#863: Minor Felonies – Premeditated Myrtle (2020) by Elizabeth C. Bunce

On page 110 of 355 of Elizabeth C. Bunce’s Premeditated Myrtle (2020) we learn that 12 year-old Myrtle Hardcastle starts reading novels in the middle because “beginnings were often boring”. Thankfully the unproved murder on which the entire book to that point has hung is finally suspected a few pages later and the book comes to life at last, but there’s an uncomfortably meta air to the criticism at the time.

It is 1893 — in the book, I mean, don’t panic — there are sixty-six elements in the periodic table, and Myrtle is frankly difficult to separate out from the countless other Young Person Detectives since she hits just about every trope going:

✔ Hyper-intelligent
✔ Isolated from her peers
✔ Tragedy in her recent past
✔ Largely ignored by a disapproving parent
✔ Nevertheless accompanied by an enabling adult presence
✔ Frequently ignored by those who think they know better
✔ Possessed of a remarkably early-21st Century attitude
✔ Very, very, very precocious indeed

Those first hundred or so pages are hard going, since at no point does Bunce’s world establish itself as in any way different to exactly what you’d expect. And what’s doubly weird is Bunce’s own lack of confidence in establishing a milieu that’s already so over-familiar: sure, it’s interesting that Myrtle’s governess, Ada Judson, is from French Guiana, but even after we’ve observed the relationship between these two — Miss Judson being a firm encourager of Myrtle’s proclivities — the narrative is still weirdly stopped short for a page so that she can be “introduced” and we can be explicitly told most of what we’ve figured out anyway.

Which is not to say that those hundred pages are without merit

Didn’t [Father] want me to be clever and inquisitive? I realize that intelligence wasn’t a highly regarded trait in the females of my species. But for pity’s sake, you never heard anyone say, “What England really needs is more stupid girls.”

…just that you can skip them and probably be no worse off. At least then your murder mystery would have a murder and the mystery would begin in earnest, at which point Premeditated Myrtle becomes a lot of fun: sinister neighbours, night-time sojourns into enemy territory, a delightfully hilarious cat (“Peony perched beside me, serenading the dinner party with an undulating song of woe and betrayal. I thought she was spectacular.”), and the small matter of unusual clues — a bath at the wrong time of day, a nightdress stained with pollen — and odd behaviour.

“I’ll show you odd behaviour…”

Among the successes are the natural air given to Myrtle’s guilt when she accidentally pushes an easy suspect in front of the police, and her prosecutor father’s wrangling despite himself with evidence stacking up against a man that his trust of authority tells him must be correct and yet his personal revulsion at the idea rejects. The understated never-anywhere-near-budding romance between Hardcastle, Sr. and Miss Judson is acutely observed, too, and perhaps the most meritorious of all the threads in here: obviously widowers do not step out with “the Help”, and Bunce’s observation of the unexpressed — and perhaps unrealised — feelings on both sides through Myrtle’s eyes is very successful indeed. You’re also going to score easy points with a nerd like me in the following way:

Myrtle.” It wasn’t technically possible to hiss my name, but Miss Judson had made an artform out of fierce whispering.

The late addition of Robert Blakeney, Esq. (Almost) adds a levity to proceedings that lacks when he is off the page, which has the unfortunate effect of bringing to your attention how off the pacing and developments feel here. I mean, this won the 2021 Edgar award for Best Juvenile Mystery, so clearly enough people felt it did what it does well enough, but I can’t quite get over the feeling of an accordion: the stretched out to begin with, the plot then squeezed together and roaring forwards, followed by an over-extended patch of suspicion that (SPOILERS?) is obviously going to turn out to be baseless, and then a sudden rush of realisations at the end to tie it all up. And when one of the minor mysteries that unlocks the major plot is resolved so haphazardly — how Peony actually did get out of that room is never answered, and arguably remains the key to unlocking all of it — it just adds to the feeling that this has turned out as significantly less than the sum of its hastily-assembled parts.

“I’ll show you some…hastily assembled…parts?”

And yet, and yet. The fourth-wall-breaking footnotes have about them an air of playful irreverence that the narrative as a whole could use in even greater quantities, and the various players in place by the end could be put to much better use in the sequels now that Bunce has got her eye in. And so while I didn’t finish this as enthused as I have been about certain other first encounters, it would also be hasty to say that I’d not read any further. There are others books for younger readers that I’m keen to check out first, but we probably — probably — haven’t seen the last of Myrtle on The Invisible Event.

~

The Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries by Elizabeth C. Bunce:

  1. Premeditated Myrtle (2020)
  2. How to Get Away With Myrtle (2020)
  3. Cold-Blooded Myrtle (2021)
  4. In Myrtle Peril (2022)

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