Monday, September 15, 2008

The Old Man in the Corner

This might not seem to have much to do with children's literature, except that I am always interested in finding mysteries digestible by the newish reader that don't necessarily feature amateur teen detectives (fine as those junior detectives are--I'll be posting soon about John Bellairs). I'm thinking here of books suitable for boys and girls, which a young mystery addict is ready to dip into the adult mystery canon--the tantalizing books in the adult section of the public library with either Sherlock Holmes in profile or a skull on the spine, to signal that murderous mayhem is inside. A fourth grader who starts with "The Speckled Band" or "The Hound of the Baskervilles" may find enough thrills to be motivated to work her or his way through some of the challenging vocabulary of some of the other stories, or even the novellas.

But after that, what other books from the adult section work for kids--holding their interest, accessible enough in terms of plot and dialogue, and appropriate in their presentation of adult themes? The modern day mystery is a PG-13 or R rated experprise. Will the safer G and PG mysteries of the first 50 years of the 20th century yield some gems that can be enjoyed by the middle grade reader?

By the time I was ten, I was borrowing my father's paperback editions of Agatha Christie. The two I still own are The Labors of Hecrules (1947) and The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960), now in print as Hercule Poirot's Christmas. This was around 1971, were living in Southeast Asia at the time, and my father would be on the balcony or the veranda, on a chaise lounge, in Bermuda shorts, with a drink going in an old fashioned glass, reading another mystery or possibly a spy novel by John Le Carre. Every now and then I get out the yellowed, battered paperbacks and enjoy them again. I also keep in the bedside table one or the other of the two volume complete Sherlock Holmes.

So I've downloaded from Librivox Baroness Orczy's The Old Man in the Corner, about the unnamed protangonist of the title, who relates the solutions to unsolved crimes to the young female journalist he meets in a teashop. These are probably too challenging for Budza (going on nine) but I bet they would be great for the 11 year old mystery enthusiast. I am just into the second story of the collection, but they rely heavily on all the turns of plot that have since become mystery tropes, but that Orczy, author of The Scarlet Pimpernel, originated. The Old Man in the Corner is widely considered to the first armchair detective, and while he has a very low index in the swashbuckle department, the puzzles themselves are intricate and devious.

There is a huge collection of old mysteries over at Project Gaslight--mysteries written between 1800 (!) and 1909. Probably the more stilted sytle, leisurely pacing, and Victorian vocabulary will take careful parental vetting to find stories that will grab and hold the young reader, but I think the effort will be well rewarded.