A stolen painting. A series of unexpected events. Two smart children. Petra and Calder live in a neighbourhood where strange things have started to happen. Seemingly unrelated events connect, a sharp old woman seeks their company - and a priceless Vermeer painting disappears. Before they know it, the two children are drawn into an international art sensation where no one is above suspicion. They must rely on their intelligence and a newly acquired knowledge of the artist.
A very short, recent Twitter conversation reminded of this book that I read about four years ago, brought back from the US for me by my brother. Another user had Tweeted, asking for recommendations for YA mystery stories and this was one of the first that popped into my head, even though it is more suited to a slightly younger audience. It also got me wondering whether there are any more out there that I should know about. I grew up surrounded by mystery books - Enid Blyton's Famous Five and Five Find-outers led to The Three Investigators and then on to the Hardy Boys and finally Agatha Christie, but these days there don't seem to be as many new books published in this genre for the YA market.
Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett is certainly an old-school mystery story for kids whilst also being firmly rooted in the 20th Century both in the style of language used and in its main characters, Calder and Petra. These two 11 year-olds are drawn into a quest to locate Vermeer's "A Lady Writing A Letter", stolen en route to a Chicago art gallery. The story is peppered with clues, enticing the reader to attempt to solve the crime for themselves, aided by the wonderful illustrations of Brett Helquist, whose style will be recognised fondly by readers of the Lemony Snickett books. The use of clues and the discussions Calder and Petra have with each other are the elements of this story that brought back memories of the mystery books I mantioned above.
Ms Balliett is obviously a big art fan, and this passion comes across in her writing. This is another big plus as far as this book is concerned - it will make many young readers want to look further into the work of Vermeer and encouraging young people to appreciate art can only be a good thing. There are also several codes that require solving at various stages of the story and again, this extra stimulation is a welcome addition to a book for children.
However, I have to admit that despite enjoying this book due to its quirky style and very likeable characters, I was left feeling more than a little disappointed. Don't get me wrong - if you like mystery books then it is worth reading, but you may be disappointed as this book is not without faults, and for mystery lovers they may be critical faults. Principally, the mystery isn't solved by the children on their own as in the mystery books I loved as a child. In Chasing Vermeer they require dreams and coincidence to aid them on their way to the story's conclusion instead of relying on traditional clues and evidence. Disappointingly this was just far too obvious, and I just coudn't help but feel let down, maybe even betrayed, and this is something surely no mystery writers wants their readers to feel.
For boys of between 9 and 11 years old this book is worth reading as an introduction to the mystery genre, but more accomplished readers may feel the same disappointment as I did. It would, however, make quite a nice book to be read by a parent to boys of this age as there are many chances here for interesting parent-child discussions about art, family, friendship, and so on.