(FYI – I am being watched. I am writing this review with a Siamese cat snoozing on my mouse pad and an Irish terrier wagging at me from under the desk. He’s also not blinking. Not at all. How does he do that? How’s a girl to concentrate? Their cuteness / persistence is sort of distracting).
So the book – I gobbled up Susan Runholt’s debut MG mystery. As soon as I’d finished The Mystery of the Third Lucretia I thought, “Now there’s a story that’s going to be a crowd-pleaser.” There is something in the honesty and directness of the main character’s voice, combined with the twisty, one-adventure-after-the-next plotting that makes this a wholly satisfying mystery, absolutely right for the Middle Grade crowd. Not heavy. Not too complicated. Full of suspense. Toss in a little art crime, some snazzy European settings and I think we’ve got a winner.
The Mystery of the Third Lucretia introduces us to best friends / girl detectives extraordinaire Kari Sundgren and Lucas Stickney. Both girls are art crazy. In fact, they met when they were only ten while taking a summer drawing course at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. They love to create art, to think about art and to admire great works of art in museums and galleries. So it’s pretty much perfect that Kari’s mother just so happens to be embarking on a new job as a journalist that offers her the chance to travel, with the girls, to Europe. Kari and Lucas end up in London and Paris and Amsterdam, and along the way, they get caught up in investigating what they believe to be a major forgery case. Kari and Lucas think that a man, nicknamed Gallery Guy, is secretly copying one of Rembrandt’s famous Lucretia paintings. What begins as a bit of seemingly harmless entertainment and drama at the Art Institute, ends up taking the friends on a European journey into the dangerous, high-stakes realm of art crime.
As I mentioned above, Susan Runholt has really nailed the voices of her 14-year old heroines. The girls come across as funny and smart and gutsy, with a strong sense of right and wrong. They’re the type of girls you’d want to hang out with. I enjoyed how Runholt emphasized that Kari and Lucas have different talents and skills and that helps to make them a stronger team – better detectives and better friends. All of the art references – to famous museums and particular paintings – add to the reader’s sense of escaping into an exciting and mysterious world, different from plain old everyday life. In the Notes to the Reader at the end of the text, Susan Runholt encourages readers to visit the museums mentioned in her story and seek out the works of art that feature in Kari and Lucas’s adventures. Runholt describes the girls’ encounters with these famous works of art in such a way that readers will likely get some sense of how powerful and exciting it can be to encounter a famous painting in a gallery for the first time. I imagine this mystery will inspire a few budding artists and hopeful world travellers.
Aside from its entertainment value, The Mystery of the Third Lucretia touches on some deeper themes that would make this title worthy for book club and classroom discussions. Runholt’s novel has a definite feminist bent. She doesn’t shy away from presenting the story of Lucretia, her rape and suicide, and the misogynistic aspects of Roman society. Later in the book, the girls’ investigation leads them to Amsterdam’s red light district and brings them into contact with a group of nuns who run a mission for women in the neighbourhood. Of course, the two central characters exhibit tons of gumption and smarts and integrity. I guess you could call it “girl power.”
Visit Susan Runholt’s Website to learn more about this debut, and tune in soon for an interview with her, here at Shelf Elf.
The Mystery of the Third Lucretia is published by Viking. A sequel will follow in 2009.