Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Wells & Wong Mystery, Book 1 - Murder is Bad Manners

I had high hopes for this book, I really did.  The premise was right up my alley - two young girls at a boarding school who stumble across mysteries that must be solved.  A new, updated version of the Dana Girls.  Yes, I was aware that the "mystery" they were going to be solving was who murdered one of their teachers, but so long as it wasn't overly graphic and bloody, I was okay with that.  It is even set in the British countryside of the 1930s.  So far, so good.

Then, I picked it up and started reading it,  Written in first person from the perspective of young Hazel Wong, this first mystery gives readers a pretty good idea of both Hazel's character and her friend, Daisy Wells.  Hazel is the out-of-place Chinese girl who has come to England with a lot of pre-conceived notions about British girls and schools.  Likewise, the girls at Deepdean School (and for some reason, every time I read the name of the school, my mind automatically wanted to read it as "Deadpan School" - go figure) have  a lot of misconceptions about Hazel and her culture and background.  The interaction between the school girls was actually pretty well written and, for the most part, what I would picture to be typical of young teenage girls.  The teachers, and their behavior - well, that's a whole 'nother story.

Murder is Bad Manners features a cast of teachers who are pretty over-the-top and stereotypical.  There's the crazed angry teacher who yells at everyone.  There's the resident lush who can't seem to be sober for anything.  There's the buff "Prince Charming," who has all the teachers and students swooning.  There's the overly strict headmistress.  There's the flamboyant French teacher.  There's the nervous nelly who jumps at everything.  There's the gruff handyman.  There's the dry and boring minister. And then, there's the two female teachers who are clearly implied to have had a lesbian relationship until that "Prince Charming" I mentioned a moment ago sweeps one off her feet, creating a tift between them.

Now don't get me wrong.  I, of all people, have no problem with gay and lesbian relationships.  Not in the least.  However, it seems very out of place in the story.  It doesn't really hold any purpose in the story, just as the fact that it is mentioned two of the girls at the school were caught canoodling in the coat closet.  There was no purpose in that as well.  Except ... well, to be honest, the manner in which the relationships were addressed made it seem as if the two teachers and the two girls were oddities.

For example, on page 9, when Hazel describes her first understanding of the situation:  "You see, before this semester, the whole school knew that Miss Bell (our science teacher) and Miss Parker (our math teacher) had a secert.  They lived together in Miss Parker's little apartment in town, which had a spare room in it.  The spare room was the secret.  I did not understand when Daisy first told me about the spare room; now that we are in the eighth grade, though, of course I see exactly what it must mean.  It has something to do with Miss Parker's hair, cut far too short even to be fashionable, and the way she and Miss Bell used to pass their cigarettes from one to the other during our bunbreaks..."  Taking into consideration that this story was set in the mid- to late- 1930s, I could see that such a relationship would need to be secret.  The only problem is - for the purpose of this story, the women's secret is completely irrelevant.  Leaving me to wonder - why even mention it at all?

Very early in the story, Hazel stumbles upon the body of the dead teacher, only to find it is gone when she brings back someone to see it.  Daisy believes her, though, and the two girls set out on a quest to solver their very first real mystery.  The mystery itself - the who, the why, the how, and the when - is actually well-crafted and pretty closely borders on being an adult murder mystery.  There is eventually a second murder, and when the girls uncover the final clue that leads them to the solution, they find that it all ties back to the death of a young student at the school a few years back.

Now, remembering this is a children's book, targeted for ages 10 and up (per the front flap of the dust jacket), it is pushing the limits a bit involving the murders and allowing girls who are are just entering their teens to be running around solving the crime.  It pushes it further, though, with the vulgarities used in the text.  I know, I know - some will say that the villains in the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books cursed.  Yet, the authors were careful enough that they wrote, "He cursed under his breath, knowing he had been outwitted by a teenager" or some such.  The reader never actually saw the curse word.

Not so in this text!   Damn!  Hell!  Ass!  All of these words are taken in stride, even spoken by the children at times.  Yet, surprisingly enough, the one word that causes Hazel to flinch is the term "bloody."  "I'm just so bloody tired," the teacher says on page 195, to which Hazel writes, "It was the first time I had ever heard a teacher swear ... [her] saying bloody gave me the most dreadful shock."  Clearly, this must be a cultural difference.  At least, I can only assume so.  In watching British television, I hear the word so often, I just assumed it was slang of some sort.  Perhaps they hear the words damn and hell and ass so often from us, they don't think of them as vulgarities.  Regardless, and call me old fashioned, but I don't think the explicit use of vulgarities serve any purpose in a children's book, other than to lead them to the mis-belief that using those words is acceptable.

Moving along, I will give the author credit for providing a very tense and exciting conclusion to the story.  The murderer is revealed very dramatically, with the help of the police Inspector, as Hazel and Daisy watch from behind a heavy curtain.  The girls are victorious in solving their first real mystery, and while the Inspector plays along with them as they reveal to him everything they have seen and done leading up to the revelation, the author does allow him to show a little respect to the girls for a job well done.

This is a British series that is being re-published here in America (the first three books are already out overseas, but the second book in this series does not get released here until April), and the titles are being renamed here in America.  This first book, in Britian, was titled Murder Most Unladylike, and the second book was titled Arsenic for Tea, while the American version coming out in April will be titled Poison is Not Polite.  I will likely get the second book and give it a shot to see if there is any improvement; however, if the vulgarities and the senseless sexual references continue, it will likely be the last one I buy in the series.

RATING:  5 disappearing bodies out of 10 for at least providing a well-developed murder mystery, albeit in a story that should have been aimed at an older audience.

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