March 29, 2012


The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers—Book Two: A King’s Ransom. By Jude Watson. Scholastic. $12.99.

The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers—Book Three: The Dead of Night. By Peter Lerangis. Scholastic. $12.99.

     If continued delivery of just what readers expect is the mark of a successful series, then The 39 Clues certainly has what it takes. The second sequence of books, Cahills vs. Vespers, is progressing steadfastly (thus mirroring the steadfast nature of the protagonist brother-and-sister team of Dan and Amy Cahill), using authors already quite familiar with what is going on – because they have contributed several 39 Clues books already. Thus, Jude Watson (pen name of Judy Blundell) produced the fourth book in the original 39 Clues series, Beyond the Grave; the sixth book, In Too Deep; and the transitional 11th book, Vespers Rising. Peter Lerangis wrote the third book in the first sequence, The Sword Thief, and the seventh, The Viper’s Nest. These are authors who are skilled enough to subsume their individual styles into the formulas required by The 39 Clues, move the plots ahead so far and no farther, create dialogue that works in context even though it is neither very individualistic not very illuminating, and provide just enough excitement to keep fans reading and encourage them to collect 39 Clues cards (six come with each book), play the online game that is connected to the series, and wait for whatever the next books will bring.

     Given the earnest professionalism with which Watson and Lerangis handle their roles, it is scarcely surprising that A King’s Ransom and The Dead of Night have little individual character: they are not designed for it. The plots of both books continue the overall theme of the Cahills vs. Vespers series, in which a mysterious character known as Vesper One kidnaps members of the five branches of Cahills (Ekaterina, Janus, Lucian, Tomas and even the Madrigals, the group to which Dan and Amy belong) – then demands that the young protagonists decipher clues that will lead them to objects that they must steal in order to ransom the various victims. This second set of books strains credulity even more than did the first one, in which it emerged that practically every famous person from time immemorial was in reality a Cahill – that conceit meant that the first series of books did at least include some tidbits of history, often presented rather interestingly. Cahills vs. Vespers, though, is clearly an elaborate game from the start, since Vesper One is somehow able to kidnap all those supposedly brilliant and slippery Cahills but still needs Dan and Amy to get him the objects that he really wants.

     Believability is not the issue here, though: excitement is, and fans of The 39 Clues will get just what they expect (no more, but no less) from these two entries. In A King’s Ransom, Dan’s character darkens a bit, but he and Amy do not have the edge-of-death encounters that occur in some other books, and regular series readers will likely find some of the clues rather easy to decipher. On the other hand, the book keeps a lot of action going – with different characters in different places – before Watson pulls things together, and that makes for a somewhat new level of excitement. The plot involves Dan and Amy tracking down and stealing a map that has not been seen for more than half a century; but the specifics, as usual, are not the point here – it is the process that matters. Ditto in The Dead of Night, where a new kidnap victim turns out to be Dan’s best friend, Atticus, and parts of the book are told (a bit confusingly) from Atticus’ point of view. The presentation of clues is as well-done as usual, although readers will likely be ahead of Dan and Amy in this case: they take a surprisingly long time to figure things out. However, the usual satisfying solution of the mystery is coupled, also as usual, with the introduction of a new angle in the final pages. One consistent element of The 39 Clues is the tying together of the books, with each picking up just where the last left off and leading quite clearly to the next. Like the undistinguished style of the books, this is a tribute to the professionalism of authors who, in their other works, show a great deal more character. But what matters here is not the writers’ character but the character of Dan and Amy. And that continues to be presented in ways that fans of this ongoing series will keep enjoying, clue after clue after clue.

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