Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes

The Verdict

A really charming read with a focus on friendship and adventure.

Book Details

Originally published in 2018

The Blurb

A locked room. A stolen treasure. A mysterious challenge.

Paloma Marquez is traveling to Mexico City, birthplace of her deceased father, for the very first time. She’s hoping that spending time in Mexico will help her unlock memories of the too-brief time they spent together.

While in Mexico, Paloma meets Lizzie and Gael, who present her with an irresistible challenge: The siblings want her to help them find a valuable ring that once belong to beloved Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Finding the ring means a big reward – and the thanks of all Mexico. What better way to honor her father than returning a priceless piece of jewelry that once belonged to his favorite artist!

But the broth and sister have a secret. Do they really want to return the ring, or are they after something else entirely?

A great injustice has happened at Casa Azul. Frida Kahlo and the people of Mexico need your help to solve a mystery and make things right! Can you help us?

My Thoughts

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while may know that my daughter is growing up to be a mystery fan, much like her dad and several of her grandparents. This has been a source of some delight to me and I have been quite happily working through series like Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew with her, enjoying watching as she pieces the solutions together.

Unfortunately lately I have run into a bit of a problem as she has outgrown a few of those early series, finding them a little too simple, and wants more complex stories with older child protagonists but she isn’t really ready for some of the subject matter that might come with it such as kidnapping or murder. That hasn’t kept me from looking though and when I read the blurb to this novel which centers on the disappearance of a valuable ring, I thought it might just be exactly what I have been looking for.

Paloma Marquez had been looking forward to relaxing over summer with her friends so she is frustrated when her mother tells her that they will be spending four weeks in Mexico City as part of a university exchange. Not only will Paloma be away from her friends, she will also be taking Spanish lessons during the days.

On their first night, Paloma is taken to the Casa Azul, the home of artist Frida Kahlo which has been turned into a museum. There she meets several children her own age including a pair of siblings, Lizzie and Gael, who pass her a note asking for her help in righting ‘a great injustice’. This, we learn, is the disappearance of a unique peacock ring that Kahlo had made in the final days of her life and which was supposed to be among the treasures kept in a locked room following her death.

The early chapters of this story do a great job of quickly introducing us to Paloma and helping us understand her background and her feelings about her new surroundings. Though Paloma is initially a little sulky, younger readers will have little difficulty understanding the causes and empathizing with her situation and those characteristics are balanced with more positive ones of curiosity and her desire to connect with any memories of her father.

I felt the latter is done particularly well as we slowly learn a little about her father, who died in tragic circumstances in Paloma’s very early childhood. There are some lovely observations about the way Paloma tries to retain those memories while also being conscious of not wanting to upset her mother. The relationship between those two characters is also excellent, striking me as positive and truthful even though her mother will present obstacles to her solving the mystery.

Those early chapters also do an excellent job of setting out the problem that Paloma will need to solve and why she decides to get involved. While I initially felt that the way she is drawn into the case was a little too dramatic, I appreciated that the motivations for characters’ involvement were given added depth in later chapters which made me much happier with how it worked overall. In any case, I suspect that when I read this to my kid she will love the device of the secretly-passed note and connect with Paloma’s love of mystery stories.

As for the discussion of Frida Kahlo, I think that Cervantes does a good job of explaining her significance as an artist referencing several aspects of her life and work in ways that are probably appropriate for the target audience. I also appreciate the expression of the idea that art can be symbolic and narrative and also that what we observe in a painting can be different based on our own experiences and ideas.

The case itself unfolds more as an adventure than a detective story, though there is some discussion about working through clues in a structured and organized way. There are several hints to the truth of what is going on though the scenario is simple enough and the cast of characters is small enough that some readers may well arrive at the solution just by process of elimination. While I have a few issues with the way the villain of the piece is caught, I do appreciate their motive and the way discussion around that topic is framed throughout the book (ROT-13: Bar bs gur vqrnf gung vf zragvbarq guebhtubhg gur fgbel vf gung vg vf vzcbegnag gb ergnva vgrzf bs phygheny urevgntr jvguva gur pbhagel gung perngrq gurz. Gur ivyynva’f zbgvir, bs fgrnyvat naq fryyvat na negvsnpg birefrnf sbe cebsvg, vf abg va vgfrys bevtvany ohg gur qvfphffvba nebhaq gung vffhr vf cvgpurq cresrpgyl sbe gur gnetrg nhqvrapr).

While I appreciate the resolution of the case overall and think it fits the themes of the story, I did have some issues with some characters’ reactions. In particular, there is a letter that Paloma receives in the final pages that provides some closure, which is important and perhaps needed, but I am not sure that I believe that the author of that note would have that outlook on things. It just feels a bit too tidy, at least for me.

Which I suppose brings me back to the beginning and the question of whether I plan to share this with my own mystery-loving seven year old. The answer is probably not yet, though I want to stress that doesn’t reflect on the quality of the book or my feelings about its suitability in terms of its themes or content. Instead I plan to wait a year or so simply because I think she will get a lot more out of it then, particularly with regards to those cultural references. I suspect that when we do read it she will love it and, no doubt, bemoan that it is a standalone as Paloma is ultimately quite an endearing protagonist.

The Secret of Terror Castle by Robert Arthur

The Verdict

This does a fine job of introducing the characters and the premise, even if the case is not one of their strongest.

Book Details

Originally published in 1964
The Three Investigators #1
Followed by The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot

The Blurb

Finding a genuine haunted house for a movie set sounds like fun — and a great way to generate publicity for the Three Investigators’ new detective agency. But when the boys arrive for an overnight visit at Terror Castle — home of a deceased horror-movie actor — they soon find out how the place got its name!

We are prepared to solve any puzzle, riddle, mystery, enigma or conundrum which may be brought to us. Hence the question mark will be our trademark. Three question marks together will always stand for The Three Investigators.

My Thoughts

Some of you may have deduced that lately I have found myself in a bit of a reading slump. That is not actually reflected in the posts I have made on this blog but rather the absence of new material. This past fortnight I have found myself either abandoning books or, in one case, finishing it but deciding against writing a post as I have no wish to vent my dislike of something I was never likely to enjoy anyway and which I was reading for a professional obligation.

I have previously shared the importance of the Three Investigators stories to my first becoming interested in mystery fiction and have made a habit of acquiring any copies I come across in second-hand bookshops. When I recently stumbled onto a copy of The Secret of Terror Castle, the first in that series, the timing seemed auspicious and I decided the time was right to revisit one of the old favorites…

The story outlines the formation of the investigative team after Jupiter Jones wins the rights to the use of a gold-plated limo and a rather starchy (but ultimately quite lovable) chauffeur for a month. Hearing that movie director Alfred Hitchcock is in town in search of a haunted house for his new picture, Jones proposes that the three try to find one that will suit his needs.

The house they find is the ominously-named Terror Castle, the former home of a silent movie star who died in a mysterious accident many years earlier. The house seems to unsettle anyone who steps foot in it after dark which the trio confirms when their own initial expedition meets with failure as the boys find themselves fleeing in terror. Determined not to fail however, Jones pushes his friends to return and discover the house’s secrets.

One of the surprises for me in revisiting this was that the process of forming the investigative team is essentially glossed over. The competition where Jones wins the limo provides the means but we are told that this is something that he had long thought about and it is presented as something of a fait accompli where he tells his friends and they basically just go along with the idea. That would clearly not work in a teen or young adult book but it feels pretty appropriate in this context, particularly as it reinforces that Jones can be rather domineering.

He is the standout member of the team, displaying a much stronger personality than either of the other investigators. While the other two are basically defined by their roles – the bookish one and the sporty one – Jones is given something of a backstory to justify some of his skills, such as a talent for mimicry which is used rather amusingly early in this story. My memory is that the others fare better in some of the subsequent stories but the choice to focus on one character is probably the right one for an introductory story as it does rather streamline the decision-making process.

I enjoy a lot about the early chapters of the book with the attempt to get into the studios to see Mr. Hitchcock being a particular delight. While they enjoy a great degree of luck and some elements that might frankly be described as pure fantasy (why exactly is a schoolmate working as his secretary?), it makes for pretty amusing reading and gets things off to a promising start. There is even a hint of a rivalry with another kid from school that will be called back nicely later in the story.

While I enjoy the way Arthur pulls the elements into place, I think the premise for this adventure is rather weak. There is, of course, the practical question of why Hitchcock would not be aware of a house in his immediate vicinity that meets the needs of his production. Even if we accept that though, I think that there is a broader question as to why, having established that the house is pretty freaky, they need to explain why to meet their client’s needs. Sure, Jupe gives a justification for this in the book but it isn’t very convincing – at least to this now-adult reader.

Fortunately the setting for the story, the titular Terror Castle, is appealing and intriguing enough to get me to overlook my issues with the setup. The question of why the house is able to elicit a sense of terror in those inside it is an intriguing one and I quite enjoyed the explanation for the house’s reputation, even if the explanations for a few individual components of that are a little less convincing.

Along the way we get to follow some rather solid investigative work done by the boys, turning up some pretty good clues. An encounter with a neighbor offers some particularly strong examples of this and while they are unlikely to trouble adult readers, this is exactly the sort of material that caught my imagination and really appealed to me when I was first reading this as a preteen.

It is this aspect of clueing that I think is the reason this series retains much of its appeal for me as an adult. While this is clearly a simple mystery by adult standards and there are some childish aspects to the setup, Arthur never talks down to his readers. Nor are we asked to believe that his child protagonists have unnatural abilities (or luck) – instead they use observation and deduction to work out what is going on.

While The Secret of Terror Castle may not be one of the best Three Investigators mysteries, it is still a really enjoyable, engaging read and, more importantly, it sets things up beautifully for the adventures to follow. There is even a nice lead-in to the next adventure which, if memory serves, is rather a good one…

Why I Love… The Great Mouse Detective

In late 2019 I started to introduce some video content onto this blog which was a project I was really pretty excited about. I had recorded several posts where I discussed the reasons I love particular mystery-themed movies and also a book discussion about my favorite novel, A Kiss Before Dying. The views weren’t incredible but it was a chance to speak extemporaneously about things I liked which is fun to do.

Unfortunately that project ground to a halt when several videos I shot got corrupted before I could upload them (including a Five to Try with books from the British Library Crime Classics range – a video I should probably try and do again at some point) and by the time I could start over again the pandemic was underway and the house was anything but quiet. The idea was quietly shelved and I got on with other stuff. Like actually writing about books – ho, hum.

Well, as I was planning to take a break this week from watching Jonathan Creek and to catch up on my reading I decided that it might be fun to get this plan back on track and record another of these. The question was which movie to talk about.

As it happened I recently rewatched The Great Mouse Detective with my kid who is currently in a bit of a detective phase (which I am doing my best to support by providing lots of material). She enjoyed some parts very much while other bits struck her as a little slow compared to more recent Disney cartoons or mystery shows like The Inbestigators but that is very much a reflection of the era in which it was made.

As for myself, I am not going to pretend that this the greatest mystery ever written. You will notice the plot is not included in my list of five things. This was my first introduction to the idea of a detective though and specifically to the world of Sherlock Holmes and so while it is not necessarily a great mystery in its own right, I still appreciated revisiting it and had no difficulty thinking of five things I wanted to talk about:

Whether you share my nostalgic love of this film or not, I would love to hear your thoughts about it. Please feel free to share your opinions in the comments below.

The Little Detective: Case Updates

Last week I decided I would take a short break from reading mystery fiction to (briefly) explore some other interests. Well, I didn’t end up reading as widely as I hoped although I did start to work my way through my hefty backlog of Doctor Who audio dramas but here I am back and raring to talk mysteries again.

Today’s post however won’t be about books but rather about the ways I have been able to share my enjoyment of mysteries with my daughter over the past few weeks.

Now, let me start by saying that I do not force mystery stories onto my daughter! I occasionally will point out one when we are looking for a new book but I let her tell me what she wants to read. Lately however she has been showing a growing interest in detective stories.

Part of the reason for that was the Outfoxed board game I blogged about recently which continues to be a hit with her but I think the biggest leap forward came courtesy of a Netflix TV show – The InBESTigators.

The InBESTigators is an Australian children’s television show about a group of elementary-aged kids who decide to start an investigation agency after solving a case at their school.

Each episode contains two short cases, recounted in the form of vlogs made after the cases are solved. One or two of the team will recount what happened and there are lots of short cutaways to show the things they remember and to bring the action to life.

The cases are, of course, entirely of the sort of crimes that would be appropriate for that age group. Missing backpacks, stolen snacks and so on. Many hinge on a central problem of how or why things happened in a particular way. As viewers find out, not everything is a case of someone acting with bad intent – often a particular set of strange circumstances will create the impression something has happened.

To give an example of a case – the first one involves a tin of money disappearing from a shelf behind where one of the InBESTigators is standing. No one else is in the room, the child placed the money on the shelf themselves and they could see that nobody entered.

The result is a surprisingly charming series, helped by the energy, colorful personalities and likeability of the four young leads. The decision to use lots of very short sequences gives the episodes a frantic feel that was more comfortable for my daughter than me but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stories generally involved some pretty sound logical reasoning.

Now, obviously these cases are not going to challenge a teen or adult viewer but as an introduction to the idea of mystery stories as a game that you can play it is hard to beat.

So, this past weekend was Father’s Day and my wife and kid decided that they wanted to give me a day that had a detective theme. They set up a game for us to play where we would work as a team to crack a case – the theft of some valuable jewels.

The game was, of course, mostly set up at my daughter’s level. Suspects were crossed off when they told us they had an alibi and we worked out by process of elimination who was the guilty party.

To obtain clues we had to do games, find items around the house and solve some puzzles. It was a lot of fun made all the sweeter when we were rewarded with snacks for a job well done and my daughter is keen to don her fedora again to repeat the experience soon.

As Father’s Days go it was pretty special and I feel very grateful for the love and attention shown to me!

Outfoxed: A Cooperative Whodunit Game

Details

Ages 5+
2-4 Players (Cooperative)
20 minutes

The Blurb

Mrs. Plumpert’s prized pot pie has gone missing and now it’s a chicken chase to crack the case! Move around the board gathering clues and then use the special evidence scanner to rule out suspects. You’ll have to work together because the guilty fox is high-tailing it towards the exit! Will you halt the hungry hooligan before it flies the coop… or will you be Outfoxed?


Well, this wasn’t exactly what I had planned last week when I said to be prepared for something a little different this weekend. Actually, as I noted on Twitter I have no memory at all of what I had planned but all my ideas had to be shelved after what has been a really busy week.

We are still currently in the working from home phase which we have been balancing with frequent meetings and the need to entertain our five year old. Throw in the really frustrating mix of our AC unit breaking and really warm weather and it has not been the most comfortable week! Hence no Wednesday or Friday reviews.

Fortunately we were able to get our AC unit and furnace replaced. While that means I have to be a bit better behaved when it comes to expanding my TBR pile in the coming months, fortunately I had a whole set of books on their way before that and, it turns out (because I ordered it at the start of the stay at home order), a whodunnit board game that we could play as a family.

There is also an instruction booklet that is not shown.

While I normally would grumble at a game taking over a month to arrive, in this case the timing could hardly have been better. As it happens my daughter had recently discovered a children’s book series with animal detectives (The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake) and so the idea of a mystery game was enthusiastically embraced.

This game is also animal-themed as the players each play as detective chickens while the culprit is one of sixteen fox suspects. The players work together to identify clues that will enable them to identify and whittle down the suspects. The problem is that while they work to do that the thieving fox is making their way to their den along with their loot.

In terms of gameplay this feels like a blend of a sort of cooperative version of Clue and Guess Who. Players decide whether they will be looking for clues or identifying suspects on each turn. Then they need to roll three dice and get each of the sides showing a symbol matching their goal. If they fail to do this within three rolls the fox gets to move instead of the players.

The clues that are uncovered each show a different item of clothing that the different foxes are wearing in their suspect card pictures. Any individual item is held or worn by three or four foxes so the key is in balancing looking for suspects and new clues.

When a clue is uncovered it is placed into the viewer shown below. Each clue has a hole cut into it in a different place around its edge. When aligned with the window, if a green dot shows through then the guilty party holds or is wearing that item. If not, the guilty fox will not be. It is a clever mechanic that works well and keeps you from accidentally seeing the guilty party.

My daughter did raise the concern that the fox may have changed their clothing to avoid suspicion. She also wondered if all of the foxes may have been working together in some sort of conspiracy. She really enjoyed the story of the game and quickly understood the object of the game and the rules.

So, I love that this game has a luck component that allows adults and children to play together (though their role will be to support the young players in gathering evidence). Younger children could easily play with an older sibling and each feel that they contributed to the solutions. I also think that it teaches coordination of activities and deductive reasoning skills well to young ones.

The game pieces feel durable and the instructions are reasonably easy to follow. I enjoyed the theming of the game as much as my daughter and the twenty minute set up and play time is about perfect for a five year old’s attention span. There are also suggestions of ways that the players can adjust the rules to make the game more challenging.

Having had this for several days now, my daughter shows no sign of losing interest in the game yet and so I feel pretty good about this purchase. To my delight she is showing interest in other detective stories and I am looking into some series I might be able to shake with her (I may, for instance, return to the Miss Mallard mysteries or try the Cam Jansen books).

Do you have any favorite mystery stories or series that you might recommend to a 5 or 6 year old? If so I’d love to hear any suggestions.

The Mystery of the Screaming Clock by Robert Arthur

Book Details

Originally Published in 1964 (this date may well be wrong – Google has it as 1968 but the copyright page of my copy says 64 while Goodreads says 65).

Three Investigators #9
Preceded by The Mystery of the Silver Spider
Followed by The Mystery of the Moaning Cave

The Blurb

The alarm clock went off with the bloodcurdling scream of a woman in mortal terror! Who could have made such a clock – and why?

The Three Investigators immediately set out to discover where the mysterious clock came from. When they come across a run-down house in Hollywood, they find an entire room full of dreadful clocks – and time is running out!

The Verdict

To my delight this book held up to my memories of it. It’s a strong case with a great treasure hunt component.


My Thoughts

Today’s post will likely feel a little different from my usual style, being as much about the impact this book (and the series) had on me as about its individual or distinctive features.

I was prompted to pick up a copy of this book off my shelf by a conversation I had with some of my colleagues during an online meeting. As an icebreaker we each presented a book that meant a lot to us as a child – my own choice was C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe which was the first book I recall setting out to read entirely by myself.

After the meeting was over though I started thinking about the mystery fiction I had read during those formative, preteen years. In particular, I thought about The Five Find-Outers, The Secret Seven, Joe and Frank Hardy and The Three Investigators. Of those I have the most fond memories of The Three Investigators.

Part of it was, I suspect, that I identified strongly with Jupiter Jones who, like me, was a bit of a know-it-all and somewhat big-boned. I felt far more affinity for Jupiter – a boy who used his brains and reasoning – than the impossibly clean-cut and athletic Hardy brothers or the prim types that filled Enid Blyton’s stories.

The reason I am writing about this title – the ninth in the Three Investigators series – is that it is one of the first I remember reading. I first picked up a copy of this book at a store somewhere in the vicinity of the world’s largest pear drop at Oswaldtwistle Mills in Lancashire (my memory is that it was in a gift shop associated with it but I cannot understand why they would have been selling it). I can only assume it was second-hand as my copy was one of the earlier editions presented by Alfred Hitchcock – a fact that led me to erroneously believe that he had actually written these until I was well into my teen years.

This is a pile of regularly-sized pear drops. The world’s largest pear drop is similar but bigger.
Image by Katie Hopkins – this has been cropped slightly. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

I enjoyed those first few volumes enough that I went on to pick up most of those early titles in the series although I was a little baffled by the sudden replacement of Alfred Hitchcock by some interloper by the name of Hector Sebastian. The Paragraph Paperback edition I read recently had been rewritten to feature Mr. Sebastian.

This particular installment in the series involves our intrepid trio of investigating chums finding a strange alarm clock that has been sold to Jupiter’s Uncle Titus as part of a box of junk. The alarm clock gives out a strong shriek when it goes off, leading Jupiter to think that there is a mystery there to be solved. He wants to find out who created the clock and why.

I noted in my response to JJ’s review of this story, this is one of the stories I remember best from the series. In my comment I speculated that this may be as much to do with the setting in which I bought and read it as the material itself – a trip to visit my grandparents. I do however recall shivering at the thought of a screaming alarm clock which perfectly hit the sort of creepy notes that were one of the chief appeals of the series to me (Whispering Mummy and Talking Skull are the other ones I clearly remember).

It soon transpires that this case will take the form of a sort of treasure hunt as the trio work with a teenaged boy to decipher clues that have been left for them. This device is quite a lot of fun, particularly as the clues involve a mix of general knowledge and lateral thinking, making them fair and accessible for an inquisitive preteen.

There is also a pretty surprising amount of action, some of which must have been quite gritty for a book aimed at this audience. Arthur puts several of the boys in pretty serious physical danger at points. While my adult self was confident that the trio would emerge unscathed, I am pretty sure that preteen Aidan would have been firmly perched on the edge of his seat.

Another aspect of this book I recall really finding interesting was the depiction of an aspect of the entertainment industry. In this case it was the idea of having an expert screamer for a radio series. Radio was an obsession of mine at that age (and I still love it) and so that idea really appealed to me.

What I think pleased me most in revisiting the story nearly twenty-five years after first reading it was that I felt it held up pretty well. There are a few far-fetched elements but Arthur pulls everything together very well towards the end, providing a logical explanation and making sense of what has happened and why.

Rereading it took me back to staying in my grandparents’ home in Preston, reading this on a very rainy afternoon while eating Eccles cakes and laying on their sofa. It is funny how a book from childhood can be bound up with so many other memories…

This leads me to wonder if you have any similar titles from childhood (or later) that are so tightly associated with a place or time. I’d love to read some of your own special titles.