One-Minute Book Reviews

March 24, 2012

‘Nate the Great’ Turns 40 / A 9-Year-Old Sleuth With Enduring Appeal

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:50 am
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A confident young “detective” loves solving cases and eating pancakes

Nate the Great. By Marjorie Weinman Sharmat. Pictures by Marc Simont. Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 64 pp., $4.99, paperback. Ages 5–8.

By Janice Harayda

For 40 years, the 9-year-old detective who calls himself “Nate the Great” has been striding confidently forth to solve crimes dressed in a Sherlock Holmesian deerstalker’s cap and a trench coat worthy of Inspector Clouseau. And there’s no mystery about why he remains one of the most popular heroes of the beginning-reader genre.

Sharmat was among the first authors to show that books with a limited vocabulary don’t have to be as dull as the Dick-and-Jane primers that set their tone for years. Nate has personality. He is cool, methodical and self-assured without being rude. And he’s funny. Sharmat writes in the deadpan tone of hard-boiled detective novels and invests her hero with the mannerisms of their sleuths. “My name is Nate the Great,” Nate announces in the first sentence of Nate the Great. “I am a detective. I work alone.”

That “I work alone” is typical of how Sharmat invokes the solitary American private eye with wit and accuracy. Nate solves “cases” instead of crimes: Who taped the red paper heart to Sludge’s doghouse? Who is raiding his friend Oliver’s garbage? What happened to the birthday gift that fell off the cat-loving Rosamond’s sled?

Nate helps his friend Annie find a missing picture of her dog, Fang, in Nate the Great. He works not by deduction (forming a theory and testing it) like Holmes but mostly by intuition and induction (gathering evidence until he has a theory). When he learns that Annie’s house has no secret passageways he can explore, he seeks clues by other means — searching her room, digging in her yard, and talking with her brother. He stops briefly to fill up on pancakes because “I must keep up my strength.”

The plot of Nate the Great has enough action to work either for independent reading by children or for reading aloud by adults. And Marc Simont’s witty line drawings suggest the range of emotions that accompany his hero’s bravado. His Nate is alternately as tight-lipped as Sam Spade and as expressive as any 9-year-old, an unusual and well-balanced combination that helps to give the series its enduring appeal.

Some might argue that Nate the Great reflects traditional sex roles in words and pictures that show a boy helping a girl who couldn’t find a picture on her own. But those roles reflect both the era in which the novel arrived and the crime fiction that inspired it. By the standards of the hard-boiled novels of its day, the story is actually progressive. Nate and Annie are friends apart from the case that brought them together. How many  fictional gumshoes, even today, spend most of their time in the company of a female friend in whom they have no romantic interest?

Best line/picture: No. 1: “I work alone.” No. 2: “I would like Annie if I liked girls.”

Worst line/picture: None. But in the well-used 1972 library edition I read, one page describes a clown, house and tree as “red” and a monster as “orange” when the colors appear indistinguishable, possibly because of fading.

Recommended for: First and second graders who are beginning to read and for reading aloud to younger children.

Published: 1972 (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, first edition), 1977 (Yearling/Dell reprint).

Want to wish Nate a happy 40th birthday? Write to Marjorie Weinman Sharmat c/o Author Mail, Delacorte Press, Dell Publishing, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.

Furthermore: Nate has inspired a musical and more.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 23, 2012

‘Nate the Great,’ Boy Detective — Tomorrow

Nate the Great wears a Sherlock Holmesian deerstalker’s cap and a trench coat worthy of Inspector Clouseau. And for decades the 9-year-old sleuth has been the hero of the first mysteries that many children read on their own, Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s popular series of easy-readers for ages 5 through 8 that bears his name. Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews: clues to his success in a review of the book that launched his adventures.

December 17, 2009

A Sherlock Holmes Christmas Story — ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’

Filed under: Classics,Mysteries and Thrillers,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:36 pm
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The world’s most famous detective must figure out how a priceless gem ended up in a white goose

By Janice Harayda

Great holiday crime stories are rare. Set a murder mystery against the backdrop of a celebration of the birth of Christ and you risk accusations of trivializing the season or playing it for heavy irony. And who wants to be reminded that the wreath-draped mall teems with pickpockets or that burglars may strike after we leave for the airport?

Part of the genius of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is that it implicitly acknowledges such realities. Arthur Conan Doyle begins this Sherlock Holmes tale on the second morning after Christmas. It’s a holiday story without the freight it would carry if it took place two days earlier. And it has a plot perfectly attuned to the season. Holmes has the benign Watson by his side as usual. But he doesn’t face his arch-foe, Moriarty, or a killer armed with a gun or a trained swamp adder as in “The Dancing Men” or “The Speckled Band.” He needs only to find out why a priceless gem – the blue carbuncle – turned up in the gullet of a Christmas goose abandoned on a London street.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. But Holmes resolves the case, in fewer than a dozen pages, with panache and in a spirit of holiday generosity. You could probably read “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” aloud in 20 minutes or so as a yule log burns. And it appeals to nearly all ages – not just to adults but to children who need more dramatic fare than The Polar Express.

Part of the allure all the Sherlock Holmes tales is that, while their stories are exciting, Holmes is imperturbable. “My name is Sherlock Holmes,” he tells a suspect in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” “It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” How nice that, in this case, he knows how to set the right tone – in a secular if not religious sense – for the season.

Furthermore: You can download “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” for free at the online Classic Literature Library, which makes available at no cost books in the public domain. At top left is the Audio CD “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes — The Blue Carbuncle” (Mitso Media, 2006), read by James Alexander.

This review first appeared on this site on Dec. 19, 2007.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

September 30, 2008

The Body in the Outhouse — Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,’ the Winner of Britain’s Highest Award for Nonfiction, Reads Like Detective Novel

The Road Hill murder caught the eye of Charles Dickens and other novelists.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. By Kate Summerscale. Illustrated. Walker, 360 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has slogged through some of the grimmer winners of the Man Booker Prize may look more kindly on British judges after reading this admirable winner of the U.K.’s highest award for nonfiction.

In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale uses the conventions of the detective novel to tell the true story of the murder of a three-year-old boy whose body turned up in the servants’ privy of an English country house in the summer of 1860. And the device works remarkably well despite a few red herrings and questions that have eluded answers for more than a century.

All good writers try to give their books a healthy pace that often depends partly on suspense, but Summerscale goes beyond that. She has structured her book like an old-fashioned detective novel that includes clues hidden in plain sight and a startling twist in the final pages that casts the story in a new light just when you think you understand it.

The murder of young Saville Kent took place at Road Hill House, a 19-room Georgian dwelling in Wiltshire owned by Samuel Kent, a government sub-inspector of factories. On the night the child died, the elder Kent was home along with his pregnant second wife (the former family governess), four children from his first marriage and two from his second, and three-live in female servants. The evidence suggested overwhelmingly that one of those people killed the boy found in an outhouse with his throat slashed.

But there was no obvious motive for the crime, and the stymied local police sought help from Scotland Yard, which sent Detective-Inspector Jonathan “Jack” Whicher to Road Hill. Whicher quickly become convinced that he knew who killed Saville, but in trying to prove it ran up against obstacles than included a public scorn for his work, rooted partly in mid-Victorian notions of social class and family privacy. He found no vindication until five years later when the killer confessed. Some questions about the murder remain unanswered, notwithstanding a mysterious letter from Australia that arrived decades after his death and purported to set the record straight.

Summerscale may overplay the effect the notorious murder had the development of the detective novel, which might have evolved as it did regardless, but this doesn’t undermine her achievement. “This was the original country-hour mystery,” she writes, “a case in which the investigator needed to find not a person but a person’s hidden self.” Her careful mapping of that quest would make this book interesting even if the case had not influenced Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Modern crime stories – whether fiction or nonfiction – often reduce murderers’ motives to pop-psychological clichés that are absurdly inadequate to the savagery of the acts committed. By going back nearly a century and a half — before detectives had access to the temptations to facile analysis offered by Freud and Dr. Phil — Summerscale reminds us how much more there may be to it than that.

Best line: Whicher once captured a swindler “who had conned a London saddler out of a gun case, an artist out of two enamel paintings, and an ornithologist out of 18 humming bird skins.”

Worst line: “One evening Saville’s then nursemaid, Emma Sparks, put the boy to bed, as usual, in a pair of knitted socks.” The meaning of “then nursemaid” is clear, but the construction of the phrase is newspaperese.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guide to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 30, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: April 2008 You can download the first chapter for free at www.mrwhicher.com.

Read interview with Kate Summerscale on Bookslut www.bookslut.com/features/2008_09_013387.php

Furthermore: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction from the BBC www.thesamueljohnsonprize.co.uk/. Summerscale is a former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph.

If you like 19th-century true crime, you might also enjoy Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer www.jameslswanson.com.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. One-Minute Book reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

August 4, 2008

Around the World in 80 Sleuths — A List of Crime-Solvers and Their Turf

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:43 pm
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Kerrie at the Mysteries in Paradise blog steered me to Jonathan Gibbs’s traveler-friendly post Around the World in 80 Sleuths in the Independent
www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/crime-fiction-around-the-world-in-80-sleuths-873660.html, which has thumbnail descriptions of 80 fictional crime-solvers and their haunts. The featured sleuths work in places that span the alphabet from roughly Amsterdam (Nicholas Freeling’s Inspector Piet Van der Valk in Because of Cats) to Ystad, Sweden (Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander in Faceless Killers). Kerrie covers additional ground on her unusually well-organized mystery blog paradise-mysteries.blogspot.com/, some of it in a recent review of R. N. Morris’s A Gentle Axe, set in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1866.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 19, 2007

My Dear Watson, It’s Arthur Conan Doyle’s Classic Sherlock Holmes Christmas Story – ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’

The world’s most famous detective must figure out how a priceless gem ended up in a white goose

By Janice Harayda

Great holiday crime stories are rare. Set a murder mystery against the backdrop of a celebration of the birth of Christ and you risk accusations of trivializing the season or playing it for heavy irony. And who wants to be reminded that the wreath-draped mall teems with pickpockets or that burglars may strike after we leave for the airport?

Part of the genius of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is that it implicitly acknowledges such realities. Arthur Conan Doyle begins this Sherlock Holmes tale on the second morning after Christmas. It’s a holiday story without the freight it would carry if it took place two days earlier. And it has a plot perfectly attuned to the season. Holmes has the benign Watson by his side as usual. But he doesn’t face his arch-foe, Moriarty, or a killer armed with a gun or a trained swamp adder as in “The Dancing Men” or “The Speckled Band.” He needs only to find out why a priceless gem – the blue carbuncle – turned up in the gullet of a Christmas goose abandoned on a London street.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. But Holmes resolves the case, in fewer than a dozen pages, with panache and in a spirit of holiday generosity. You could probably read “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” aloud in 20 minutes or so as a yule log burns. And it appeals to nearly all ages – not just to adults but to children who need more dramatic fare than The Polar Express.

Part of the allure all the Sherlock Holmes tales is that, while their stories are exciting, Holmes is imperturbable. “My name is Sherlock Holmes,” he tells a suspect in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” “It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” How nice that, in this case, he knows how to set the right tone – in a secular if not religious sense – for the season.

Furthermore: You can download “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” for free at the online Classic Literature Library, which makes available at no cost books in the public domain: sherlock-holmes.classic-literature.co.uk/the-adventure-of-the-blue-carbuncle/. At top left is the Audio CD “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes — The Blue Carbuncle” (Mitso Media, 2006), read by James Alexander, available on Amazon www.amazon.com and elsewhere.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It is also for people who dislike long-winded weasel reviews that are full of facts and plot summaries but don’t tell you what the critic thought of the book.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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