Friday, 20 August 2010

Review: Dead Man's Cove by Lauren St John

When orphaned Laura Marlin moves from a children's home to live with her uncle in Cornwall, she longs for a life of excitement just like the characters in her favourite detective novels. A real life adventure is on hand as she is deposited at her uncle's spooky house . . . Why does her uncle, Calvin Redfern, forbid her to go to Dead Man's Cove? What's the truth about Tariq, the silent Indian boy who lives with the flamboyant Mukthars? Who is J? Who has left the message in a bottle for Laura to discover? Mysteries abound and who better to solve them than Laura Marlin, ace detective? Accompanied by her trusty companion, Skye, a three-legged husky, the dog she's always wanted, Laura's adventures begin.

Not long ago I was bemoaning the lack of good mystery stories available for children these days. When I was a kid there seemed to be little else - Enid Blyton's Famous Five and Five Find-Outers were incredibly popular, and once these had been read many children progressed on to the likes of The Three Investigators, Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. Nowadays mystery stories seem to be a little unfashionable as it is certainly a genre that seems to be overlooked by many publishers, and I guess they know the market a lot better than I do. It was with some excitement therefore that recently I noticed a number of glowing reviews and Twitter comments appearing for Dead Man's Cove by Lauren St John, the first book in an planned series that will follow the mystery solving adventures of main character Laura Marlin. A quick email conversation with the ever-generous Nina Douglas at Orion Books soon led to a copy coming through my letterbox, and it really did live up to all of those glowing comments.

This is an old school mystery story for children. In fact, if it didn't feel so modern and fresh I would swear that it had been written by Blyton herself. Laura Marlin is certainly just the sort of adventurous and resourceful character that Enid Blyton would have loved, and I hope that boys aren't put off by her being a girl. She is very much a tom boy, and you definitely won't see any hint of the sort of character traits and activities that would appear in a book aimed specifically at girls. This is an exciting mystery story for every child up to the age of 10, boy or girl, and I reckon there are many adults out there who who would also derive a lot of delight from reading it either as a bedtime story to a child, or even as a personal guilty pleasure. It definitely made me feel very nostalgic for the mystery stories I read as a young boy, and I was so hooked by the quality of the writing that I greedily finished this in a single session.

The story itself is finely plotted, and will keep children guessing about the outcome all the way through. Even as an adult reader there were plot developments that surprised me as I progressed through the story. Lauren St John delivers a quality of prose that is rarely seen in books for children of this age. Where other authors rely on action scene after action scene to keep their readers from losing their focus, Ms St John manages to do this by keeping her story rolling along steadily, and using moments of tension and plot revelations instead of fight scenes and car chases to keep her readers hooked.

The characters in the story are also a delight (I'm sorry if this is beginning to sound a little sycophantic but I honestly cannot think of a negative word to say about this book). They are all believable, and I'm not just talking about Laura, but also her mysterious uncle, their grumpy housekeeper, Tariq and his shopkeeper parents, and local gossip and busy-body Mrs Crabtree next door. Even though some of the characters have less words devoted to them than others they all come across as realistic and well-formed, so even if the concept of a young girl being involved in a dangerous mystery story seems a little Blyton-esque and old fashioned it certainly doesn't feel that way when you read the story.

The mystery within the story is also very relevant to our modern society and it tests Laura to her limits. Having lived in a children's home all of her life, occasionally being sent out to (unsuitable in her mind) a variety of foster parents, she now finds herself suddenly shipped off to St Ives in Cornwall to live with an uncle she never knew she had. Very quickly her enquiring mind starts to spot suspicious activities, both by her uncle and some of the people she meets around the town. But are her suspicions part of an overactive imagination, fuelled by her love of detective novels? Or is there something a little more sinister going on in the small seaside town? Who can she trust with her concerns, especially when her uncle himself seems so secretive and reluctant to talk about his past?

Of course, what better location is there for a mystery story than a town like St Ives? This was the destination for many of our family summer holidays when I was a child, and it would appear that little has changed since then if the author's descriptions of the town are anything to go by. I could picture many of the key locations vividly in my mind, thanks to the quality of the author's writing, and yet these descriptions are never wordy nor do they detract from the story; instead they add to the developing plot and somehow make it even more interesting.

If this book had been written in the 80s then the makers of Jackanory would have snapped it up in seconds, and so should you. Laura Marlin is a young heroine that will appeal to all mystery loving children and it is crying out to be read out loud at bedtime. Dead Man's Cove is published in hardback and is available to buy in stores right now.

1 comment:

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