For young readers. A new breed of crime solvers
THE perennially neat and tidy Hardy Boys and preppie Nancy Drew should go into permanent hiding. A new breed of take-charge crime solvers is upon us - kids who not only get the jump on more unsavory characters per chapter, but who also lead believable lives, in memorable times and places. One of this season's best novels of intrigue is The Morning of the Gods, by Edward Fenton (Delacorte, $14.95, 184 pp., ages 12 and up). As the book opens, 12-year-old Carla Lewis is en route from her native New York City to a small fishing village in Greece. She's about to meet her maternal aunt and uncle, a warm and philosophical twosome who will help her face up to her grief over her mother's death in a recent traffic accident. Carla assumes the Greek name her fiery mother gave her and goes on to make some remarkable discoveries - and statements - about freedom. She tears down posters publicizing the country's hated military junta, helps Greece's leading poet smuggle a manuscript out of the country, and gives a newfound friend some English books and a glimpse of life beyond the village.
Fenton has crafted a hauntingly beautiful tale that blends ancient Greek myths with the searing reality of 1970s politics, one that juxtaposes walled honeysuckle gardens with the overflowing passion of an Orthodox Easter celebration. There's plenty of tension and suspense, and some comforting reminders of the support that family love can provide.
The writing is full of promise, a veritable sunrise on the Aegean horizon. We see the Acropolis floating ``like a marble birthday cake above the ugly concrete buildings and the frantic traffic of the city'' and smile at old men hunched over coffeehouse tables ``like lizards gulping at the sunshine.'' As the book ends and Carla returns after several years' absence to tend her aunt's garden, we can almost smell the rosemary and taste the sweet mountain honey of Parnassus that she remembers so well.
For fast-paced Victorian thrillers, there's none better this year than The Ruby in the Smoke, by Philip Pullman (Alfred A. Knopf, $11.95, 230 pp., ages 12 and up). Here again, a parent's death is central to the story, as 16-year-old Sally Lockhart sets out to unravel her father's murder - so she suspects - aboard one of his shipping schooners. As she probes for clues, she turns up more than she'd bargained for, including a long-lost ruby, secret Chinese societies, an illicit opium trade, and a pip of a villainous character - the toothless Mrs. Holland of Hangman's Wharf.
Melodramatic, yes, but also surprisingly captivating. Sally finds help and a family setting with some new pals, and together they bring down the curtain on the dastardly doings. There are a few murders along the way, all of them offstage, and a few too many coincidences. Would you believe a pair of identical twins, one a curate and one a rough-and-ready seaman?
Overall, Pullman lives up to the British tradition of dependably entertaining writing and provides some interesting historical digressions along the way. There are primers on box-lock pistols, swing bridges, and mudlarks. Among his many lyric passages is this evocation of a night under sail in the South China Sea: ``Our wake and our bow-wave were great swirling tracks made up of billions of spots of white light, and all the sea on both sides was full of deep glowing movements - fishes darting through the depths, great shimmering clouds and veils of shadowy color, little surges and whirlpools of lights far below - once or twice in your life you get a night like that, and it's a sight to leave you breathless.'' Indeed.
A slower-paced but equally involving tale is unraveled in The Mystery of Drear House, by Virginia Hamilton (Greenwillow, $11.95, 217 pp., ages 10 and up). Ohio is the scene of this latest novel from the Newbery medalist and winner of the National Book Award, and the immediate setting is a 19th-century abolitionist's Underground Railroad station for runaway slaves.
Hamilton, who has given her readers such memorable black American heroes in the past, this time draws her characters from a previous book, ``The House of Dies Drear.'' The Smalls are a close-knit family of several generations, and one of the author's considerable strengths is her ability to weave the various ages and relationships into a believable home tapestry. Young Thomas and great-grandmother Rhetty Laleete Jeffers are an especially winning pair.
The mystery here has to do with a cache of antiques and heirlooms hidden in the caverns below the Drear House - and who owns them. The suspense builds as Thomas and his pal Pesty Darrow explore secret passageways and moving walls and discover the meaning of a rambling tale of orphaned black children and their Indian rescuer. It's a sometimes spooky, continually entertaining story in which child-heroes and grown-ups share the credits.