April 06, 2006


The Possum Always Rings Twice: A Chet Gecko Mystery. By Bruce Hale.  Harcourt. $14.

     Eleven volumes.  That most incorrigible punster in children’s books has now done it in 11 volumes.  Eleven punderful mysteries.  Twelve books in all, if you count a detective handbook-and-cookbook.  Bruce Hale doesn’t know how to quit when he (and Chet Gecko and Chet’s sidekick, the mockingbird Natalie Attired) are ahead.  Maybe that’s because the dim-but-dynamic duo is rarely ahead in any of these books, all of which feature come-from-behind sleuthing.

     The Possum Always Rings Twice is a title that continues to feed, or feed on, Hale’s predilection for parodies of famous films: Chet has also handled The Hamster of the Baskervilles, searched for The Malted Falcon, delved into a case of Murder, My Tweet, and so on.  This time he’s in a business that’s just about as dirty as anything he has ever tackled: mud.  That’s figurative mud – the kind that gets slung during political campaigns, one of which is going on at Emerson Hicky Elementary School.  The promises, claims and counterclaims fly fast and furious, through chapters with such titles as “Every Frog Has His Day,” “Throw Your Brat into the Ring,” and “The Squirrelly Bird Gets the Squirm” (ouch).  Chet writes the case in his usual hard-boiled style: “The next day dawned hot and sunny as a supermodel’s smile.”  “Though my name is Chet, let me be frank.”  “My hand stung like a bucketful of jellyfish.”  “Recess disappeared like a snow cone dropped on a summer sidewalk.”  “Detention didn’t last any longer than the Roman Empire, the Jurassic period, or the World’s Most Boring Movies marathon.  It just seemed that way.”

     Yes, there’s a case to be solved amid all the verbal byplay.  Someone is threatening the candidates.  There’s a mysterious explosion in the boys’ bathroom.  There’s an unseen character named Glog who may be up to something.  Or maybe it’s the usual suspects – school bullies, such as Rocky Rhode and Ben Dova – who are up to something more than the somethings they are usually up to.  Also, there’s something suspicious about a candidate named Perry Winkel, a kit fox whose “sentences sound like they’ve been through a blender” and who resembles a caricature of George W. Bush – as parents will quickly realize, even if the target audience of kids ages 8-12 does not.  And yes, there’s a possum in the midst of things (have to justify the book’s title, after all).

     Eventually, the clues lead Chet and Natalie to believe that something ominous will happen after school lets out.  So they wait.  “School was deserted.  It was as quiet as a monster movie graveyard just before the zombies come to life.”  Chet has to “Gopher Broke” (that’s another chapter title) to break up a ballot-stuffing ring that has been established to turn the school over to – but that would be telling.  The funny thing about Bruce Hale (well, one of the funny things) is that he mostly plays fair with readers.  The clues do add up, the misdirections make sense in retrospect, and Chet and Natalie really do deserve credit for unraveling whatever nefarious deed they are investigating.  Hmm…can you unravel a nefarious deed?  No matter: it’s always fun finding out what Chet and Natalie do, and how Hale has them do it – whatever it is.

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