So, just how does a 12 year-old boy end up working for the FBI, anyway?
Given that Framed! (2016), the first book in James Ponti’s trilogy featuring “Young Sherlock” Florian Bates, starts with our sleuth getting kidnapped by a Romanian tough on account of his FBI work, I had high hopes that we’d be saved a tedious origin story by way of answering that question. Some ideas are crazy enough that no amount of justification will get you any more on board, and I am all-in for the central conceit of this series. Alas, I had forgotten that Vanished! (2017), the second book in this series — which, yes, I read first on account of its promised impossibility — did the same thing: starting with an Exciting Incident and then dialling back the clock a few days to show the build up.
Framed!, then, jumps back three months to a pre-FBI Florian moving to the United States with his art conservator mother and security specialist father, and takes us through the case that first sees him in the thoroughly unconventional position of an off-the-books consultant for the Feds. And, y’know what? Despite this, we’re still saved a tedious origin story, because Ponti has a swift way of progressing things that probably couldn’t drag an idea out past its natural length if he tried — the situation which sees Florian come to the attention of the force of law and order is quick, very witty…
This was the room where Mom, Dad, Margaret, and her parents sat waiting under the watchful eye of a man who politely offered everybody bottled water but also looked like he knew seventeen different ways to kill you with a pencil.
…and superbly told. We’re a third of the way through, with two cases solved by Florian’s advanced observation skills, when the offer comes from Agent Marcus Rivers and is, of course, seized.
What’s lovely about this opening section is how Florian’s insights, shared with his neighbour and new best friend Margaret, are very talked about and demonstrated as skills that are within the grasp of mere mortals: he’s not simply an unknowable, accidentally-talented genius, he’s just a sharp, switched on kid who’s taken the time to think about how he processes the information that’s readily available to him. Ponti calls this TOAST — the Theory of all Small Things — and nowhere is it demonstrated more brilliantly than in chapter 4 here when Margaret TOASTs Florian’s father, much to the delight and surprise of everyone present…not least the reader who, while not having all the information the characters have, can at least understand how her conclusions were reached.
The story splits into two parallel threads — the theft of Impressionists masterpieces from Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery and the search for the adopted Margaret’s birth parents — with Ponti’s prose skimming along beautifully and packed with great observations (someone casing the museum choosing a vantage point that left their back to two doorways, the bank robbery simulation) that land all the more firmly for their graspability A few lumps in obscuring fair play elements will mar the pure enjoyment for the armchair detective, and a couple of plot developments (like someone scraping a chip of paint off what might be a masterpiece to discover if it’s a fake…though guess how that turns out) might stick in the craw of the adult reader, but the pace is so relentless and the sense of fun so infectious that it’s difficult to mind too much:
This time there was no black, armor-plated SUV with bullet-proof windows. Instead he drove a maroon hybrid with a parking permit for the Harvard Club of Washington, DC. So, while we didn’t have any extra protection from random gunfire, we were well prepared should an emergency philosophy discussion break out.
Ponti is also wise to explore the potential flaws in Florian’s talents — having one character deliberately laying a false trail to prove that these deductions aren’t water-tight, admitting the risk of conspiracy theories when forming connections (“[J]ust because something is unexpected, doesn’t mean it’s suspicious.”) — as well as highlighting at times when a lot of effort must go in to sifting data for the relevant breakthrough: he’s not a superhero with a shortcut to plot-advancement, and this grounding of his skillset is both important and well-handled. Keeping your protagonist on terms with mere mortals, making him fallible, means that we engage with him more when things go wrong; and you just know that things are going to go wrong for Florian at some point.
You can find flaws if you like — if the Eastern European League really was “a crime syndicate with strong ties in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria” their symbol probably wouldn’t be an eel because the Eastern European League wouldn’t be the EEL in those countries, no-one ever calls Florian “Young Sherlock” except when we’re told that that’s his nickname, and surely “knee-length black workout pants” are…shorts — not least that none of the final rush of concluding realisations feels inevitable, satisfying, or especially concrete, but it’s such a blast getting to that point that most of the target audience probably won’t care. Sure, this series is going to do nothing to convince the grown-ups among us that these Books for Young People are a worthwhile diversion on my Serious Detective Fiction Blog, but I love Ponti’s energy and the clarity of his prose…and good writing goes a long way to making Jim happy.
So something of a mixture of emotions greeted me at the conclusion of Framed!. I ripped through it in practically no time, love the central series of relationships, and admire how James Ponti has taken a wild idea and built a plot and universe around it where that sort of thing just makes perfect sense. Alas, the lack of rigour does, for me and many like me, detract from the fun, but your 10 year-old niece or nephew is probably going to love it. In that regard this more than fulfils its brief and is very worthy of your time and money.
The Framed! trilogy by James Ponti
1. Framed! (2016)
2. Vanished! (2017)
3. Trapped! (2018)