November 16, 2017
(+++) MYSTERY AND ADVENTURE
Ruby & Olivia. By Rachel Hawkins. Putnam. $16.99.
Lock and Key, Book One: The Initiation. By Ridley Pearson. Harper. $9.99.
Lock and Key, Book Two: The Downward Spiral. By Ridley Pearson. Harper. $17.99.
The usual preteen drama always takes up a good deal of space in novels for preteens, with much of the underlying plot of individual books being added to (or subsumed within) the interpersonal issues that publishers seem inevitably to favor in works for ages 8-12. Thus, Ruby & Olivia is as much about the highly unlikely friendship of the title characters as it is about the possibly haunted house whose contents the girls are required to catalogue as part of a summer-long community-service project. The way Rachel Hawkins throws Ruby and Olivia together into unlikely partnership during community service is clunky in the extreme: Ruby is indeed something of a troublemaker, sent to a camp for “Bad Kids” after she scatters loads of glitter at school in a prank gone wrong, but Olivia is quiet and respectful. However, Olivia has a twin sister, Emma, who is very much Ruby’s type and has in fact been Ruby’s close friend. When Emma shoplifts some lipstick, Olivia steps in and takes the blame for absolutely no reason whatsoever – Hawkins tries to get past this by having Olivia say she herself is not sure why she does it, but the sleight of hand does not work as a narrative device and leaves Olivia’s action thoroughly unbelievable. In the context of the book, though, the precipitating event of Olivia’s being sent to the same camp as Ruby does not matter – what counts is that the two very different girls are sent to the same place and have to learn to get along, eventually becoming (against all odds but scarcely against the usual plot vectors of books like this) close friends. Strange occurrences in Live Oaks House – more unsettling than genuinely creepy – become a mystery that Ruby and Olivia decide they want to solve, then decide they do not really need to solve after all, then eventually decide that they must solve. Hawkins gives a broad hint of what is going to happen by having two long-ago girl residents of the old mansion turn out to be named Rebecca and Octavia – same first letters as in Ruby and Olivia, guaranteeing that some sort of ghostly connection is reaching across the years to ensnare (maybe) the two 21st-century girls. It is hard to take any of this seriously, and even the obligatory mild crush on a boy seems creakily patched into the story: he helps the girls in their climactic visit to the old house, then conveniently gets scared and runs away, leaving them alone – while even more conveniently leaving them exactly the tools and implements they need to solve the mystery and overcome the mansion’s dark forces. It is very hard to take Ruby & Olivia seriously, but as a genre entry that has some of the flavor of a lightweight “beach read,” the book has its points.
The points that Ridley Pearson is trying to make in the Lock and Key series are more complex, but a lot of the intricacy is as creaky as anything in Hawkins’ standalone novel. Lock and Key is a reconsideration of the Sherlock Holmes stories, set in the United States in modern times but for some reason having the characters speak in language that seems taken, at least in large part, from the 19th century. The idea here is that Holmes comes from England to a U.S. boarding school -- called Baskerville Academy, of all things – and becomes the roommate of none other than James Moriarty, who will eventually become his arch-enemy. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Moriarty for the express purpose of killing Holmes off, and Moriarty plays very little role in the authentic Holmes tales – but he has appealed to many authors since Doyle’s time, and Pearson seems to find the light-against-dark juxtaposition of the teenage Holmes and Moriarty irresistible. Readers will likely find it less so. The series is narrated by Moriarty’s sister, Moria (yes, Moria Moriarty, a name that is one of the creakiest elements in Lock and Key), even though many events happen when she is not present and readers have to accept her assertion that she has re-created some scenes that she was told about years later by various characters. This does not work very well: there is an awkwardness to the narrative that goes beyond the inexpert writing, which is even more ill-fitting when Pearson tries to give Moria, who is 12 (two years younger than James and Holmes), some personality of her own: “The sky held an elaborate mix of colors: aqua, gray, pink, and purple. A painter’s sky. …We all smelled like suntan lotion in summers, and hamburgers, and fresh-cut grass. Ice cream doesn’t smell or we would have smelled like that as well.” In the first Lock and Key book, The Initiation – originally published last year and now available in paperback – Moria has a bit of a crush on Holmes even though he comes across, in Pearson’s story, as a rather insufferable know-it-all. For his part, James is whiny, thoroughly unappreciative, and enormously arrogant and self-centered, at one point telling his sister, “I think some of us are meant to lead and some to follow, regardless of how old we are or what grade we’re in. …It’s like pilot fish and sharks, soldiers and generals. It’s prehistoric or something.” The idea of two very different central characters needing to get past their dislike of each other and form an uneasy alliance is as present in Lock and Key as in Ruby & Olivia, but Pearson tries to lend the disconnect between James and Holmes greater importance by drawing on elements of Doyle’s stories. That means The Initiation and its successor, The Downward Spiral, must have mysteries as well as a rivalry at their heart. Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the brilliant and aloof detective in his works about C. Auguste Dupin, called those stories “tales of ratiocination,” and emphasized careful thinking rather than personality development in them. Doyle picked up the approach to great effect in his Holmes tales, but Pearson tries to balance mystery with traditional preteen-novel tropes, and the mixture is more a colloidal suspension than a solution. Speaking of solutions, the first book is about a missing Moriarty family Bible – the school was founded by James and Moria’s ancestors – and the second gets more deeply into the Moriarty family’s troubled history and pushes James farther down the dark path onto which he enters in the first volume. The books include some typical trappings of certain parts of the mystery genre: events of the past coming home to roost, a death that may or may not have been accidental, a secret society, and so on. Whether the intended preteen audience will enjoy the ins and outs of the mysteries themselves, or be more interested in the byplay between Holmes and James as reported by Moria, is an open question. As for Pearson’s style, it swerves uneasily between contemporary references (James Moriarty doing Sudoku?) and old-fashioned expressions, some of which are not quite right, as when Holmes says of his deduction that certain jewelry belonged to James and Moria’s mother, “That was my presumption” (he means “assumption” or “deduction”). And the portrait of Holmes is really not much more flattering than that of James – at one point, for instance, Holmes begins an analysis to Moria with the words, “If my theory is correct – and when am I wrong?” It is hard to imagine modern preteens identifying in any significant way with any of the three central characters in Lock and Key, but Pearson’s pacing is skillful enough so the first two books can be read as simple mystery adventures rather than as reconsiderations of a rivalry dating back to the century before the last one.