Take your average middle school boy. He has a couple of close friends and they enjoy comics, hanging out together, and dressing up like super heroes on Halloween. But one friend's growth spurt lands him on all the sports teams and he becomes an uber-jock. The second friend moves away. And the last friend is left to survive middle school alone. What does he do? Well, if he happens to be Howard Wallace, he decides to become a detective. Howard loves film noir detective stories and studies them for technique and style. He creates the Rules of Private Investigation based on his film heroes. Since he doesn't own a trench coat, he wears a brown bathrobe (rule #1 -work with what you've got). He's already solved a case of vandalism at the local pawn shop, so now he's building his reputation and his clientele. That's where we as readers enter the story.
Howard takes on several cases at the beginning of the book. There is the problem of a neighbor's missing cat. A girl wants to know who the secret admirer is that keeps leaving things in her locker. Another kid whose trumpet has gone missing and who doesn't want to spend the year stuck in the recorder section asks Howard for help. An elementary school student needs help finding the action figure he spent all his savings on. And then there is Meredith - the treasurer of the student council. Someone is blackmailing her and their threat is serious; if she doesn't resign, the blackmailer will tell everyone that she lost the council's checkbook. How can one P.I. solve all of these mysteries and still keep up with homework and chores?
As luck would have it, there is a new girl who is bored with everything in the small town of Grantleyville. Ivy is used to the big city and latches onto Howard as the only person doing anything interesting. So he now has a junior partner on a trial basis. They stake out lockers, interview suspects and potential witnesses, and generally get on everyone's nerves. After being taken to the principal's office, Howard is grounded by his parents and told he can never investigate again. But would Philip Marlowe let that stop him? He just has to be more stealthy than normal.
Despite drawbacks like an older sister who calls him "Howeird," a 30-year-old bicycle that has seen better days, and being the target of two hulking bullies, Howard still maintains client confidentiality and does his best to close very case. All the elements of middle school are there - the cliques, the clubs, the changing relationships between friends as they grow up, the teachers, and the bad cafeteria food. There is also the ambiance of the small town with the local "royalty" who own the majority of the businesses and expect their children to be the stars of the school, the gossip that lets everyone know when there is trouble, and the type of neighborhoods where kids still ride their bikes to school.
Howard is funny, smart, determined, and I really enjoy the way he talks as if he is in one of those movie he enjoys so much. A middle school kid saying things like his investigation "would be a lot easier if I didn't have an interfering lookie-loo horning in on the job," or asking his junior partner, "Are you gonna be shirty or work this case with me?" has got to tickle your funny bone. And if that's not enough, the way he calls all the other students "kid" like he's Humphrey Bogart will do the trick. And Ivy has her own quirks that add to the odd-couple charm of the story.
Highly recommended for fans of school mysteries and buddy stories (even the unlikely buddies of a loner who thinks he's a P.I. and a city girl looking for some excitement). Readers will have a new character to admire and the hope of new mysteries for Wallace Investigations to solve.
I received an advance copy from the publisher for review purposes.
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