January 11, 2007


The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie. By Jaclyn Moriarty. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

Vanishing Act: Mystery at the U.S. Open. By John Feinstein. Knopf. $16.95.

     It’s arguable whether there are second acts in life, but there are certainly second acts, and third ones, and more, in writing. Come up with something that works, and an author will be tempted – nay, urged by his or her publisher – to produce more of the same. As in moviemaking, a return to the tried-and-true formula tends to become, well, formulaic, although fans of original books (or movies) can often be induced to return for follow-ups that are, at best, not quite as good.

     Both these books are all right, and existing fans of the authors will enjoy them, but neither book is likely to create a stampede of new readers. The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie is the cleverer of the two, being written entirely in diary entries, letters, E-mails and similar forms. Designated a “companion” book to Jaclyn Moriarty’s The Year of Secret Assignments, which used the same kind of format and was highly original in doing so, The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie is a case of more of the same. Much more, in fact – it runs nearly 500 pages. Bindy is that super-wonderful high-school girl that everyone loves to hate, and everyone does. It’s easy to see why: she has such a perfect, and perfectly nasty, way of encapsulating everyone in her orbit. One example: “A group of people were [sic] standing by the window at the far end of the room. Six people. Toby, Emily, Briony, Elizabeth, Sergio, and Astrid. …The Venomous Six. Cane toad, komodo dragon, sea cucumber, Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, platypus, and sea wasp.” Charming, isn’t she? (Ungrammatical, too: a group was standing, not were standing – but that’s Moriarty’s fault, not her character’s.) The point is that Bindy is…well…pointed in her evaluations of everyone, and the fact that she really is extraordinarily bright and accomplished makes her barbs all the more – barbed. So when Bindy figures out that someone seems to be trying to kill her, there are far too many suspects (just about everyone) and far too few people to whom she can turn for help (just about no one). The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie becomes the story of Bindy’s search for her putative murderer, and thus a search for who she really is and really wants to be; and all this is entangled with her involvement in FAD: the Friendship And Development Project that is supposed to help teens get through tough spots but that Bindy is sure isn’t for her. Until it is. The fast pace and bright writing are the best things in this book, but Bindy’s eventual discovery that she does need people after all is predictable from the beginning, and the cleverness really does go on too long.

     Vanishing Act is mercifully shorter, at fewer than 300 pages, and is a fast read for preteens and teens interested in sports – specifically, tennis. It is a sequel to John Feinstein’s first murder mystery for young readers, Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery, which was a fast read for preteens and teens interested in sports – specifically, basketball. Feinstein’s niche is certainly clear enough. The first book was about an attempt to fix the championship game at the NCAA Final Four. The two crusading teen journalists and aspiring sportswriters who uncovered that plot, Stevie Thomas and Susan Carol Anderson, find themselves investigating a kidnapping in Vanishing Act. A young Russian tennis star, and potential superstar, suddenly disappears in a way that seems impossible. The teens aren’t the only ones on this case – there’s a media frenzy, which Feinstein handles knowledgeably, and professional journalists as well as law-enforcement personnel are on top of the story. The eventual plots-within-plots unraveling is clever, but it is also highly manipulative on Feinstein’s part. Feinstein is a longtime sports writer and author of sports-related books for adults, and he clearly loves the games he portrays. But readers may feel he doesn’t play entirely fairly with them.

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