As I’ve been doubling up my reviews to get through my backlog, I’ve been finding pairs of books with similar themes to review together. It has been fun searching for relationships between books I’ve read and reviewing them together. Today, I have two wonderful books featuring one of my all-time favorite types of characters: precocious girl detectives. When I was a girl, I was obsessed with Harriet the Spy. I remember getting myself a little notebook, begging my mom for a ride to the mall, and then following strangers around and recording their actions. So you can imagine how much I enjoyed the girls in these two books.
1984, Birmingham, England. Kate Meaney is the sole proprietor and lead detective for Falcon Investigations (assisted by her top secret assistant Mickey the Monkey, a stuffed animal). If Falcon Investigations had an advertisement, it would read something like this:
Clues found. Suspects trailed. Crimes detected.
Visit our office equipped with the latest surveillance equipment.
Being only 10 years old and with limited transportation, Kate performs the majority of her detective work at the newly opened Green Oaks shopping center. Virtually ignored by her grandmother (her mother abandoned her when she was small and her beloved father died of a stroke not too long ago), Kate is free to spend hours trailing suspects at Green Oaks and observing the goings on in her neighborhood. One of her few friends is Adrian, the older son of a local shopkeeper and one of the few grown-ups who take Kate seriously. At school, Kate keeps mostly to herself until she befriends Teresa, a new girl who doesn’t always do things by the rules either. Unfortunately, this fledgling friendship and Falcon Investigations comes to an abrupt end when Kate disappears without a trace.
Fast forward 20 years and we meet Kurt, a security guard at Green Oaks shopping center. Lonely and adrift in life, Kurt is startled to see a young girl appear on the mall’s surveillance cameras after-hours. Yet no trace of the girl is found; she seems to be a figment of Kurt’s imagination. Kurt is haunted by the girl and ends up teaming up with Lisa, the assistant manager of the record store in the mall, to figure out who the girl is and what happened to her.
Like Kurt, Lisa is also lonely (despite being in a relationship) and stuck in her life. She is haunted by the disappearance of her brother Adrian, who was suspected of being involved in Kate’s disappearance years before and fled home to avoid media scrutiny. Realizing that the girl on the video may be Kate, Lisa teams up with Kurt to conduct their own after-hours investigation in Green Oaks—hoping to solve the mystery of Kate’s disappearance and remove the cloud of suspicion from Adrian. Along the way, Lisa and Kurt begin to forge a fragile connection, which is shaken when their investigation begins to bear fruit.
I loved this book! It has the most interesting blend of humor intertwined with sadness. Almost everyone in the book is lost and adrift in their lives except for Kate—who has purpose and drive to spare. O’Flynn does a brilliant job of creating fully realized characters. You get inside the heads of Kate, Kurt and Lisa, and I so enjoyed my time there—even though I often found myself simultaneously laughing and filled with aching sadness for them. Even Green Oaks becomes a character of sorts—becoming a menacing and almost evil presence in the story.
Although there wasn’t nearly enough of Kate in the book (and the reason for my not giving it 5 stars … I guess I want to punish the author for not giving me more of Kate!), I was entranced by this story from the very first page until the last. O’Flynn does a brilliant job of tying everything together in a way that was both satisfying and realistic. It was hard for me to believe this was O’Flynn’s first book. She is a true talent (as evidenced by this book winning the Costa First Novel Award), and I await her next book anxiously. Do yourself a favor and read this book! It is filled to the brim with all the good and bad aspects of the human existence. Books like this don’t come along very often so don’t miss it.
There were always fresh flowers on these graves, along with stone teddy bears and faded dolls. Among them was the grave of Wayne West, a boy Kate remembered vaguely from Infants One, who had somehow put his head inside a plastic bag and suffocated. Every year he was remembered in prayers at school and in mass, but Kate always wondered if he had really died that way. It seemed such a convenient cautionary tale. Kate was waiting for the day that the teachers would present some blind boy in assembly who had lost his vision when someone had thrown a snowball with a stone in it. The school had already had a talk from a boy with one foot who had lost the other playing on the railway tracks. Kate had a gruesome image of teachers from competing schools bidding for injured children at a local hospital and ascribing a range of childhood misdemeanors to them. “I’ve got a paraplegic little girl here, ideal for stamping out leaning back on chairs.” “How about this almost-blind boy, ideal for carrot promotion.”
The Whys and The Wheres: I got this book from Paperback Swap.
1950s England. Flavia de Luce is many things: an aspiring chemist (who happens to have her own very well-equipped laboratory), a younger sister you need to be careful of (revenge on her sister Ophelia takes the form of poison ivy lipstick), and a fledgling detective. Her first detective investigation begins when she finds a dying man in her garden and watches him breathe his last breath and hears his final words: “Vale!” Of course, Flavia has more than a passing interest in the case as her distant and remote father is arrested for the stranger’s murder. As she flies around the town of Bishop Lacy on her trusty bike Gladys, Flavia manages to stay one step ahead of Inspector Hewitt, much to his irritation and bemusement. However, Flavia does almost too good of a job unraveling the mystery of the dead man in the garden when she uncovers a decades-old crime that may or may not be related. Coming face-to-face with the murderer at long last, Flavia finds herself in a bit of a jam that may be even too challenging for her precocious intellect.
Like so many precocious girl detectives before her, Flavia lives in a world of her own making. Like Kate in What Was Lost, she is free to go as she pleases. Her mother Harriet died in a mountaineering accident when she was a baby. After his wife’s death, her father retreated into his obsession with stamps and barely pays his daughters any attention. Flavia’s older sisters are more adversaries than friends. Perhaps her closest friend is Dogger, the gardener and war buddy of her father. Yet Dogger is a bit off due to his war experiences, and Flavia is forced to consider him as a suspect during her investigation.
I loved how Flavia just up and did whatever she wanted: from concocting chemical experiments in her lab to breaking and entering. Flavia is a wondrous character but perhaps a bit unbelievable. I cannot imagine a real 11-year-old being as well-informed and educated as Flavia. But really who cares? All I know is that I quite enjoyed my time in Flavia’s company. She amused me and was as daring and adventurous as I wish I could have been at her age. This book was a delight from start to finish, and I for one will be along on her next adventure, which is due to be released on March 9.
Oh, and as far as the mystery goes, this is one of those books where the character is the main attraction rather than the mystery itself. I suspect it isn’t that hard to figure out “who done it” but that isn’t really the attraction of the book anyway. The star of this book (make no mistake about it for fear of being poisoned!) is Flavia herself.
It was all Ophelia’s fault. She was, after all, seventeen, and therefore expected to possess at least a modicum of the maturity she should come into as an adult. That she should gang up with Daphne, who was thirteen, simply wasn’t fair. Their combined ages totaled thirty years. Thirty years!—against my eleven. It was not only unsporting, it was downright rotten. And it simply screamed out for revenge.
The Whys and Wheres: I “bought” this book for a penny (!) from Quality Paperback Book Club when I rejoined them for the umpteenth time last year. I’ve promised my copy of the book to Sandy over at You’ve Gotta Read This! Sandy, I suspect you are going to love it!