November 10, 2011


The Mystery of the Missing Everything. By Ben H. Winters. Harper. $16.99.

The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman. By Ben H. Winters. Harper. $5.99.

The Last Musketeer. By Stuart Gibbs. Harper. $16.99.

The Three Musketeers. By Alexandre Dumas. Adapted by Clarissa Hutton. Pictures by Brett Helquist. Harper. $6.99.

     Some new books are more effective and more fun only if you know their predecessors. The Mystery of the Missing Everything reintroduces middle-school detective Bethesda Fielding, now an eighth grader, in a story about a stolen trophy that has led Principal Isabel Van Vreeland to cancel the eighth grade’s much-anticipated field trip to Taproot Valley. The trophy is super-important to the principal, since it is the only one the school has ever won, and it brings out her mean streak: “Instead of helping her get to the bottom of this, and get her precious trophy back, all everyone did was moan and groan about their precious extracurricular activities. …Well, guess what, folks. You want me to make things better around here? Too bad. They’re about to get a lot worse.” Bethesda methodically works on the trophy issue, and soon becomes a thorn in the side to a certain someone: “Bethesda was clever. A little too clever. She was determined to solve the mystery, and for the person in the upstairs bathroom, that was a problem.” There is a long list of suspects, through which Bethesda goes methodically, and there turn out to be several confessions, none of them useful until, of course, the one that is (actually the two that are). And a bit of deus ex machina at the end guarantees that everything comes out fine – thanks in part to Ida Finkleman, who at one point is sort of a suspect but who turns out to be a big help. She is the focus of Ben Winters’ previous book, The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, which is now available in paperback. In that book, set a year earlier (with Bethesda as a seventh-grader), there is much made of Ms. Finkleman’s apparent tattoo of Ozzy Osbourne, and of the contrast between the conservatively dressed music teacher and the real Ms. Finkleman, who seems to have a “secret life.” But it turns out that there is a secret beyond the secret, a mystery behind the mystery: what has been revealed about Ms. Finkleman turns out not to be correct, not quite, and even that tattoo, although it exists, proves not to be what it seems. The twists in Ms. Finkleman’s story are rather overdone, but the book seems somewhat less forced than The Mystery of the Missing Everything, and rock-music fans in the target age range will find it neatly to their tastes – and a good foundation for the newer book, if they want to know more of Bethesda’s detective adventures.

     “Adventure” is the perfect word for The Three Musketeers, published in serial form in 1844 and ever since identified with swashbuckling heroism and the “all for one, one for all” mentality (in fact, Alexandre Dumas invented the phrase – albeit in French). Readers who have long enjoyed the novel, or one of its many adaptations, may nevertheless be unaware that there were two sequels: Twenty Years After and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later, one part of which is famous as The Man in the Iron Mask. And now there is another sequel of sorts, or rather a prequel: The Last Musketeer by Stuart Gibbs. It is really a pretty silly book, involving time travel by 14-year-old Greg Rich in an attempt to rescue his parents after they disappear during a family trip to Paris. Greg meets the teenage Musketeers – Athos, Porthos and Aramis – and discovers that he must help them survive some dastardly machinations so they can become the heroes they are meant to be and meet up with d’Artagnan. This means that Greg himself must become a Musketeer, which is possible because his family history is tied to the Three Musketeers, and…well, the whole setup is so far-fetched that it is hard to believe Gibbs wants anyone to take any of it seriously. The camaraderie of the Musketeers quickly extends to Greg: “‘By now you’re not a stranger,’ Aramis interrupted. ‘You’re a friend.’ ‘Besides, this is about right and wrong, and defending honor,’ Athos added.” And so the morality underpinning Dumas’ novels (which are collectively called The d’Artagnan Romances) appears in Gibbs’ book as well, however hard it may be to take it seriously in this context. And how seriously will modern readers take it in the original context? The Three Musketeers is certainly still worth reading, even – for young readers – in the rather lightweight adaptation by Clarissa Hutton. Brett Helquist’s name appears on the cover in larger type than Dumas’, which shows this edition’s orientation – although it is not a graphic novel (actually, The Three Musketeers would make a good one). Helquist’s illustrations are suitably overdone – lots of smirks and snarls by bad guys and lots of heroic posturing by the good characters. And the translation is suitably dramatic – plenty of “Begone!” and “Silence!” and “Help! Help!” and such. And the development-a-minute plotting still carries readers along into the mixture of swordplay and chivalry that has long made Dumas popular. There may not be all that much to The Last Musketeer, but there is still plenty to enjoy in the novel that provides its foundation and background.

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