Murder in the lab! The famous forensic scientist Dr. Ramachandran is stone-cold dead, and Ruby Rose’s father is the prime suspect. It’s one more reason for Ruby to hate the Gardens, the funky urban neighborhood to which she has been transplanted. Wise but shy, artistic but an outsider, Ruby must marshal everything and everyone she can to help solve the mystery and prove her father didn’t poison his boss. Everyone? The list isn’t too long: there’s T. Rex, Ruby’s big, goofy but goodhearted friend; maybe those other two weird kids from class; and that mysterious old lady in the apartment upstairs, who seems to know a lot about chemistry . . . which could come in very handy.
This is one of those books that teeters on being so much more than it turns out to be – but what it did turn out to be was a very respectable middle grade mystery.
I have to say this book reminded me in a lot of ways of a younger version of Virals, Kathy Reichs’ YA series – both books are adventures, and both are built around a backbone of scientific, fact-based sleuthing. When it comes to the science, Carey, like Reichs, clearly knows what he’s talking about (Carey is a science writer for the New York Times), and he too has a loving touch when it comes to explaining his favorite subject. Making technical bits and pieces easy to read, especially for a MG audience, is a feat in and of itself, and Carey easily carries it off – though don’t get me wrong, the science of this story is all very light and easily digestible. At most every now and then there’s a paragraph that crams in a chunk of science explanation, but I honestly thought the science bits were just inherently interesting, and painless to read.
My favorite part of this book, though, was the characters – and what a fun, unusual bunch they are. From Ruby, with her gumption and painful sense of dislocation, to Rex, her odd, galumphing, cheerful friend, to Mrs. Whitmore, the shut-in, retired toxicologist (who would totally be worthy of her own cozy mystery), Carey delivers a lovely streak of originality across the board. Really my only complaint is that even as much as I loved what Carey did with his characters, in the end they still felt a bit underdone, to me. I wanted more – Carey gives us their impressions, and they are very vivid impressions, but I really wish there had been more depth and detail. I think more could have been brought to the page.
Still, when it comes to the plotting, this book is rock solid. The mystery is a fun one, and Carey certainly provides us with no lack of suspects or clues. I did have an inkling of where it was all going, but I still really enjoyed following the trail of evidence, and I particularly liked how Ruby’s sleuthing was smart while staying utterly true to her age – watching her perceptions of the people around her evolve and change was just fun. And of course, this being a MG story, there is also plenty of action to enjoy – Ruby and Rex duck into forbidden areas and are chased away with enough regularity to keep things moving along nicely. I will, however, admit to a slight inner groan when the all too convenient underground passageway sprang into being right on cue, just in time for nighttime skulking. (Some old chestnuts never die…) But overall, this book delivered a smooth, engaging mystery that handily kept my interest.
So in the end, I did like this book – it easily entertained me – but I just couldn’t quite fall in love with it. Instead it ended up being one of those stories that had great potential, but just couldn’t quite live up to its promise – and that, in a weird way, is almost more frustrating than if the story had just been flat. Still, there is more than enough to like about this book – Carey is definitely an author I’ll be reading again - and if nothing else, this story will put you in the perfect mood for watching Bones.
Byrt Grade: B+
As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…
Carey mixes toxic chemistry and logic problems in his second middle-grade mystery to good, if not great effect (The Unknowns, 2009). The slow unfolding of the mystery borders on lethargic, but the realistic heroine, her odd (but not quirky) supporting cast and the distinctive nature of the mystery save this at-times-intoxicating brew.