October 25, 2007


Hiss Me Deadly: A Chet Gecko Mystery. By Bruce Hale. Harcourt. $15.

Cover-Up: Mystery at the Super Bowl. By John Feinstein. Knopf. $16.99.

      No. 13. It has to be something dark, doom-laden and special. Or maybe light, ridiculous and special. Yup, that’s it. Hiss Me Deadly, the 13th tale “From the Tattered Casebook of Chet Gecko, Private Eye,” is as strange, convoluted, pun-filled and hysterically funny as anything Hale has written to date about the bright green elementary-school sleuth and his faithful avian companion, Natalie Attired the mockingbird. Hiss Me Deadly is also the first Chet Gecko title whose reference to an old movie may not be immediately obvious to adults (at whom Hale definitely directs some of his more outrageous instances of wordplay). For instance, the referents of The Big Nap and The Hamster of the Baskervilles, two earlier titles, are obvious. Not this one: Hale is referring to Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me Deadly, a film in which Mickey Spillane’s character Mike Hammer is portrayed as a sadist and the mystery he solves turns out to be an Atomic Age nightmare. There’s nothing that serious here, of course, but boy, does Hale know his noir detective films! And boy, does he love bad puns, such as chapter titles “Bad Hare Day,” “I, Chihuahua,” “Iguana Hold Your Hand,” and “Snakey Breaky Heart.” Hiss Me Deadly turns on Chet’s fear of clowns and his familial affections (he really likes his baby sister, Pinky, after all): “We’d had plenty of crime at Emerson Hicky Elementary—cheating, blackmail, vandalism, kids trying to take over the world. But no crook had made it this personal. No crook had ever picked on my family before.” So Chet has both personal and professional (so to speak) reasons for finding out who is behind a series of thefts, including one involving his sister. Along the way, he encounters such characters as a music teacher named Gustav Mauler, filling in for Zoomin’ Mayta (and not even all adults will get both those classical-music references); Luz Lipps, a flirty flying-squirrel hall monitor; a snake named Balthazar Boa (“Bal Boa,” see?); and many others. Eventually, Chet evades two iguana goons, Nose Ring and Squinchy Eye, and recovers a valuable known as – get ready for a groaner – the Flubberjee Egg (parents are going to have to explain Fabergé eggs to give kids the full flavor of that one). Chet’s a winner – 13 times over.

      Hale’s books are for ages 8-12, while John Feinstein’s Cover-Up is for ages 10 and up – and therefore takes a decidedly more serious tone. It is not intended for all readers, though. Like Feinstein’s previous books, Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery and Vanishing Act: Mystery at the U.S. Open, the new novel is designed as much to give readers some inside looks at major sports events as to interest them in mysteries. Feinstein, a longtime sports reporter and author of numerous sports-related books for adults, is more concerned with the intricacies of competitive games than with fleshing out the personalities of his rather drab detectives, teenage reporters Steve Thomas and Susan Carol Anderson; therefore, Cover-Up gets a (+++) rating. The young protagonists’ case in Cover-Up revolves around a steroid scandal that only Steve and Susan Carol can possibly expose. Okay, that’s not realistic, especially since the presence of steroids in sports is headline news almost every day, and it doesn’t take a medical professional to look at the bulk of football players to suspect chemical enhancement here and there. But that’s the basis of Feinstein’s plot. Steve and Susan Carol find themselves involved with an unscrupulous owner (again, not much news there) who is determined to cover up – until after the game – the fact that his team’s entire offensive line failed the pregame drug tests. Really, the plot is absurd, and is mostly an excuse for Feinstein to pile on effective scenes of the money, power and egos involved in the Super Bowl and the preparations for it. Steve and Susan Carol are 14-year-old stand-ins for the sports-obsessed teens that Feinstein hopes to woo with this tale. It’s a well-told story if you’re interested in lots of football minutiae from a writer who clearly knows his subject inside and out; but it’s a bit flat as a mystery, since “the game’s afoot” here refers more to the Big Game than to any sort of detective work.

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