May 23, 2013
(++++) REVISITING CENTURIES PAST
The Mighty Lalouche. By Matthew Olshan. Illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
The Man Who Was Poe. By Avi. Scholastic. $6.99.
The Inquisitor’s Apprentice II: The Watcher in the Shadows. By Chris Moriarty. Illustrations by Mark Edward Geyer. Harcourt. $16.99.
Touches of real history enliven these offbeat stories for different age groups – with two tales set in the 19th century and one in the early 20th. The Mighty Lalouche is based on the sport of French boxing, which was popular in the late 1800s and somewhat resembled modern kickboxing; and one of Sophie Blackall’s delightful illustrations is based on a photo (reproduced at the back of the book) of an electric race car from the early automotive age. The story itself – a wonderful concept by Matthew Olshan – is in the traditional “little guy makes good” mode, but is sufficiently offbeat in the telling and pictures so it is anything but formulaic. It is the tale of a small, slight postman named Lalouche who loses his job to automation (those odd-looking cars) and, desperate for money, signs up as a sparring partner for French boxers. He knows nothing of pugilism, much less the French style of the 1800s, but he soon proves to have so much talent and speed that he defeats all the huge, hulking fighters who expect to make short work of him – even those who bend the rules (and Lalouche’s body). Blackall’s illustrations really “pop” from the pages, their three-dimensional look resulting from her very clever process of assembling them in layers, then photographing them. The sense of perspective is overdone in an excellent way, and the characters’ sizes are just right: Lalouche is about the size of the trophies he wins, while his opponents are gigantic as well as very funny (their “biographies” are presented inside the front and back covers). Lalouche eventually retires undefeated and returns to his postal job when the automation attempt fails, and he gets a double happy ending: his job back and a new apartment with a gorgeous view of the Seine. Kids ages 4-8 will root for Lalouche from the start – likely knowing that he will win in the end, but not knowing how delightfully and in how many ways he, along with Olshan and Blackall, will triumph.
Avi’s The Man Who Was Poe is for older readers, ages 8-12, and was originally published in 1989. The new paperback edition offers a welcome chance to read (or re-read) this fascinating novel, in which Poe assumes the role of his famous detective character, C. Auguste Dupin, to help a young boy named Edmund whose sister has mysteriously disappeared. Avi peppers the book with reality: it takes place in 1848 in Providence, Rhode Island, where Poe did live for a time (as did Avi himself); it occurs while Poe is courting a character named Mrs. Whitman, a real woman whom the real Poe actually did court; and even the detail of Poe’s having a daguerreotype made – a scene that proves crucial to the plot – is taken from life, since Poe did have one made in 1848 in Providence at the establishment of Messrs. Masury and Hartshorn, the very place to which Poe and Edmund go in the book. The basic plot, of course, is entirely fictional, involving twins, international travel, stolen gold and a variety of nefarious doings; and the notion of Poe actually using what he called the “ratiocination” employed by his detective is rather far-fetched. But Avi interweaves reality and fiction skillfully through most of the book, even to having Poe perpetually in search of liquor and frequently besotted (in real life, it was because of his drinking that Mrs. Whitman refused him). The novel veers most strongly away from reality at its climax, which involves a boat chase; and there is one unexplained event – unusual for Avi – in which Edmund is “struck from behind” at a crucial moment but then apparently left alone by the evildoers so he can join in pursuing them. The book’s conceit, a clever one, is that Poe is trying to make Edmund’s story into a Poe story, which means it needs even more doom and death than has already occurred; and the similarity of Poe’s first name, Edgar, to that of Edmund, encourages Poe in this off-kilter attempt. Although not one of Avi’s very best books, The Man Who Was Poe stands well above typical preteen mystery adventures in its attention to detail, its sureness of pacing and the considerable interest that Avi brings both to the characters and to the setting.
The setting and details are among the major strengths of The Watcher in the Shadows as well – and this is a case where a sequel is actually superior to an original. Chris Moriarty here returns to the alternative history of New York City in the early 20th century that she began chronicling in The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, but while the earlier book’s fascinating concepts were presented somewhat haphazardly, and its high-quality illustrations by Mark Edward Geyer were sometimes at odds with the text, here Moriarty and Geyer really hit their stride. The result is a taut, well-told, finely paced and genuinely frightening mystery in which family bonds are crucial – even when they are severed – and the existence and use of magic are even more enigmatic than they were in the previous book. The primary cast of characters returns here, with poor Jewish protagonist Sacha Kessler and his blue-blood friend Lily Astral helping Inspector Maximillian Wolf try to root out the improper use of magic in criminal and sometimes deadly enterprises. The polyglot New York of the real world is retained and accentuated here, with Jewish, Italian, Chinese and Irish immigrants fighting for a foothold; and the twisting of real-world names and motivations is fleshed out more satisfactorily than before, with special attention to Lily’s family (Astral rather than Astor) and to the primary evildoer, James Pierpont Morgaunt (rather than Morgan). Wolf, a rather thin character in the first book, is far more fully developed here, as we learn more about him, including where he lives and what some of his fears are. Sacha, who can see others’ magic but cannot – yet – perform any himself, also becomes a more fleshed-out character, learning far more about himself through the mistakes he makes and through a terrible loss that his family suffers at the book’s climax. The strange creature called a dybbuk reappears, of course, and even this shadowy thing becomes more solid and interesting by the book’s end – no less malevolent, but malevolent in, perhaps, a different way (a puzzle to be worked out in a later book). And there is a considerable role this time for a woman who practically oozes evil but, at the same time, exercises considerable fascination on the reader as well as on the book’s other characters: Morgaunt’s librarian, Bella de Serpa, “one of the most talked-about women in New York,” around whom “rumors flocked…like art collectors around a priceless Renaissance Madonna,” although “none of the rumors were even remotely as interesting as Bella de Serpa herself.” What gets the plot moving here and makes it possible for readers who missed the earlier book to pick this one up and start with it, if they so desire, is a very strange murder: a famous vaudeville clarinetist called the Klezmer King is fried on stage, during a show, by his electric tuxedo. Gallows humor, yes, and there is a certain amount of it here to leaven what is essentially a serious and very fast-paced adventure. Sacha grows up quite a bit in this book: in a confrontation with gangster Meyer Minsky (rather than Lansky), in his ongoing and developing relationships with Lily and Inspector Wolf, and in his meeting in Chinatown with Shen – one of the best characters from the previous book, equally intriguing this time. The period elements of The Watcher in the Shadows are effectively integrated into the invented ones, and the book as a whole succeeds on multiple levels: as mystery, as a foray into magic, as a combination of real and alternative history, and as an offbeat coming-of-age novel. There will certainly be at least one more book to come in this series – this one’s ending makes that clear – and readers will be looking forward to it for their next trip back, or sideways, in time.