Fuse #8

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Review of the Day: Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars - The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas

When I was a kid I loved me my Agatha Christie and Rex Stout. Mysteries were my bread and butter. Today, nothing’s different. Kids are just as enamored of adult mysteries as they ever were. And perhaps the most popular detective with the kiddies (as much as I would prefer it to be Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poirot) is Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is hot these days. To what may we attribute this Holmes-loving trend? The rise of such children’s books as the remarkable “The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Holmes Mystery” by Nancy Springer? The new Sleuth imprint by Penguin? The rise in mystery-minded series books? Or is this a trend begun entirely by publishers with little to no child input? Whatever the case, I hope kids are ready to open up wide and swallow their fair share of Sherlock lore. If they are, Tracy Mack and Michael Citrin’s first installment in their new Baker Street Irregular series, “The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas” should be just the starter Holmes-tale they need.

Ozzie is an orphan. At least, as far as he knows. Though apprenticed to a scrivener by his now dead mother, he’s taken up with a band of ragtag street kids known as The Baker Street Irregulars. Employed from time to time by the great Sherlock Holmes the Irregulars consider themselves top notch streetwise mini-detectives in their own right. Led by the irrepressible Wiggins, the crew has welcomed Ozzie into their fold and just in time. Murder is afoot at the local circus and somehow it seems to involve none other than The Prince of Wales. Ozzie, it seems, has an uncanny knack for deduction, but when the investigation hits close to his home he’ll find himself deeply immersed in perhaps the greatest crime of the century.

I was handed this book recently by some co-workers because I’d been reading too many “meaningful” titles and I deserved something fun. Fun it is too. Action packed and mysterious all at once, this is one of those rare books written for kids that don’t regularly partake of Eragon-sized tomes. There are plenty of small mysteries left unsolved by the end of the tale as well. I suspect that some kids will be able to make a reasonable prediction of who Ozzie’s real father is. The authors also choose to include the standard future-predictin’-gypsy element so popular (not to say, convenient to the plot) in pseudo-fantastical historical fiction. There are some oblique references to Ozzie’s parentage that will certainly come into play in the future books in the series, I have little doubt.

It was clever of Ms. Tracy Mack to attain the aid of her husband Michael Citrin due to his exhaustive Holmes knowledge. The authors are faithful to the original tales, going so far as to allow Holmes to keep pertinent information to himself until the big reveal. They also cover up for the fact that Watson only mentioned the Irregulars in a couple cases because he was jealous of their competence. Poor Watson. He never comes across very well in modern Holmes adaptations. Now for some, the image of Robert Newton’s Baker Street Irregular children’s books still looms large. As a children’s librarian, I can attest that they also get checked out regularly (much to my own surprise). Of course, Mack’s newest book is more accessible to younger children than Newton’s books ever were. However, they aren’t quite as atmospheric or sophisticated. Consider these, instead, more of an introduction to the world of Holmes proper.

In a discussion of this book with other children’s librarians there was a great deal of confusion over the character of the “Zalindas”. In the book they are a circus family that come to a tragic end. In real life, there was also a famous tightrope act once known as The Flying Wallendas. Why did Mack and Citrin feel it necessary to change the name? I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that there are Wallendas performing to this very day. Of course, there is no mention of the real Wallendas in the back of the book, which is a pity. It feels as though Mack and Citrin have passed up a chance to teach kids some interesting history for fear of linking their name to the characters in the book. A bit of a wasted opportunity, no? Kudos, though, for the veritable plethora of fabulous information that IS in the back of the book. Here the average reader may find a Cast of Characters (which probably would have made more sense in the front of the book, but oh well), a Slang Glossary, a fabulous series of instructions concerning Cockney Rhyming Slang, a section of deduction from, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”, a bit on The Art of Disguise, a very useful guide to Victorian Carriages, Coaches, and Carts, and even a preview of the next Baker Street Irregular adventure. Phew! And I haven’t even mentioned the historical map on the endpapers that indicates the routes taken by the characters in the book.

Let me not fail to give credit where credit is due to illustrator Greg Ruth as well. As with fellow graphic novel illustrators like Adam Rex, Ruth has switched his focus from DC and Dark Horse Comics to the world of children’s books (including the new Goosebumps graphic series). From time to time his characters come across as a bit too cherub-like in appearance (awww… look at those chubby wittle cheeks!) but by and large they add to the overall atmosphere and feel of the book. I would have given Holmes a bit more of a beaky nose but that's just me.

I was personally pleased (perhaps a little too much so) when I was able to translate the book’s Cockney Rhyming Slang without consulting the glossary at the back. And I haven’t seen a book with as good a secret code as is found in this book since Blue Balliett’s, “Chasing Vermeer”. All in all, “The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas” will serve to please both Holmes purists and newfound fans. I wouldn’t call it particularly complex (check out the aforementioned Springer book, “Enola Holmes” for that) but has a good-natured feel and is bound to be adored by mystery fans everywhere. Well worth the purchase.

Notes On the Cover: Top notch work all around. A tip of the hat to Orchard Books (to say nothing of editor Lisa Sandell) for a book that is both aesthetically pleasing AND something a kid would be inclined to pick up. I’ve grown so tired of sepia-toned folderol that this engaging image of a kid peering out at me while a shadowy figure stands in a tent doorway just blew me away. Even the spine looks nice. Plus, check out the cast headshots on the back cover.


At 12:47 AM , Blogger The Buried Editor said...

I read the ARC that I grabbed at TLA. Loved the book. I've always been a bigger Christie than Doyle fan, but I thought the folks did a great job with this one. I even liked how they managed to still keep Holmes woman and child hating yet still accessible. I've been reccommending this to anyone I meet. Well, anyone I meet in the bookstore. It would make for odd conversation at AutoZone where I had to go for a new car battery.

At 10:31 AM , Blogger Dan McCoy said...

Fah! Poirot is the poor man's Holmes!

At 12:42 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Though it pains me in every one of my little gray cells, I'll not fight for the honor of Poirot here. *sniff* I love you David Suchet!

No, I'm reserving my fighting stance for Nero Wolfe. You haven't even read any Rex Stout, have you, Dan (she sneered). Top notch New York crazy detective work AND they're funny AND there's some thought that Wolfe has striking similarities to Mycroft Holmes, particularly in bulk. Nero Wolfe trumps Sherlock Holmes any day of the week. PHHHHHTT!

God, I'm mature.

At 3:11 PM , Blogger Dan McCoy said...

I love the Suchet Poirots, but I think they're easily matched or surpassed by the Jeremy Brett Holmes's.

Anyway, I read one Nero Wolfe and liked it quite a lot. Someday I may read more. But, as you point out, it was influenced by Holmes (as is pretty much any detective story, other than the Poe tales that preceded Doyle).

At 4:30 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

the sleuth imprint is from Penguin, not S&S.

At 4:41 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

O! Point to the anonymous tipster on the fact that I got the Sleuth imprint incorrent. I'll go change that right now...

And though inspired by Holmes, I'd say that the Wolfe books are more a combination of the private eye genre (hence Archie as a character) and the drawing room detective (Wolfe himself), making it a superior beastie.


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