“Oh my days,” whispered Norva, throwing her head back. “It’s not like we’re going to the moon, we’re going on the moors. Calm it down.”
Anika ‘Nik’ Alexander and her sister Norva have left the (relative) comfort of ‘the Tri’, the three-towered estate in South East London where they live with their father, and headed to the Peak District as part of the Girls Get Going! scheme…
“…[e]ncouraging young ladies from busy cities and towns, like you, to slow down for a moment; to explore and appreciate the great outdoors. And there’s no better outdoors than the Peak District, believe me. Enjoy breathing in some fresh, clean air for once.”
And the change of setting is perhaps needed: they have solved two murders at the Tri, after all, and “respite from crime was required…we needed a second to step away, to sit back. To put death aside for a moment”. So it’s a good job that the decrepit Sheaf Hill Hall will provide no sort of mystery whatsoever. Eh?
Those of you outside the UK probably don’t know about World Book Day, a charitable endeavour in March every year set up to encourage people young and old alike into reading. In recent years, authors new and established have been asked to write short books can be collected from bookshops for free in exchange for a coupon given out to all school-age children in the country — and if you lose your coupon, or you’re no longer of school-going age, you can buy them for £1. And when I saw that Sharna Jackson’s High-Rise Mystery series was being continued under the banner of this endeavour, I was more than a little eager to get my hands on this one.
The nature of these books means that the plots should be less complex than a full-length novel — they’re typically about 100 pages long, in what I’ve come to think of as A-format paperback size — but any time spent with Nik and her hard-to-impress sister is always enjoyable, especially as the scrapes they get into inevitably bring about a fair amount of trouble for the pair of them on the way to untangling whatever mystery they’re engaged with Here, thankfully, there’s no murder, just a rumour of a long-lost treasure hidden somewhere in the Hall grounds, and when a note passed under the door of the girls’ room seems to nudge them in the direction of the treasure’s location, “N-squared” are ready for all sorts of mystification and entanglement.
“What we’re definitely going to do is follow this clue…”
“Norva, I don’t know…”
“What’s the worst that could happen?”
I narrowed my eyes.
“Yeah, don’t answer that,” she laughed.
In the brief space allowed, Jackson does a good job establishing the girls in a completely new setting and around a selection of people who all seem to have some ulterior motive for suspicious behaviour. Why is the hall’s new owner always making phone calls that sound vaguely menacing? What’s the meaning of “Owls or Blades?”? And can they really trust the girls from another school who are there at the same time and seem to have their own adventure going on? Having worked the spiralling finger of suspicion into a familiar setting in her two previous novels, Jackson is at home here throwing in plenty of odd behaviour and suspicious types for the girls to be confounded by. The blank slate of Sheaf Hill Hall offers new settings and opportunities that would be denied in the concrete behemoth of the Tri, and the work done in making the activities realistic while the clues build subtly against them is always pleasing to see,
The only real complaint I have is that this is too short, which, as the raison d’etre of these books, isn’t really fair to hold against it. The plot resolves itself neatly, but I wanted more of it…not least because of the background of discontent and inequality that is brought to proceedings by Tom Thorne, who inherited the Hall from his father and resent these “poor children” using the place for this endeavour.
“This is exactly why I don’t want girls like you here — taking things that don’t belong to you.”
“We didn’t take it!” said Norva.
“We kind of did,” I whispered.
You’ll get more out of this having read the novels that preceded it, but it leaves me hopeful that we’ve not seen the last of Nik and Norva. Jackson is superb at capturing the air of resigned, cynical posturing of the young and puncturing it with moments of sheer childish delight when they forget how unimpressed they’re supposed to be, and it makes a lovely contrast to the Jolly Hockey Sticks attitude of The Five Find-Outers, where everything is resolved with a bit of a telling off but no real consequences. Sure, everyone gets to go home and there’s no sense of lasting trauma — theses are books for kids, after all — but that air of learning and facing up to the responsibilities of one’s actions that permeates so much of this crime fiction for youngsters now is deftly handled. Jackson has started another series with her newest book The Good Turn (2022), but I’m hopeful she’ll be willing to Tri these two wonderful junior sleuths again before too long.
The High-Rise Mystery series by Sharna Jackson