and The Goldfish Boy should be celebrated for that. Those of you after a mystery plot, however, can safely look elsewhere.