May 14, 2015
(++++) MYSTERY SOLVERS
Theodore Boone #5: The Fugitive. By John Grisham. Dutton. $17.99.
The Trap. By Steven Arntson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
One of the best things about John Grisham’s books is that they do not pretend to mean anything. They are adventures pure and simple, thrillers within a highly unrealistic but captivating “legal system” framework, books with sometimes ambiguous heroes and villains but with, all in all, a strong sense of right and wrong and of what is right coming out ahead in the end. Remove the ambiguity from the protagonists and you have a fine recipe for books for young readers, and that is just what Grisham cooks up in his Theodore Boone series. Each book begins with Theo’s full name and then has a specific title: Kid Lawyer, The Abduction, The Accused and The Activist were the first four, and The Fugitive is the fifth. The latest novel is a continuation of the story of Theo’s involvement with accused murderer Pete Duffy – and while it is possible to read this book without knowing the prior ones, it is highly beneficial to know the earlier material before tackling this story. “Tackling,” however, may be too strong a word, because it implies some level of difficulty, and there is really none here. As usual in Grisham’s books for adults and young readers alike, the characters are one-dimensional and easy to understand, and the interest comes from the plot – which, also as usual, is neatly conceived and followed through with inexorable logic that is fully cognizant of the realities of the American legal system even though it inevitably simplifies and dramatizes both the investigation-of-crime phase and the intricacies of courtrooms. As always in a Grisham book, the legal niceties (and not-very-niceties) are the main attraction here. Duffy, for example, jumped bail, which he received even though he was charged with murder. It is explained to Theo that “most judges will not even consider bond in a murder case,” but Duffy “had money,” and even though bail (it is explained that “bond” and “bail” are the same thing) was set at a million dollars, “he put up some land worth that much.” He then fled, which meant he forfeited the land. And how has the fugitive been caught? Well, during a class trip to Washington, D.C., Theo happens to spot the disguised Duffy aboard a Metro train, managing to get video of him with a cell-phone camera – video that is subsequently analyzed by the FBI and confirmed to be Duffy. Yes, all this is far-fetched, but the plot machinery of a Grisham book invariably is – what matters is the meticulous handling of the legal elements. Here, those involve maneuvers by Duffy’s crooked colleagues and venal, conniving legal team, set against the goodness of the good guys, who are really very good: “Theo did not like the fact that he was being forced to lie. It was wrong and he tried to tell the truth at all times. However, occasionally he found himself in the awkward position of having to fudge on the truth for a good reason.” Oh, please – as moral dilemmas go, on a scale of one to 10, this is about a 0.5. But, again, moral uncertainty is not the reason for the attractiveness of The Fugitive and the other Theodore Boone books. What is the reason is the grittiness of a passage spoken by Theo’s Uncle Ike, who once served time in prison, about what life there was like: “I lost everything, including my family. My name, respect, profession, self-worth, everything. That’s what you think about when you’re in prison – all the things you take for granted. It was awful, just awful. But…I never got hurt. I made friends. …The food was terrible but I actually got healthier in prison because I stopped smoking and drinking and jogged every day.” What is the reason is a subsidiary of the major trial, a hearing in Animal Court involving two misbehaving boys, a herd of “fainting goats,” and a YouTube video. What is the reason is the Duffy retrial itself, which is complex enough and convoluted enough to keep readers interested without getting so far into minutiae that young readers will be unable to follow the legal wranglings. The book’s ending, though, is a bit of a cheat: the trial has a decisive conclusion, but instead of setting up something new for Theo in a follow-up book, Grisham makes it clear that the Duffy matter is not yet permanently settled, and at this rate may never be. Still, The Fugitive is both a strong entry in the Theodore Boone series and an interestingly fast-paced novel in its own right – a superficial one, to be sure, but no more so (and no less so) than Grisham’s similarly paced books for adults.
The Trap is a less-successful mystery, in part because its paranormal elements seem forced, in part because it is simply less well-written, and in part because it keeps insisting that what happens in its pages means something and somehow reveals important elements of real life, when in fact that is true, at most, to a very limited extent. Best read simply as a mystery solved through involvement with the supernatural – involvement that has predictably confusing and almost dire consequences – The Trap is about a sort of out-of-body experience called “subtle travel” that may explain the disappearance of a town bully. Set, for no particular reason, in 1963, and featuring a seventh-grade hero (Grisham’s Theo is an eighth-grader), The Trap focuses on Henry Nilsson; his twin sister, Helen; and two of their friends, Alan and Nicki. The four collectively investigate the mystery of the missing bully (that would have been a good title!) while also looking into Subtle Travel and the Subtle Self – the title of the typically old and typically moldy instruction guide they discover, typically, in a secret place in the woods near town. Steven Arntson starts this (+++) book very slowly, perhaps intending to build suspense or a sense of mystery but unfortunately creating a work paced so ploddingly that at least some readers will likely give up before it becomes more interesting – which, after a while, it does. Arntson seems unsure about just where to put his emphasis, however. Is it on the supernatural angle, which includes the discovery that the “subtle” world has its own rules and forms of enforcement? Is it on historical matters that are apparently supposed to get readers interested in how events of the past might affect them today, and that are apparently the reason for setting the story 50-plus years ago? Is it on issues of typical middle-school angst, such as Henry’s crush on Nicki? Is it on matters such as alcohol abuse and racism, which appear as (overly obvious) bad things, against which the author warns his readers? Arntson’s answer seems to be that the focus is on all these areas, but that is the same as saying the book has no focus at all – which is not completely true, but is true enough so that the overall feeling of the narrative is rather scattered. Readers may find Henry himself to be a less than fully believable character: he is too mature a narrator, especially in descriptive passages, to be believable in the role of a middle-schooler trying to decide how to handle a crush. Readers who make it through the first 100 pages or so and enjoy the much-improved pace thereafter, and who find themselves intrigued by the characters, the supernatural world they encounter, or both, may hope that this book is the start of a series – which is just what the conclusion suggests it will be. If Arntson does produce further entries, they will be more interesting to the extent that he makes their mystery elements more prominent and keeps the books focused on a smaller number of narrative threads.