Friday, 8 April 2016

Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue, by Sarah Rubin

Alice Jones, maths whiz and all-round supernerd, is on the verge of breaking up from school for the summer holidays when she is bundled into a sleek black car by two muscled gorillas. Great. She's been kidnapped by the weird kid in her class, Sammy Delgado, who's been bugging her ever since she solved a squirrel mystery for him. Ferried to Sammy's giant mansion slash science laboratory that his scientist businessman father owns, she is surprised to find her dad already there for a press conference. Alice, Sammy and assembled members of the press wait with baited breath to hear about the development of (possibly, hinted at, almost definitely) an invisibility device by the inspired minds at Delgado Industries. Instead they learn, shockingly, that the lead scientist, DrLearner, has disappeared, and can they all make their way to the exit and sorry for this shocking news- very distressed and saddened etc. etc.

The suspiciously showy Mr Delgado shows some security footage that shows Dr Learner entering his windowless office via the only door...and never leaving. Apparently vanishing into thin air, he was nowhere to be found when his assistant came to look for him the next day. A classic locked room mystery, but with the added possibility of invisibility.

Being an amateur sleuth, a (kind of) friend of the family, Alice is 'employed' to crack the case of the disappearing scientist. Cruel, ruthless Mr Delgado doesn't actually expect her to produce any results, but hiring a cute kid to stand around with a magnifying glass looking sincere is his idea of excellent publicity, especially when the kid's father is a newspaper reporter. She's determined to prove that just because she's a 12 year old girl, doesn't mean she is any less capable of solving a mystery to pro standards.

I liked the way the book manages to balance intense mystery business with family drama and coping with constant maths behaviours. Alice's twin sister, aspiring Thespian, drama queen and general diva Della is staying for the summer, Alice's dad is working all hours, eating a lot of takeout, being forgetful and laid back and generally not-quite-parenting-to-mom's-standards .Alice is learning to just cope with everyone's issues. She worries about pleasing everyone, about mediating between her parents, pacifying her feisty sister and cracking the locked-room mystery
of a lifetime, while still trying to solve the impossible Goldback Conjecture at the same time. It's at 12 ish that a kid's responsibilities start to emerge; a person is expected to suddenly make good decisions and manage their time better and knuckle down. Alice just has slightly different problems on her plate.

I really liked this and think any budding sleuth will really get into Alice's misadventures. I really liked the character of Kevin- he begins as an angel-faced anarchist, spitballing the girls in his class...but with a bit of confused perseverance and a task to do he becomes a dedicated and level headed sidekick to Alice. He provides the second opinions and the nudes back to reality when Alice gets lost in numbers. He's the cherubesque, 12 year old Dr Watson to Alice's scrape-kneed, cargo panted Sherlock.

The Impossible Clue has just the right mixture of laughs, tension and danger, dastardly deeds and red herrings and a good, classic mystery trope of the locked room. The characters are very sturdy from quite early on, and Alice is a really likeable tomboy of a 12 year old, whizzing around the neighbourhood on her bike with a messenger bag stuffed with notes and with loyal Kevin in hot pursuit. There's just the right amount of friendship, sibling issues and being a bit misunderstood. All in all it's a solid middle grade sleuth story that fans of Ruby Redfort and  Knightly & Son will enjoy. I love the current revival of smart, sparky tweens solving crimes. There are historical crime flavours of the Wells and Wong by Robin Stevens and the Sinclair's Mystery stories by Katherine Woodfine...There's the more paranormal mysteries of Lockwood & Co, the high octane legal thrillers like the Thodore Boone series. It's such a good time for Middle Grade fiction right now.

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