The 39 Clues, Book 4: Beyond the Grave. By Jude Watson. Scholastic. $12.99.
Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars, Casebook No. 2: The Mystery of the Conjured Man. By Tracy Mack & Michael Citrin. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
It was bound to happen: there was no way The 39 Clues could sustain its cleverness and headlong pace through all 10 planned volumes, the last of which will not be published until September 2010. The fourth book in the series, Beyond the Grave, falters and chokes a bit, getting a little too caught up in its own twists and turns to be as satisfying as the first three volumes. Its tie-ins – a Web site and set of six cards bound into the front cover, with the promise that young readers will eventually share $100,000 in prizes – remain as intriguing as ever, but simply as a story, Jude Watson’s book falls a little flat. Each of the books has a different geographical focus, this one’s being Egypt. Each book involves two siblings, 14-year-old Amy Cahill and 11-year-old Dan, struggling against other members of the far-flung and enormously powerful Cahill clan to discover clues that will eventually lead someone to some source of ultimate power. In each book, Amy’s claustrophobia and Dan’s asthma are used as personal difficulties that the searchers must overcome. And each book is full of betrayals and backstabbings galore, as the various branches of the Cahills – Ekats, Lucians and others – compete for the glory of their families as well as personal power. But this has all become more than a bit formulaic in Beyond the Grave. We know that one crucial character who helped Amy and Dan before and was later thought dead will reappear – and he does. We know that one particularly deadly character will literally threaten their lives, but will not take them – and that is what happens. We know that some of the many important historical figures to whom the Cahill branches are related will come into the story, and so they do – Napoleon is especially significant here. And because the book is set in Egypt, we know there will be at least one semi-spooky tomb scene, and there is. Amy’s and Dan’s tendency to wander into danger without letting anyone know what they are doing or where they are going has gotten a little old by now, though – you would expect them to have learned something from all the times they did that in the earlier books and got into serious trouble, but no. This book’s title refers to the one element that sets it apart from the first three: Amy’s and Dan’s doubts about whether their dead grandmother, Grace, really loved them as deeply as they always believed – and their discovery of information that indicates that yes, she did. But this one distinctive item is not enough to make Beyond the Grave more than a moderately interesting entry into the young searchers’ saga.
Young searchers are crucial to Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars as well. The books postulate that the street urchins who got some passing mentions in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories were actually far more important to Holmes than Dr. Watson revealed in recounting the legendary detective’s exploits. The first “casebook” in this series, The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas, suffered from a tendency to make Holmes less observant and less acute than Doyle made him, with an eye toward elevating the role of the street kids. The Mystery of the Conjured Man handles the relationship better: except for one important scene in which Holmes is caught entirely off guard in a way that Doyle would never have allowed, this entry allows Holmes his analytical skills while also giving his young helpers plenty of chances to be brave. Unfortunately, the mystery this time is not particularly mysterious: readers find out fairly quickly that the “medium” and his helpers who can supposedly contact the dead are charlatans and thieves, and from then on it is just a matter of unmasking them and ending their nefarious schemes. Still, wife-and-husband authors Tracy Mack and Michael Citrin pace the book well and keep the writing at a level that preteens will enjoy. And they manage to give some character to two of the Irregulars and a girl who assists them – sort of an irregular Irregular – even though the rest of the kids have little personality. This is the sort of book that makes enjoyable summer reading: light, quick, satisfyingly concluded (in terms of the mystery), and with the promise of future volumes (in terms of the personal quest of one of the main young characters). Older kids who find The Mystery of the Conjured Man intriguing may even be ready for some real Sherlock Holmes tales.