CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 24. . . .March 3, 2017
Toronto, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2017.
165 pp., trade pbk. & html, $8.99 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-4431-5717-9 (bk.), ISBN 978-1-4431-5718-6 (html).
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Todd Kyle.
I hugged back and for a second the dread was gone and it was just me and Aunt Jenn like it had been since before I could remember. Then there was a knock at the door and she let me go.
“It’s open,” she called.
Marty Raymond came into the apartment. CC, Zal, Wiley Kendall and Mrs. Ludovic crowded in behind. Mrs. Ludovic had a tray with coffee things on it.
“You better all be in on this,” Aunt Jenn said. “I never wanted it this way; hell, I never wanted it at all, but now there’s no time for anything else.”
She nodded at Marty Raymond. “Duncan,” Aunt Jenn said, “meet Lamar Del Ray. He’s also your father.”
Thirteen-year-old orphan Duncan Fortune spends a summer with his friends CC and Zal trying to solve the mystery of a serial bank robber called the Borsalino Bandit so that they can earn a reward to help send them to an exclusive private school. They encounter Marty Raymond who has moved into town to open an exotic pet/pest control business called Gator Aid, and he enlists the kids’ help in his efforts to spread the word about his store. Marty’s behavior leads them to suspect him as the Bandit, along with the mysterious Lamar Del Ray, whom they encounter delivering landscape supplies for the nursery where Duncan’s Aunt Jenn, his guardian, is working. When CC plants a snake from Gator Aid in the Bandit’s getaway car, it sets off a chain of investigation that leads to Jenn’s own car, whereupon Jenn confesses that she is the Bandit, that “Lamar” is her in disguise, and that Marty (whose real name is Lamar Del Ray) is Duncan’s father. Jenn receives a light jail sentence, and Duncan continues to live with his father.
If the plot sounds hard to follow, that’s because it is. This is a highly contrived and not very convincing combination of mystery and family drama that is occasionally entertaining but rarely compelling. Duncan’s narrator voice is interesting enough, and his strained relationship with his Aunt Jenn is realistic, but the series of coincidences that the story is built on requires too much suspension of credulity to even be fun. Duncan’s encounter with Lamar is actually his aunt deliberately testing her disguise on her family before robbing the banks; she spurts out the name of his real father when she can’t think of a fake name. The kids accurately predict the next bank to be robbed by looking at the pattern of quadrants of the city where previous ones are located—with no explanation of why a robber would follow that pattern. And while Duncan takes note of a suspicious blue bandana on Marty—the same one Lamar/Jenn wore in their encounter—he never mentions it again, and it is left to the reader to discover the clue after the real identities are revealed and it no longer matters.
The dénouement is not any less convoluted. Jenn reveals that she robbed the banks to pay Duncan’s school fees, and her sympathetic story at trial results in the community setting up a trust fund for all three kids’ tuition. Yet Duncan, who previously is excited about going to the school, inexplicably decides against it, preferring to stay at public school, and even accuses his aunt of stealing money for her dream, not his. To top it off, he gives the money to charity—which does not sound legal when that was not the fundraising purpose. And finally, Duncan discovers his aunt’s (legal) stash of savings hidden in their landlord’s broom handle—an inexplicably complicated and insecure place to hide money, especially considering the bank loot was put in their apartment locker room. To support Zal, who is going to the private school after all, Duncan mails it to him in small amounts anonymously from various addresses—a very charitable act, but not understandable, given that Duncan has previously noted how much better off Zal’s family is than his.
The characters are interesting enough, with Jenn a sympathetic “wild child” raising a son that’s not hers, and Marty a resourceful con man with a large dollop of charm, not to mention animal smarts. But no matter how you get there, the end will leave readers puzzled and not entirely satisfied. A disappointment.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario and Past-President of the Ontario Library Association.
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