CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 3 . . . .September 28, 2007
Death in Kingsport.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2007.
215 pp., pbk., $14.99.
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Lindsay Schluter.
The minister closed his book, the chief motioned to the stokers to open the furnace door, and the mourners backed away, hit by a blast of noise and heat. It was, Neil thought later, like a dragon opening its terrible jaws and flaming a warning at them.
The undertaker's men grasped the chrome handles of the coffin and hoisted, resting one end on the door-sill. Then they turned in unison to look at the chief engineer, as if wondering if it was really all right to do this.
The chief nodded. Then men pushed. The coffin began to slide through the door. The other pallbearers stayed back, away from the intense heat, but Neil followed along with it. He was an honorary pallbearer and he was going to stay with Uncle Chester all the way, right to the door of the furnace.
Partway through, however, the coffin caught on a ridge of the doorsill. The men paused, and the ones at the front went back to help those at the rear push it on through. Neil, dripping sweat, stayed where he was, beside the stalled coffin. Past it, he saw the roiling fire, the brilliant flames, the mass of shimmering, white-hot coals.
It was then he heard the sounds. Thump, thump, thump.
In the sleepy town of Kingsport, Ontario, nothing is as it seems. Within a matter of weeks, two of Dr. Savage's patients have died from a sudden heart attack, and shortly thereafter, a third patient is mysteriously pronounced dead by way of the same illness. Fourteen-year-old Neil Graves, whose uncle was one of the victims, is rightfully suspicious, but it isn't until the day of his uncle's cremation that he begins to suspect foul play. As his uncle's coffin is pushed into the roaring fire, Neil hears a loud thumping sound coming from within the coffin itself. Neil is shocked, and, although his mother warns him that he has too much imagination for his own good, he begins to wonder... could his uncle still have been alive? And if so, were the other two men who died of a heart attack, really dead?
As Neil tries to uncover the truth behind this puzzling mystery, he enlists the aid of his good friend, Graham Graham, whose name — and intelligence — are inherited from a distant relative: Alexander Graham Bell. Together, the two gumshoes uncover a tangled web of clues that seem impossible to solve — impossible, that is, until Neil encounters a young girl named Crescent Savage whose own family history proves to be a vital piece to the puzzle. Neil and his friends discover that Dr. Savage had, in fact, been using his patients as guinea pigs, all the while trying to emulate the effects of an ancient Amazonian potion that was supposed to bring his patients to near death and then back again — only, he hadn't yet gotten it quite right. Dr. Savage was convinced that it was his destiny to make medical history with his discoveries in the Amazon, and yet his insatiable hunger for fame and glory ultimately pushes him over the edge.
This fast-paced mystery novel keeps readers on their toes, journeying from the icy cold lakes of wintry Ontario, to the sweltering heat of the Amazon jungle. The premise is intriguing, with a number of twists and turns along the way; however, Parkinson fails to truly cultivate the characters of Graham and Crescent, subsequently weakening the otherwise tightly woven plot. Neil is oftentimes featured alone, making advances in the case without his trusty side-kicks, and, as a result, he is forced to recap large sections of the plot when asked, "So what is new on the mysterious death front?" In addition, the storyline is fractured by the gulf that exists between Graham and Crescent who are awkwardly forced to collaborate in an attempt to save Neil's life, meeting for the first time more than three quarters of the way through the book.
Parkinson's style of writing is highly accessible, and, although the novel is primarily plot-driven with a number of thrilling cliff hangers, there are several descriptive passages that provide both depth and luminosity to the text itself. At the same time, Parkinson remains very aware of who his audience is, consistently achieving a good balance between a language that is both challenging and easily digestible.
The novel's omniscient narrator offers the reader a panoramic view of the world of the story, shifting from the perspective of Neil, himself, to that of Dr. Savage, Graham, Crescent, and even Crescent's dog. Elements of Canadian culture bubble to the surface, and anyone familiar with Canada's cold winters will be able to relate to Neil's tingling fingers, numb toes and stinging cheeks as he makes his way through the biting cold of a tempestuous Ontario snowstorm.
Set in the year 1941, the novel is saturated with references to World War II which may appeal to a young male audience; however, the overall impact of this setting is met with mixed success. At times, Parkinson attempts to mirror the events of the war in Neil's own journey, with the cumbersome intent of heightening the novel's sense of danger and excitement. As a result, the plot is given more weight than it needs.
As Neil Graves attempts to prove that death in Kingsport is really murder, Shakespeare's famous quote, "What's in a name?" becomes all too relevant. The key to this mystery lies in the details, and, as readers come to the end of Parkinson's carefully planned plot, they will undoubtedly wish to revisit the countryside of Kingsport, ON, again and again.
Lindsay Schluter is a Library and Information Studies student at the University of British Columbia.
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