CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 1. . . .September 6, 2013
Dial “M” for Morna. (The Dead Kid Detective Agency).
Toronto, ON: ECW Press, 2013.
293 pp., trade pbk., $11.95.
Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.
Review by Mary Thomas.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Her new history teacher, however, was another story. And though Mr. Martz had replaced Mr. Shea in job title, Ms. Fenstermacher seemed like she might one day replace Mr. Shea (if such a thing could be done) as the teacher who could be considered some sort of friend.
But October had been burned by pleasant teachers before; after all, the last one turned out to be homicidal, even threatening October with an antique bayonet. The trouble was, October couldn't help but find Ms Fenstermacher anything but... well... kind of awesome. Still, October couldn't shake the thought that some dark twist hid behind this awesomeness: there was a distinct possibility Ms. F. was a teen-detective-killing robot sent from the future only posing as a history teacher.
Okay, so it's a recognized fact that teachers, as a rule, are never going to win any Teen Choice Awards. But check this evidence: (a) Ms. Fenstermacher's hair was dyed nearly as black as October's, (b) she wore thick-framed glasses like she was Rivers Cuomo or Buddy Holly or someone, and (c) she referenced Battlestar Galactica in October's class three times in her first week of teaching.
In short, Ms. Fenstermacher certainly wasn't going to be mistaken for Mr. Santuzzi, October's less-than-awesome math teacher who ran classes like a boot camp, any time soon.
October Schwartz is a grade nine student at Sticksville High School and, with the help of five dead-in-mysterious-circumstances kids from different periods of the town's history, has already solved one violent mystery (as hinted at in the above excerpt). As a sort of a thank-you, she has promised to try to find out how each of the five came to die so young, thus allowing them to 'stop being ghostly corpses' (according to Dead Kid Rule #6, which is apparently that, if you don't know how you died, you can't rest easy). This book is the result of attempting to find who murdered Morna MacIsaac, one of the five, but, in the process, the six of them, one living and five dead, also unravel a present-day conspiracy.
In addition to her five dead friends, October, nicknamed Zombie Tramp by her non-friends because of her penchant for black clothing, black eye-liner, and black hair, has two equally socially unacceptable friends: Yumi, a Canadian of Japanese extraction, and Stacey, a boy drummer in the grade nine band and someone who is well along the autistic spectrum. In addition, October's father teaches science at the school. These factors add up to several reasons for October's unpopularity, and when Yumi and Stacey get chosen -- by a teacher -- as the Grade-Nine hosts for the new noon-hour school radio slot over the head of the boyfriend of Miss Popularity Plus, it is not surprising that things go wrong.
In fact, almost too many things go wrong. It is sometimes difficult to keep straight all the wiggles in the plot line. The other difficulty I had was that the story is told in two voices: October's racy, self-centred one, and the author's detached and somewhat annoyingly patronizing ('dear Reader') one. The two are differentiated visually by typeface and vocally by style so that it is not difficult to tell which is which, and it does allow the author a role as 'deus ex machina', as it were. But I didn't like his tone.
Teens these days seem to be almost exclusively interested in ghouls, ghosts, vampires, and other such phenomena, and this book does feed into those interests. However, as ghosts go, these kids are really pretty normal. They have no substance, but they enjoy playing tricks on the living, joining in a skating party, playing crack the whip, and generally having a good time. The scary bits are not, in general, supernatural.
There's a lot to like about this book. Raising the dead kids the first time was obviously an accident, but discovering the rules governing their raising and their limitations is fun for the reader as well as being imaginatively conceived. The idea of finding out how the five died, even if it is too late to see justice done, is an attractive one, and since Sticksville is a small town, there are descendants of the original inhabitants still around. The present-day mystery that is solved is not really resolved; there will no doubt be a crashing 'all is revealed' in the final book of the series. However enough of a conclusion is reached that the ending is reasonably satisfactory, and cliff-hangers are, of course, good for business!
Mary Thomas is a retired, sometime substitute, library technician in the Winnipeg School Division and finds that students are keener on the ghoulish trend in modern YA novels than she is. Luckily they are the intended audience!
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