CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 7. . . .October 15, 2010.
The Midnight-Blue Marble. (An Ailie Mooney Mystery).
Melanie Jackson. Illustrated by Eleanor Rosenberg.
Vancouver, BC: Gumboot Books, 2009.
224 pp., pbk., $12.99.
Grades 6-8 / Ages 11-13.
Review by Kim Aippersbach.
She produced an old cedar box, then opened it to show me a packet of letters bound with a faded red velvet ribbon. Loosening the ribbon, the old woman unfolded the top page. It was a title page, like you have to do for school projects, only infinitely more interesting: The Private Letters of Marie Antoinette, with an introduction by Constable John Hayward.
Marie Antoinette’s correspondence? Woah! For a history buff, this was the equivalent of being a chocoholic in a Cadbury factory. I reached for the book greedily.
Arabella snapped at me, startling the candy floss vendor so that he nearly dropped one of his gigantic purple swirls, “Mind your fingers, missy! You’re to be careful with this. It’s one of a kind. A Hayward family heirloom.”
It was true. My fingers were orangey from the large bag of ketchup-flavored potato chips I’d just devoured. As I wiped them off on my skirt—the orange would nicely complement the skirt’s neon pink, I felt—Arabella continued:
“Not only an heirloom, though. The letters contain the clue to the whereabouts of the most famous diamond in history!”
This engagingly silly mystery pits a scatterbrained, impulsive heroine and her longsuffering friend, Feezer, against a strict aunt, a perfectly accomplished cousin, an assortment of nasty villains and a puzzle hidden in a pack of letters. None of it is the least bit believable, but the farcical action and slapstick humour make for a light, easy read, with a few facts about Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution thrown in for good measure.
A strange woman gives Ailie Mooney a packet of letters written by Marie Antoinette and claims they reveal the location of a famous lost diamond. Ailie gets her friend Feezer to translate the letters for her: they tell a story of Marie Antoinette and a diamond necklace. Jackson uses real historical events (there was a scandal involving the French queen and a necklace, though Jackson modifies it considerably) but tells them in a chatty first-person voice:
It’s so tempting to contact Messieurs B. and B. and order the necklace.
And why shouldn’t I? No one criticized the late King Louis for his extravagances. . . .
Here’s the cruel irony, Axel. It was Louis XV who depleted the treasury, not Louis XVI, and not me, in spite of my reputation for extravagance. It was Louis XV who got embroiled in wars, who wouldn’t give his ministers authority to keep the accounts balanced. Who indulged in luxuries. But my husband and I are the ones getting blamed for the country’s financial ills, Axel!
Thus history is brought to life in a relatively painless way.
In between translating, Ailie and Feezer get into trouble of various kinds at an outdoor music festival. Sometimes their stunts are to escape from people trying to steal the letters, but usually they are just Ailie being impulsive: they sneak into the performers’ tent to get free food; Ailie jumps on stage with a teen heartthrob; Feezer dresses Ailie up so she can accompany him in the Junior Performer event without anyone recognizing her; Ailie pretends she’s her cousin Katie so she can get back into the festival after being thrown out. “I knew I was having one of my impulses, but I couldn’t help it. I was just too indignant,” explains Ailie, right before shoving lasagna in someone’s face. Her breezy first person narrative is the only way this story could be told.
The novel’s pacing and tone bring to mind hyper circus clowns. Everyone is a caricature. There are lots of disguises and impersonations. Bad guys turn out to be good guys; good guys turn out to be bad guys. Scrabble is important, and so is a mechanical parrot.
There are so many twists and turns in the plot that it stops making any sense at all, but it probably doesn’t matter. This isn’t a novel for someone who wants a clever, suspenseful mystery with convincing characterization. This is just a fun ride, and if the reader comes away with a few facts about the French Revolution, she probably won’t even notice!
Kim Aippersbach is an editor and writer with three children, lives in Vancouver, BC.
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