CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 31. . . .April 15, 2011.
The Midnight Tunnel. (A Suzanna Snow Mystery).
New York, NY: Scholastic (Distributed in Canada by Scholastic Canada), 2011.
283 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
Mystery and detective stories.
Hotels, motels, etc.-Fiction.
Family life-New Brunswick-Fiction.
New Brunswick-History-20th century-Fiction.
Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.
Review by Ruth Latta.
The rattling of the wooden steps leading to the servants' house interrupted me, and then the door swung wide. A flash of lightning flooded the tunnel, blinding me. Tears filled my eyes and I blinked away a school of white halos to regain my vision. As it started to return, I saw in the doorway the silhouette of two skinny legs and a scallop-trimmed nightdress, blacked out against another dazzling burst of lightning. Whoever it was, was jerked to the side, pulled hard by someone. I couldn't see, and then the door slammed.
In an effort to make their work stand out, authors often go to great lengths to be current and innovative, even when their novels are set in the past. In some novels, historical figures rub shoulders with fictional characters. Supernatural elements abound these days. Too often, in works set in the past, the terminology and human dynamics are those of the 21st century, rather than of a bygone era.
Angie Frazier has written a realistic, traditional who-done-it which succeeds brilliantly thanks to excellent plotting, an appealing coastal setting, superb characterization, and authentic presentation of the social mores and attitudes of 1904.
Eleven-year-old Zanna (Suzanna) Snow lives on the New Brunswick coast on the grounds of the Rosemount Hotel. The summer visitors are wealthy Americans from Boston and New York. Zanna's father tells her, "Even though your mother and I are the managers, the guests are the ones who run this hotel. We bend to their will, whether we want to or not."
Zanna's social status is ambiguous. Her mother, who wants her to be ladylike, has plenty of rules as to what is comme il faut. "Mr. Quimby is not a proper chaperone," she says of the teenage boy who walks Zanna home. Yet Zanna is being educated at the local one-room school house, as the family lives year round in a house on the hotel property. Zanna is expected to help the belligerent cook, Nellie, to take tea trays to guests and to go to the dock each morning to buy fish for the kitchen. Zanna’s ambiguous social position, along with her tender age, are ideal for detective work as she moves freely between the "downstairs" world of working people and the "upstairs" world of the summer visitors.
Zanna's Uncle Bruce, whom she hasn't seen for several years, is a famous Boston detective. She would like to follow in his footsteps, an ambition her parents consider ridiculous. Her uncle never answers any of her letters, though, and when he arrives on the scene, he turns out to be egocentric and dismissive of young people.
Uncle Bruce is summoned by the wealthy Cook family to investigate the disappearance of their seven-year-old daughter, Maddie. She vanishes during the night of a storm and power outage at the hotel. That night, Zanna is sent through the tunnel linking the Rosemount to the servants' house to fetch Lucy, a young employee who is alone there. In the kitchen of the servants' quarters, Zanna glimpses in a lightning flash the skinny legs and scalloped hemline of someone small being dragged off.
Uncle Bruce points the finger at a working class youth who is a few years older than Zanna and who made an unfortunate joke about putting talkative little Maddie in a lobster trap. Zanna, who studies all the residents for peculiar behaviour and keeps careful notes, cannot believe this lad is guilty, and she sets out to investigate. Her suspects include wealthy old Mr. Johnston, rumoured to have a fortune buried locally to keep it from his children. Why did he leave his distinctive socks and his cigar on the beach the morning before Maddie's disappearance? And what of Thomas Cook, Maddie's teenage brother, who is caught by his angry father returning from an early morning boat ride with beautiful young Penelope, the family nanny? Then there is Yancy the bellhop, who was fired for insubordination toward the Cook family, but who was still at the hotel the night of the power failure when he ought to have been on his way home. And why was Mother over at the hotel late on the evening of the blackout when she would normally have been at home with Father and Zanna?
The adults, including Zanna's parents, are authoritarian in their attitude to young people. Youths seem to exist to work, be polite and obey grown-ups unquestioningly. Some adults hold working people in low esteem; for instance, Mrs. Cook says that "Maddie is not allowed to befriend servants." Zanna reacts, “I wouldn't want to be considered a person of lesser value simply because I wasn't rich.”
Such attitudes will startle and educate today's young readers. The author conveys more about life's realities in 1904 through Lucy, a chambermaid from Brooklyn, who needs the job because her mother is ill. Lucy is only 12-years-old.
Despite adult dismissiveness, Zanna continues her research into the crime. Her sleuthing eventually takes her across the sand, when the tide is out, to a coastal island. It is there that she stands up to one of the adults:
"My investigation led us here, not yours," [she says].... So I will not be going back to the mainland.”...I lifted up my chin... “And one more thing. My name is Suzanna”'...
He looked at me as if he had never seen me before, as if I were some odd creature that had just stepped into the picture for the first time.
As it turns out, the people involved in the crime include rich, poor, old and young. The happy ending is appropriate for preteen and early teen readers. The tone of quiet affirmation of the girl detective's capabilities is key to the novel's excellence.
Ruth Latta's short stories in Winter Moon (Ottawa, Baico, 2010, firstname.lastname@example.org) are for grown-ups.
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