CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 5. . . .September 30, 2011
The Dead Kid Detective Agency.
Toronto, ON: ECW Press, 2011.
301 pp., pbk., $11.95.
Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.
Review by Todd Kyle.
Reviewed from Advance Review Copy.
Cyril Cooper was a member of a Loyalist family who fled to Canada during the American Revolution. Loyalist as in loyal to the British Empire. God save the Queen (or in this case, the King) and the Union Jack and all that. Cyril was born in New York, but his dad's allegiance to the British Empire forced them to hightail it to Nova Scotia when Yankee revolutionaries started tarring and feathering people like his dad. They were kind of counter-revolutionary.
But Nova Scotia proved too cold and harsh, so they travelled westward to New France (that's what they called Quebec then), and then on to the area that would soon be named Ontario. His family became one of the honest-to-goodness earliest families in the newly-founded Sticksville. His dad was a shipbuilder and Cyril was learning to become one while he was still alive. Cyril also played drum for the local Lower Canada militia, hence the little drum. It was one night after manoeuvres when he went down to the harbour across the lake from Detroit to help his dad on a clipper that Cyril died. He remembers nothing about how or why.
Thirteen-year-old October Schwartz starts high school in the fictional town of Sticksville, ON, where she is plagued by bullying students and teachers who object to her "gothic" style and obsession with cemeteries. After her French teacher, Mr. O'Shea, is mysteriously killed in an accident with car lift in the school's auto shop, October refuses to believe it an accident or suicide. Taking refuge in the town cemetery, October inadvertently raises from the dead the ghosts of five dead teenagers from various periods in history, and she convinces them to help her solve the murder, using their ability to walk through walls and remain invisible. Together, they discover clues Mr. O'Shea left behind which lead them to discover that O'Shea's real identity is Henri Lafleur, an FLQ associate who changed his identity in order to escape investigation. Eventually, they deduce that another teacher, Mr. Page, the grandson of one of the FLQ's bombing victims, is responsible for O'Shea's/Lafleur's death, and they use the dead kids' abilities to extract a confession and escape the teacher's trap.
A partly serious, partly tongue-in-cheek mystery that drips cultural references from The Cure to H.P. Lovecraft and exploits the Goth subculture sounds like a great idea that would appeal widely to teens. Unfortunately, the book is so poorly executed as to be almost unreadable.
Many aspects of the story are inexplicable – October being forced to see a "therapist" at school because she insists on attending O'Shea's funeral; her sadistic ex-military math teacher; the clues O'Shea leaves (that October assumes are for her even though she barely knows him) that can only be discovered by breaking and entering (or in this case, walking through walls).
The mystery, itself, lacks any credibility. The team deduce that the death could not have been a suicide because the right switch on the car lift (as opposed to the left) was smashed, and since O'Shea was left-handed, he would not have smashed the right one. October begins to suspect Page when she is told by the school therapist in a confidential session that Page is on his way so the therapist can check the bandages on his electrical burn. Page's motivation, and his attempt to kill October's father to cover up the fact that he has imprisoned her, are almost laughable.
Finally, the historical context, as the above excerpt from the dead kids' backgrounds demonstrates, is poorly researched. Cyril's grave lists him as living 1766-1779. As the American Revolutionary War began in 1775, and Loyalists did not start arriving until 1783, and travel in those days was very slow, it is hard to see how a Loyalist family settled in Nova Scotia, then Quebec, then southern Ontario, all before 1779; not to mention that Quebec ceased to be New France in 1763, and Ontario was never known as Lower Canada – in fact, it did not become Upper Canada until 1791.
Take all of these inaccuracies and inanities and wrap them up in a rambling, infuriating, smart-aleck narrative that alternates between first and third person for no apparent reason, and you have a book that is disappointing in almost every way for almost every reader.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario.
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