Review by Jennifer Irvine
Puffin Canada, Penguin Random House, April 2019
256 pages, hardcover, $18.99 CAD, 978-0-073526-546-2
Ages 10+, Grades 4-7
Middle Grade, Mystery
I pulled aside the curtain to let the dancers pass, and held my breath as Miss Marianne sat upon the piano stool and began to play. The girls swayed on the stage like knobby saplings in a gusty breeze. The tip of Florence’s tongue stuck out at the corner of her mouth. Lavinia perspired like a glass of iced lemonade on a summer day. I had an inkling that what was taught in the Mermaid Dance Room was more rewarding for the dancers than for the audience. But applause came, whether deserved or not. Florence and Lavinia hurtled into the pantry. The dreaded moment had arrived. My stomach seemed to be full of walnut shells.
Agatha Caroline Morton, “a tall-for-12-year-old girl,” is so shy that every time she has to talk in public, she begins to stutter and almost faints. Her mother has decided that she can learn more at home and therefore, Aggie has, “no school, no governess, and no friends” except for the fictitious ones that she invents. That is, until she meets young Hector Perot at Mr. Dillon’s Sweet Shop. Hector is from Belgium but is staying at the local vicarage, where they consider him their “own little immigrant” who is there to set an example of how charitable the village parish is toward “foreigners.” Both Aggie and Hector find out that they share a “morbid preoccupation” with death, which will soon come in handy.
So starts Aggie and Hector’s search for a killer amongst the villagers who live in the small town of Torquay, England. Agatha Christie fans will enjoy reading this novel that is based on a fictitious life of Christie and her famous detective Hercule Poirot.
A hornet’s nest of potential suspects is attending the Benefit for Foreigners, a fundraiser held at the Mermaid Dance Studio, where a dead body is found the morning after the bash. There are so many characters in this novel that portraits of them are included at the beginning of the book, along with the ever-faithful Tony, Aggie’s terrier. To name a few, there’s Florence Fussell, whose father owns the town’s renowned Royal Victoria Hotel. She is usually accompanied by Lavinia Paine, “best friend and loyal follower of Florence.” Miss Marianne Eversham, dance instructor, is a feminist –– quite an anomaly for 1902 –– who believes in votes and equal rights for women and that corsets should be banned. Marianne has no qualms about voicing her opinions, but is predictably met with comments from the local men like women are “chatterboxes” and can’t keep a secret and “a female without guidance of a man is not to be trusted” –– a sign of the misogynist times.
Canadian author Marthe Jocelyn includes many fun, pithy idioms, such as “sharp as a needle in a dish of ice cream,” similes, including “shame draped around me like a cloak,” and inventive descriptions such as “the smell was like old socks in vinegar.” I particularly enjoyed when Aggie turns her observations into snippets of a mystery novel like, “wrenched from its perch, the dislodged cranium rolled to a stop next to Mrs. Teasdale’s tightly laced boots,” or “a face as dark as storm clouds. Scowling like a mad dog.”
While I also appreciate that the author includes Aggie’s thoughts about her father, who died a year earlier, there were so many references to him from his beloved library, what he would look like now, and what advice he would have given her in a situation, that I started to think that he may still be alive. If the intention was to throw the reader off track, then it succeeded with me.
Still, the story moves along quickly and is filled with vivid characters, plenty of mayhem, and many characters’ secrets are eventually revealed. I look forward to the next installment, since this appears to be the start of a series.
JENNIFER IRVINE has grown fond of reading middle grade and YA books during her time in the BFA Creative Writing program. Her own writing began with memoir, but she is now exploring middle grade and speculative fiction.