October 05, 2006


Key Lardo: A Chet Gecko Mystery. By Bruce Hale. Harcourt. $14.

Arthur and the Forbidden City. By Luc Beeson. HarperTrophy. $5.99.

     Bruce Hale, inveterate punster and lover of old hard-boiled movies, makes it an even dozen mysteries for Chet Gecko with Key Lardo, which bears not even a passing resemblance to John Huston’s great Bogart-and-Bacall film of 1948, Key Largo.  The odds that Hale’s target audience of 8-to-12-year-olds will know the film are vanishingly small, but the title is just one of Hale’s many jokes aimed less at preteens than at their parents.  After all, this is a book featuring characters named Charles de Gull, Elise Navidad and Conjuncti Vitus (mercifully called Connie most of the time).  Lots of the puns may go over the heads (or under the radar) of the intended readers, but the unending silliness of the situations faced by grade-school detective Chet Gecko and his sidekick, mockingbird Natalie Attired (ouch!), continues to hit the mark every time.  Which is more than one can say for Chet, who gets hit more often than he hits.  You might say he gets Hale bopped, but not even astronomy buffs are likely to let that cometary pun pass.  In any case, Key Lardo is one of the best-plotted of Hale’s tales, featuring the arrival at Emerson Hicky Elementary of a new student: a penguin named Bland – James Bland.  Bland he is, and a braggart to boot, but most importantly, he claims to be a detective – one whose suave manner and apparent ability to out-sleuth Chet make the plucky gecko the most likely suspect when Bland disappears shortly after his moment of triumph.  Chet has to clear his name and find the real culprit before the no-kidding police are called (except that Hale does nothing but kid about Officers Frick and Frack).  Readers must negotiate chapter titles such as “On a Wing and a Player” and “Wild Wild Nest” while trying to pick up clues faster than Natalie picks up Chet to fly him away from a particularly sticky situation.  The book’s conclusion, truth be told, is not quite as neat as the endings of some other Chet fests, but taken as a whole, the book’s still a winner.  Taken as a hole – that is, a bottomless pit – so is Hale’s humor.

     The adventure is more serious in Arthur and the Forbidden City, although Luc Beeson’s writing is still on the light side: “It should be mentioned that Arthur’s eyes were not so much on the chasm as on Selenia.  It should also be mentioned that Selenia was very pretty.  Even from behind you could tell she was a princess.”   Beeson’s book has many elements of modern “quest” fairy tales, such as the names: Betameche, Boulaguiri and Cachflot appear on a single page.  It also has twists on the genre: Arthur’s adventures take place in his own back yard, except that it is not really a yard but the world of the Minimoys – and Arthur, himself transformed into a Minimoy, needs to face the world’s monsters and enter the forbidden city of Necropolis to free his grandfather.  This means dealing with the evil wizard, Maltazard the Cursed – a tall order for a 10-year-old.  It is Beeson’s writing style, more than the adventures themselves, that keeps the book interesting.  For example, just after Princess Selenia’s father says thanks for an answer to his prayers, Beeson writes, “Grandma would also have liked to have her prayers answered.  She was on her third since morning, with no results yet.”  Eventually, the book does end happily, and with the promise of further adventures – an answer to the prayers of the many fans of Beeson’s series.

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