November 05, 2009


From Russia with Lunch: A Chet Gecko Mystery. By Bruce Hale. Harcourt. $15.

Dial M for Mongoose: A Chet Gecko Mystery. By Bruce Hale. Harcourt. $15.

Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren’t As Scary, Maybe, Depending on How You Feel about Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures from the Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, a Man Named Lars Farf, and One Other Story We Couldn’t Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out. Edited by Ted Thompson, with Eli Horowitz. Delacorte Press. $12.99.

     Silliness knows no bounds – certainly none of age. Preteens who graduate from the pun-filled world of Bruce Hale’s tales of Emerson Hicky Elementary School will find plenty of somewhat more grown-up nuttiness in Noisy Outlaws (and so forth), originally brought out by the publisher McSweeney’s in 2005 and now available in paperback.

     But first, back to Emerson Hicky. The 14th and 15th adventures “from the tattered casebook of Chet Gecko, Private Eye,” move right along in the well-worn path of the first 13 – a path that Gecko fans will enjoy continuing to travel. From Russia with Lunch (its title itself a pun, or at least a variant, on a famous adventure/mystery movie – as are all the titles of Chet Gecko books) features the usual amusements in chapter titles: “Stu Pigeon,” “Witch and Famous,” “Nobody Does It Badger,” and so on. And it has a typical topsy-turvy plot: machines are taking over school functions usually done by humans (courtesy of a mysterious Russian inventor, Dr. Tanya Lightov), and students are going through personality reversals (teachers’ pets talking back – that sort of thing). Intrepid and sticky-footed Chet needs to get to the bottom of the intertwined happenings without running afoul of what may turn out to be witchery. And speaking of “afoul,” Chet’s partner, the mockingbird Natalie Attired, turn from a fowl friend to a foul fiend here, abandoning him just when he most needs her help. “I went down hard, like a steel-belted birthday cake,” remarks Chet at one point. But of course he eventually picks himself up (which, as it happens, requires him to crawl) and solves the case.

     And that brings Chet, and readers, to Dial M for Mongoose, in which the nefarious doings stink. Really stink, as in “stink bomb.” And that is only the first of many indignities visited upon Emerson Hicky and its students and teachers, as the school gets messier and messier while the principal decides janitor Maureen DeBree (as in “more debris,” of course) has lost her cleanliness touch and needs to go. Chet knows that can’t be so – there’s dirty work afoot. Or under foot, as it turns out. And as the chapters roll by – “Jerry Dooty,” “Clues Blues,” “Cold Hard Crash” and the rest – Chet (with Natalie’s help and the occasional lice-cream sandwich) manages to misconstrue all the clues until the mystery more or less solves itself. Which is just fine.

     But when young readers outgrow Hale and his Chet-ventures – and they will – where can they turn for offbeat stories for slightly older (and perhaps slightly more mature) readers? Noisy Outlaws… is one place – the title alone is so long that it tells you a great deal about the anthology’s approach. What you have here is a profusely illustrated volume of short stories (and a comic strip and a crossword puzzle), plus one-and-a-half offerings by Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler). The complete offering by unfortunate-events expert Snicket is the book’s introduction, which he promises readers will find tedious; the partial one is the last entry, which runs just over one page, breaks off in the middle of a sentence, and is followed by seven blank pages that readers can use to complete the story, or at which they can simply marvel, having paid for their blankness. Anyway, Noisy Outlaws… includes works by Nick Hornby, George Saunders, Kelly Link (a genuinely scary story about whether a monster is genuinely scary), Jon Scieszka, Sam Swope (a variation on the three-wishes fairy tale, including a mother who is a real ogre, not just a human with the personality of one), Clement Freud, James Kochalka (a tale in postmodern comic-strip form), Neil Gaiman (a story of epicureans whose ultimate exotic meal proves too hot to handle, much less swallow), Jeanne DuPrau, and Jonathan Safran Foer (a fantasy about a part of New York City that has mysteriously disappeared, if it ever existed). There is also a self-described ““excessively difficult crossword” by David Levinson Wilk (answer key provided). As in any anthology, some items are more successful than others, but this story grouping is considerably better than most, showcasing a wide variety of styles, sensibilities and subjects. The illustrations are in a large number of different styles, too, and give Noisy Outlaws… a freewheeling appearance as well as a decidedly odd one. It’s the sort of thing Chet Gecko might come up with if he actually ate the lunchroom’s broccoli-and-lima-bean pie – and found it had spoiled.

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