Review of the Day: The Invisible Detective - Ghost Soldiers
Does the name Justin Richards mean anything to you? Yes? No? If not, it's not for the author's lack of trying. Richards has thrown multiple books of varying age and interest across the Atlantic Ocean in the hopes of gaining some kind of a foothold on the American middle reader market. And after all, he's already, apparently, conquered the world of "Dr. Who" paperback fiction. Until recently, though, I hadn't much of an idea of who this vibrant British authorial star was. Then I saw the cover of "The Invisible Detective: Ghost Soldiers". Let it never be said that even the most staid and steadfast children's librarians aren't wowed from time to time by pretty covers. Made to look similar to old paperback dime novels (with pulpy designs to boot), Penguin Putnam has republished this popular English series with exceeding care. And while I would not advise doing as I did and reading this, the third chapter in the series, before reading books 1 & 2, it will make for an engaging follow-up to the first titles in the series.
There are two heroes in this book, and as luck would have it they have the same name. Today, in the present, there is a boy named Arthur who once stumbled across the casebook of someone called The Invisible Detective. Turns out, the casebook was once his grandfather's and through it Arthur is able to solve current mysteries by using the book as his guide. The second boy is named Art. Art is Arthur's grandfather, but his story takes place in the late 1930s. Together with three other kids, Art is The Invisible Detective: A sleuth so mysterious that no one ever sees him (probably because he's an adolescent foursome and all). In this book, the third case involving this somewhat modernized Basil Street Irregulars, the crew are battling skull-faced creatures wearing soldier's uniforms. There's an insidious plot afoot to use normal civilians in grotesque deforming experiments. And worst of all, it looks as if the kids' friend Charlie, a peer of the realm, is involved in the shadier side of this business.
As I mentioned earlier, do not attempt to read this book before you read any others in the series. For one thing, you'll spend half the book trying to figure out the difference between present day Arthur and his late 1930s grandfather Art. Now to my mind, Richards is at his strongest when he's working in the realm of science fiction rather than fantasy. The horrific nature of the ghost soldiers really grips the reader by the throat. But the Arthur-is-psychically-linked-to-his-granddad moments, as well as a mystical stone and a time traveling clock... well they just distract from what I would consider the real action. I should mention, by the way, that when it comes to the openings of his books, Richards is unparalleled. Recently, I happened to pick up a copy of his YA novel, "The Death Collector", and it had the finest first sentence I've read in a long long time. In the case of "Ghost Soldiers", Richards eschews easy first sentences for the far more difficult first sense of rising horror. It makes for a wonderful opening.
Richards also likes to work in significant moments in history alongside his more fantastical imaginings. For example, if you know your history and realize early on that the Crystal Palace burned to the ground in 1936 then you may not find yourself too surprised when the first wisps of smoke begin to curl upwards. I also liked how the fact that English policemen don't carry guns makes for an excellent excuse not to tell the police of the ghost soldier army being formed. As one of the kids points out, without guns the policemen would just get slaughtered.
There were some gaps in the plot, unfortunately. For example, a wino is killed early on in the book but we never learn exactly why. His death is important enough to spur The Invisible Detective to action, but not so important that his story is ever concluded to anyone's satisfaction. Also, the fact that present day Arthur cannot remember any of his grandfather's cases until he faces a similar case in his own life... well that's just the ultimate in authorial plot convenience, now isn't it?
Look, the book's fun, no question. Nobody's ever going to contest that. And as horror paperbacks go, this one has everything from gigantic shoot-em-up sequences, close shaves, multiple escapes, and even a spot of betrayal here and there. It has its flaws and weaknesses but it's also a rousing good read and a wonderful mystery series for those kids who don't want to resign themselves to "Chasing Vermeer" and its ilk. More amusing than it deserves to be, and drawn from writer of great cleverness. Great cleverness, indeed.