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Beyond Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys

     Ask any group of school-age kids what kind of books they like to read, and one response comes up over and over again: “a mystery.” Kids who enjoy puzzling out mysteries have long been fans of Donald Sobol’s “Encyclopedia Brown” series. Ten-year-old Encylopedia’s head full of facts and his talent for noticing details make him a detective good enough to help out his father, the chief of police. Short chapters, a small-town ambiance, and finding the solutions to each mystery at the back of the book make this series a perennial favorite of readers nine and up.

          A new twist on the puzzle-solving genre is Michael D. Beil’s “The Red Blazer Girls: the Ring of Rocomadour.” Three seventh-grade girls at a Catholic school in New York City get caught up in a mystery when one of them spots the face of a woman high up in a window in the church opposite their school. 

           The girls soon discover that the face belongs to Elizabeth Harriman, who’s trying to connect with her estranged daughter. Years ago, Mrs. Harriman’s father devised an elaborate puzzle for his granddaughter to solve, promising “a gift of rare and precious beauty” as her prize. The puzzle has been hidden all these years, but now that it’s found, Mrs. Harriman is sure the girls can help her: the first clue is hidden in their school library.   

          The scavenger hunt that follows challenges the girls’ skill in math, religion and literature, but they have lots of fun along the way. Snappy dialogue and a hint of romance make this popular with tween and teen readers, who are eagerly awaiting the sequel.
          Kids who like their mysteries jam-packed with action will welcome Mac Barnett’s series about the Brixton Brothers. In “The Case of the Case of the Mistaken Identity,” Steve Brixton, a huge fan of a Hardy Boys lookalike series, has studied hard to be a detective: what to look for on a crime scene, how to identify crooks, and so on. His talent comes in handy when a simple visit to the library finds him embroiled in a mystery involving a missing quilt, armed men, and the revelation that librarians are actually elite undercover agents who specialize in Boolean searching and counterintelligence. Laugh-out-loud humor and an affectionate take on twentieth century boys’ detective series add up to a new series kids ten and up will love.
          Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler set their mystery series in a place long ago and far away, but mystery readers will be caught up in the story from the very first pages. In “The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn,” fourteen-year-old Seikei, son of a tea merchant in 18th-century Japan, gets involved in a mystery when a precious gem is stolen from a samurai and a young girl is falsely accused. Judge Ooka, the famous samurai magistrate, is brought in to solve the crime, and he needs Seikei’s help. 
          The Hooblers seamlessly weave in fascinating details about the code of the samurais, the tea ceremony, and the social stratification of the era, all in service to a mystery that rewards readers who, like the judge, are logical thinkers. Older readers who enjoy the book will want to read the rest in the series, and will be ready to try Sherlock Holmes after that.


Originally published in the Free Lance-Star on August 10,2010.