CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 9 . . . .December 21, 2007
Red River Ransom. (A Tom Austen Mystery).
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2006.
134 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Motion picture industry-Juvenile fiction.
Detective and mystery stories.
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Mary Thomas.
When Tom awoke, his head was thick. His eyes hurt. He was in darkness. Wherever he was, he was being bumped and jostled, and he was moving fast. Putting out his hand he touched a glowing fluorescent strip dangling before his eyes. The strip displayed the words 'PULL TO RELEASE TRUNK.'
Tom was inside a car trunk! If he grabbed the fluorescent strip, the lid would pop open. But he still couldn't escape. The car was going too fast.
He heard traffic sounds, and once the wailing of sirens. Finally the city noises ended and eventually the car stopped. Tom heard a voice. Muffled, it came from inside the car. The speaker was a man, and he was shouting angrily.
"I got the wrong person? Now you're telling me what? Release him? Not a chance! I'll deal with the troublemaker. Right here, right now."
The words made Tom's hair stand on end. Fear gave him energy. He seized the fluorescent strip. The trunk popped open.
Tom scrambled from the car.
Red River Ransom delivers on all the things that readers have come to expect from Eric Wilson's detective novels. There's lots of local colour. Set in Winnipeg (mostly) and Hollywood, readers get mentions of Portage and Main--of course!--but also the Festival du Voyageur, Queenston School, Tim Horton's, and the Exchange district, not to mention intrepid Winnipegers braving the cold to view the filming of a gangster movie purportedly set in Chicago in the 1930s. Transferring to California, there is the Walk of Fame where movie stars have cast prints of hands and feet into the concrete, and lots of blue surf and white sand. There is enough atmospheric name dropping; in fact, that the book concludes with a list of the real people mentioned in the course of the story.
In addition to the strong indicators of setting, the story, itself, has the readily and immediately identifiable villain, lots of action, and cliff-hanger chapter endings.
Why then is the book ultimately lackluster and disappointing?
Partly, it is that the character of the 13-year-old movie star, Johnny Lombardo, son of star parents and a star, himself, practically since birth, is too nice and normal to be believable. Partly it is that the dialogue somehow doesn't have the cadence of real speech. Mostly, however, it is that Tom is involved in too many lucky coincidences both when he gets taken on as Johnny's double on the movie set and also when he starts investigating the crime.
As with Nancy Drew and the Hardy boy books, none of these difficulties will affect the true-blue Wilson fans who will love the quick action and excitement, no doubt skipping over the educational bits of local colour and information in their rush to find out what happens. The significant twist in the tail of the plot should leave them surprised and fully satisfied – though to the sceptic that, too, is not very believable.
Recommended with reservations.
Mary Thomas works in a Winnipeg, MB, public school library and finds that the Nancy Drew genre has lost its appeal since she was in Grade 5.
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