THE RATCHETT EFFECT: Kids Solve Krimes on Trains

I have to hand it to my pal JJ: through his regular feature, “Minor Felonies,” over at his blog The Invisible Event, he has been calling my attention to some amazing mystery novels written with young people (and the young at heart) in mind. Sure, my shelves are over-crowded and my pocketbook depleted, but I’m having a lot of fun examining how the kid’s version of the genre has grown up – like, for instance, how nobody’s shying away from murder anymore. 

Seriously, when I was growing up, I would’ve given anything if Encyclopedia Brown had found himself framed for the murder of Bugs Meany. The rat had it coming to him, and there were plenty of suspects among the neighborhood victims of his pranks; even his own lieutenants in the Tigers gang would have done anything to move up in the ranks. And after all their tiresome adventures nabbing smugglers in Bayport, the Hardy Boys series would have been infused with new blood – if it had only thought to shed some!!

Bugs gets squashed!

But I digress: today we’re going to look at two books with two mysterious deaths and – because we’re dealing with Kiddie Krimes after all – we’re going to play with trains! And since both authors I’m talking about today are British – well, one is half-American! – both works take their cues from the glorious traditions of the Golden Age. 

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M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

My recent forays into mysteries aimed at young readers began when JJ introduced me to M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman’s Adventures in Trains, a charming series of fair-play mysteries with international settings and a fine detective duo in young Harrison Beck and his Uncle Nat, a journalist who writes about trains. There are four books out (I just ordered the latest), and if you’ve been following along, we first saw Hal get his sleuthing feet wet by finding a notorious jewel thief aboard an old British steam train. He then travelled to America where he solved a kidnapping aboard an Amtrak super train. But these piddling crimes took place when Hal was eleven. Now he’s twelve, and it’s time to put aside the silly games of childhood and come face to face with . . . . . murder!!!!!

This time around, Uncle Nat has scored two tickets aboard the Safari Star, which is leaving South Africa and journeying up to Zambia where it will arrive at the glorious Victoria Falls, with stops at various nature reserves where Hal, a gifted artist, can draw animals – and suspects – to his heart’s content. A colorful assortment of folks are on board, including a retired police detective and a noted woman mystery author (who is very much in the vein of Ariadne Oliver). The question is: do any of the passengers seem deserving of making Victoria Falls their final destination??? And here’s where I must pause and make mention of The Ratchett Factor. 

The first Hercule Poirot mystery I read was Murder on the Orient Express, noted for its delightful setting, its breaks-all-the-rules solution, and one of Christie’s vilest murder victims. As I recently wrote, surprisingly few of Christie’s victims are downright evil, but Samuel Ratchett fits that bill to a T. We actually don’t get to see him in action for long, but right off the bat Poirot has a bad feeling about the man, even turning down his request for protection because, “I do not like your face.” 

After Ratchett is quite brutally murdered, a mistake by his killer reveals truths about the dead man that lead to a question underlying the entire novel: is there ever a case where a murder is justified? The answer in the book is arrived at pretty simply but has been bandied about in interesting and problematic ways in the various film adaptations. Let’s make it clear that, for the most part, Christie and her contemporaries did not condone murder, but sometimes they created a victim so odious that, by the novel’s end, readers couldn’t help but find sympathy with the murderer. 

Greater complications arise in children’s books, where something as serious as murder needs to be handled with a certain amount of delicacy. The rating for Safari Star suggests that it is appropriate reading for 9 – 11 year olds, and yet at this age many young people have not had to deal with any sort of loss of life, let alone death by violence at the hands of an unknown villain. In the Golden Age, this was often handled by giving short shrift to the emotional aftermath of murder; however, in a well-wrought tale for young people, it would be awkward to treat murder as a game. Ironically, I say this as someone who was introduced to Agatha Christie through one of her most brutal novels, And Then There Were None, at the age of eleven. I never felt traumatized by that book, and I can assure concerned grown-ups wondering about this issue that the authors here are incredibly sensitive to how they present a crime as serious as murder.

Leonard and Sedgman strike a fine balance between their sensitivity to a child’s first acquaintanceship with death and their ability to play variations within a limited genre-based structure. In fact, much of the joy of reading this series is to watch the way Hal’s relationship to crime (and to his beloved uncle) evolve with each new case. After having solved two cases on trains to some international acclaim, Hal arrives at the Safari Star with a sense of entitlement mixed with a ghoulish hope that another crime will occur, requiring his sleuthing skills. He immediately starts seeing potential crimes in motion where there may not be any. Fortunately, he sketches every suspicious event he sees (wonderful illustrations again by Elisa Paganelli). However, this time things don’t start out so smoothly for him on the detective front. For one thing, the requisite “fellow child on a train who becomes a friend” this time is not only unimpressed with Hal’s prowess, he wants nothing to do with it. And then there is the presence of that retired detective, Erik Lovejoy, who Hal fears will cramp his own style should a crime be uncovered.

Elisa Paganelli’s illustrations add great charm . . . and often supply important clues!

As for the murder victim, wealthy media mogul Mervyn Crosby may not rise completely to Samuel Ratchett-like levels, but he proves from the start to be a despicable individual. Part of the fun in these early sections is watching Crosby upset and enrage one character after another. On this safari expedition, he displays cruelty, and his enjoyment thereof, toward adults, children and animals alike. By the time we get to the solution and the final reveal on the bridge to Victoria Falls, the killer confronts the others and says, “Are you sorry Mervyn Crosby’s dead? Any of you?”

The crime, when it occurs, poses something of a locked room puzzle. The authors provide several maps of the train and the murdered man’s compartment, and I would say – and I’m no judge of impossible crimes – that the solution to that aspect of the murder is pretty good. I tend to always solve the “who” aspect of these books, but then I am a few years older than the suggested age for reading and I know my tropes. Here, I guessed the killer and the motive pretty quickly. I wonder if it was quite as well hidden as in earlier books. And it didn’t help that a certain aspect of the motive reminded me of one of my Book Club reads. (Not telling you which one!)

All in all, however, Leonard and Sedgman have once again provided us with a roaring good time, a well-clued mystery in an exotic setting. An added plus is that Uncle Nat has a lot more to do in this one besides warning Hal to be careful. I’m excited that the next book, Danger at Dead Man’s Pass, will take Hal and his Uncle on a train ride through the Balkan mountains and seems to involve a creepy family, another mysterious death, supernatural hijinks, and problems with a will. I guess that’s the challenge for all detectives, even pre-teen ones: once you’ve had a taste of murder, you can never go back!

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One of the first children’s authors I encountered as a blogger was Robin Stevens. Back in 2017, I read Murder Is Most Unladylike, the first in her series featuring schoolgirls Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong. I might have quibbled a bit with the simplicity of clueing here, since the girls mostly ran around their school, bumping into revelations, rather than doing any hard-brained detection. (I mean, compared to this debut, Murder on the Safari Star feels like Five Little Pigs.) But I did enjoy the writing and the characters, especially Hazel, who begins to chafe at being relegated to the position of Watson by the egocentric Daisy and whose position as the only Chinese student at a posh English girls’ school allows Stevens to gently explore issues of race in a more modern, appropriate way than the GAD authors who have inspired her.

In order to continue on my Choo-Choo Honeymoon, I have returned to Stevens and her third title, 2015’s First Class Murder. Stevens is a huge fan of Christie and, given that this book takes place on the Orient Express, one senses a true homage in the offing. And, indeed, Daisy even mentions Mrs. Christie’s best-seller during the proceedings, which, appropriately, take place on the Calais-Istambul coach. Daisy has been invited to join Hazel and her businessman father on a holiday through Europe. Mr. Wong has warned his daughter to avoid detection of any kind and to be a role model of ladylike decorum for her exuberant friend.

Yeah, you can guess how well that turns out. 

In terms of the Ratchett Factor, our victim here doesn’t even come close. Mrs. Georgiana Daunt is a spoiled, whiny heiress, and it’s her misfortune to be travelling on a coach jam-packed with your usual cast of GAD characters: her husband, a loud-mouthed diet-pill manufacturer, her brother, a penniless crime writer, a medium trying to contact Georgiana’s dead mother, a magician seeking to make a comeback with a new trick, and a Russian countess who insists that Georgiana’s necklace was stolen from the royal family. There’s also a murderer, a spy, and at least FIVE detectives working in tandem or against each other. 

It’s quite a lot of people, although once again, I find that the whole investigation is done in a most ladylike manner with a lot of talking and sneaking around. I appreciate the inclusion of a locked room murder here, even if the trick is pretty obvious. Once again, Hazel shines, and every time she mutters some resentment over Daisy’s tendency to underestimate her as both a detective and a girl (“I reminded myself for the hundredth time that Daisy Wells does not have magical beautifying powers,”) I cheered. 

The mystery itself works as a primer for young people who have not yet opened their first Christie novel. Alas, I am a not-so-young person with Christie on the brain. Although this is set on the Orient Express, its solution borrows from two other classic 30’s Christie tales, (with a smidge of help from a favorite Helen McCloy), and I had the solution pretty much down as it was happening. I do have to remember that perhaps I am not the target audience, however, Stevens has once again written a charming work that does a great public service providing young people with another gateway to a fabulous literary world.

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So there you have a fine pair of mysteries to tempt the children (of all ages) in your life this Christmas. I’ll be covering more Kiddie Krimes in the future, including some new series by Marthe Jocelyn and Elizabeth C. Bunce that look promising. Meanwhile, the Adventures in Trains mysteries are as good as modern mysteries for kids get – and that is very good indeed!

You can now find me on Twitter (@ahsweetmystery).