#998: Minor Felonies – Panda-Monium (2017) by Stuart Gibbs

I was very much looking forward to celebrating this review as my one hundredth post tagged as a juvenile mystery, making a full century of detective fiction for younger readers on this blog. But then it turns out that this is, like, the 104th and the one hundredth was Peak Peril (2022) by Sharna Jackson back in July. So. Onwards and upwards.

The fourth visit to FunJungle, the super-sized Texan zoo owned by billionaire J.J McCracken, Panda-Monium (2017) finds author Stuart Gibbs really rising to the occasion. The plot is faster, the events more tightly involved, and there are some very good clues that tie perfectly into the milieu he has employed. It sort of begs the question of whether he comes up with a good clue and then happens to fold it into a plot, or whether the selection of animal-based puns the titles became from this point on helped focus his mind only on factors that concern those animals. Whichever way it falls out, the guy it to be applauded: I’m loving these books, and — with an eighth title already announced for 2023 — I hope the series continues for a good while yet.

As with previous entries in the series, the plot here is chiefly made up of a major and a minor thread. The former concerns the loaning of panda Li Ping to FunJungle — “every panda in the world was owned by the country of China, which only loaned them to a few select zoos”, well I did not know that — and the kidnap of said panda before she even arrives. Following a drive across the country in a specially-constructed trailer towed by a truck with two rotating drivers and a member of security staff on constant lookout, not to mention FunJungle’s resident head vet Doc in the trailer with Li Ping for the 18-hour journey, the grand arrival of Li Ping is somewhat scuppered by the small matter of the trailer being completely empty when it arrives…both Doc and Li Ping having apparently been snatched en route. But…how? The two drivers took shifts and would have noticed any assault on the trailer even if fast asleep, and even the inept security guard — ‘Large Marge’ O’Malley, nemesis of 13 year-old protagonist Teddy Fitzroy — couldn’t have failed to notice the explosive used to open the doors, not to mention the operation of lifting a panda from a moving vehicle.

Suffice to say, Teddy is once again roped in by J.J. McCracken…

“Teddy’s had a hand in solving every major crime that’s taken place here,” he’d declared. “I’m not keeping him on the sidelines when my top vet and my panda are missing.”

The way he said it, I didn’t have much choice in the matter either.

…only to be roped out pretty quickly when the kidnapping threatens to turn into a diplomatic incident involving a foreign power, and so the FBI are brought in to get to the bottom of things. I thoroughly enjoyed this element of proceedings, because there’s the risk that the novels would just turn into a series of borderline fantasies where every time something goes wrong a billionaire would just turn to his trusty 13 year-old sleuth to get to the bottom of things…and half the fun of these books is in Teddy having to investigate on the sly, and only stumbling by accident upon information that he’s savvy enough to put the correct interpretation on. But, shut out by the FBI — headed up, in a nice twist of circumstance, by Marge’s over-achieving sister Molly — and with a legitimate maelstrom of international relations brewing, what possible use can a 13 year-old boy and his girlfriend, J.J.’s daughter Summer, possibly be?

“Can a future book be called Dog Gone, please?”

Gibbs’ solution to this quandary is actually pretty wonderful. The two investigations — one by the FBI, one by Teddy and Summer — run parallel and occasionally overlap with often dire consequences for our junior sleuths, the seriousness of the situation, and the stakes, heightening the peril Teddy finds himself in. At one point, someone draws a gun on Teddy, which Gibbs certainly doesn’t treat lightly, and his experience in chapter 17 is hair-raising in a way that nothing he’s had to confront has been to date.

I had found myself in some dangerous situations before, but [this] was the most terrifying thing I’d ever experienced.

Like some of the best fiction this genre has produced, a lot of Gibbs’ success also comes from the canny juggling of tones, so that serious and threatening encounters rub up against more humorous ones without either compromising the other. Chapter 17 is legitimate tense stuff, leavened with a couple of humorous moments, so that when chapter 18 sees Teddy, Marge, and Summer pursuing a criminal across the park, causing enough chaos that a janitor “shouted something at us that the FunJungle Employee Handbook expressly forbade employees to say in front of the guests”, I was both caught up in the chase and laughing along with the good jokes, And don’t even get me started on the culmination of this particular thread at the start of chapter 22, when the exploits of incompetent security guard Kevin Wilks had me in hysterics. It’s kid-friendly stuff, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean we grown-ups can’t enjoy a funny conceit so well deployed.

There’s also, as with other titles in this series, a pleasing willingness on Gibbs’ behalf to engage with the grey areas of certain matters, such as the conversation Teddy has with his parents about the practice of monkey-wrenching in chapter 14, or Teddy’s friend Xavier Gonzalez’s observations about the core plot of animal smuggling:

“Animal trafficking is a huge business,” Xavier said defensively. “Like, billions of dollars a year, easy.”

“But not in this country,” Dash said. “That happens other places, right?”

“No, it happens right here,” Xavier said gravely. “All the time. I know people like to point the finger at China and other countries, but according to the World Wildlife Fund, Americans buy just as many illegal animal species as China every year. Maybe even more.”

Plus, the mystery actually ties up pretty smartly — there’s an absolutely superb clue which puts Teddy on the track that (shock!) the FBI have missed, and while the scheme requires a little fudging of the situation as we’ve come to understand it…well, c’mon, it’s still a very clever idea, and the people involved would definitely tell the lies they did to make it appear more baffling. No wonder Teddy is getting a name for himself, if he’s able to put things together like this — all the more impressive for how believable it is that he’s the one to crack the case…really no mean feat!

“Or Chow-Dunnit?”

Alongside this, there’s also the minor mystery of why dolphins in the FunJungle Dolphin Adventure exhibit have started stealing the bathing suits of people who have paid to swim with them, and again this is a nifty little mystery with a good clue unlocking the solution. I applaud the way Gibbs keeps stirring these smaller considerations into his plots, breathing life not just into the enterprise of FunJungle itself but also into the people who surround Teddy. Almost everyone in these books breathes, with some moment of insight or reflection given to almost every character who contributes to the story…hell, even the ineptitude of the FunJungle security staff is thought through, so that, while they may be a little Keystone Cops-ish, you do sort of believe that these people would behave like that.

This series, then, remains a delight. Who’d have thought that a century-plus of fiction for younger readers would have dredged up so much excellent fiction…and, well, with honestly not that much dredging required: there are some genuinely great books full of fresh ideas, clever mysteries, canny clues, and enjoyable revelations out there if you’re willing to just glance around and find them, and I intend to keep reading and writing about them for the elucidation of the five of you who actually read these posts. Here’s to the next one hundred (and four)!

~

Stuart Gibbs’ mysteries for younger readers:

FunJungle

  1. Belly Up (2010)
  2. Poached (2014)
  3. Big Game (2015)
  4. Panda-Monium (2017)
  5. Lion Down (2019)
  6. Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (2020)
  7. Bear Bottom (2021)
  8. Whale Done (2023)

Moon Base Alpha

  1. Space Case (2014)
  2. Spaced Out (2016)
  3. Waste of Space (2018)

4 thoughts on “#998: Minor Felonies – Panda-Monium (2017) by Stuart Gibbs

    • Hooray, a convert! Well, okay, not quite a convert, but it’s a start; I hope you enjoy this, because it’s a great example of the brilliant work being done for younger readers right now. Man, kids these days have it so good…

      Like

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