September 21, 2006


Pure Dead Batty. By Debi Gliori. Knopf. $15.95.

     This fifth book in Debi Gliori’s “Pure Dead” series (the Scottish phrase more or less means “really and truly”) is the least successful, but it squeaks into a (++++) rating with Gliori’s bravura performance in the final 100 pages, knitting together all the far-flung plot strands while leaving enough threads hanging to help set up the inevitable sequel.  But there are 200 pages of meandering adventure before that final burst of triumph.  Gliori can do better, and has: in Pure Dead Magic, Pure Dead Wicked, Pure Dead Brilliant and Pure Dead Trouble.  All the books chronicle the story of the decidedly odd Strega-Borgia family, which lives in a huge and crumbling house with 95 rooms and 56 chimneys, on the edge of an unpronounceable Scottish lake inhabited by The Sleeper (Loch Ness Monster to you, although the lake is not Loch Ness).

     The nominal hero and heroine here are Titus, age 13, and Pandora, age 11, but the new book’s title refers to their two-year-old sister, Damp, who is a born witch and acquires an irritatingly talky bat familiar in this novel.  The kids’ parents are feckless as usual, only more so, with Luciano hauled off to prison on a trumped-up charge of mass murder (mostly because people do have a tendency to turn up dead around his home), and Baci pregnant yet again – with an already-conscious unborn baby lovingly referred to as Someone Else Entirely.

     Pure Dead Batty sounds better in a brief description than it is when read.  This book is all over the place, which is one of its problems: at the Strega-Borgia house, in prison with Luciano, and on a mysterious island located somewhere outside time and space (except not really).  Much of the book revolves around the children’s missing nanny, Flora McLachlan, who is revealed in this book to be an immortal on speaking terms with Death (a chapter called “Death at Sea” has nothing to with anyone dying in an ocean).  The various mythical beasts that live with the family make numerous cameo appearances, often vomiting – an activity others here engage in frequently as well (Gliori does overdo this bit this time).  And there are incompetent cops, an incompetent and grossly fat Satan – sorry, S’tan – who wants his own TV show, and Luciano’s evil and deformed half-brother, Don Lucifer, showing up as well.

     Gliori doesn’t seem to take the first 200 pages of this book anywhere – or, rather, she takes them too many places.  At one point, she says of the household’s teenage dragon, “Ffup Lost the Plot completely,” which actually means “lost her grip on reality” but seems to describe the book as well.  Gliori is smart enough to dispose of the weakest character at last: Marie Bain, a truly horrible cook who exits in a wholly suitable way, but whose main sin (from a reader’s point of view) is simply that she is boring.  A soon-to-be-declared replacement cook is introduced and seems much better.  But Gliori cannot replace Baci, who has also become boring – a mere baby factory.  Gliori seems to know there’s something wrong with the character.  In this book, Titus says, “Not only was his mum utterly gullible, but in all probability she was totally nuts as well.”  And the narrative comments on “Signora Strega-Borgia’s amazing lack of powers of observation” and notes elsewhere that one scene proves, “were proof required, that she has the observational skills of an oyster.”  This is past endearing and nearly past enduring.  Nor is Luciano much better – once a chapter arrives called “Luciano Wises Up,” readers are likely to mutter, “It’s about time.”

     Gliori has an unusual and highly amusing franchise going here, and has – until this book – kept it moving along smartly, balancing humor and tension quite well.  Pure Dead Batty loses its balance, but the final third of the book indicates that Gliori has a good sense of how to get it back.  Just wait for next time.

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