Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Review of The Curse of the Ancient Mask and Other Case Files by Simon Cheshire

This book makes no bones about following in the footsteps of Encyclopedia Brown. Saxby Smart, Private Detective even has a shed out in the backyard where he solves cases and awaits clients. Since Encyclopedia Brown is arguably dated, I can see a need for a new approach. The question is, how well does Saxby Smart fill the great boy’s shoes?

British Saxby informs us that all of his middle names come from famous fictional detectives; his entire moniker is Saxby Doyle Christie Chandler Ellin Allan Smart. “The Allan is from Edgar Allan Poe,” he explains. Saxby addresses his readers, inviting them to help him solve the cases: “Unlike some detectives, I don’t have a sidekick, so that part I’m leaving up to you—pay attention, I’ll ask questions.” Personally, I like being invited to be the sidekick!

The format for involving readers is different than in the Encyclopedia Brown series. Instead of providing end-of-chapter solutions, Saxby just stops the story midstream and, as he has warned us he will do, asks a question. I was pleased to see that Saxby sometimes goes down the wrong path and has to backtrack, which he readily points out to his sidekick reader. He also acknowleges when he acquires a piece of useful information by sheer good luck. (Teachers will find that this book promotes critical thinking!)

As our story begins, Saxby alludes to his earlier work on cases such as “The Adventure of the Misplaced Action Figure” and “The Case of the Eaten Cookies.” But now he’s moving on to the big time, three cases worthy of a real sleuth. The first, “The Curse of an Ancient Mask,” is about the theft of ideas from a high-tech company where Saxby’s friend Jasmine’s father works. Ever since Jasmine’s father brought back an ornate mask from Japan, his best inventions have been stolen by a rival company. Having been warned when he bought the mask that it was cursed, Jasmine’s father believes the curse is coming true. But when Saxby is brought in as a consultant, he looks for a more scientific explanation.

The other two cases in the book are “The Mark of the Purple Homework” and “The Clasp of Doom.” All three cases are recounted in a friendly, contemporary way, with new characters who are well defined and sometimes colorful—especially the villains. Watch out for a smirking Harry Lovecraft in Case Two and the unpleasant Mrs. Eileen Pither in Case Three. The clues and mysteries are just the right speed for second or third graders, and the addition of pages from Saxby’s notebook add to the fun. A couple of plot points were less credible than others, though. For example, would Jasmine’s father really believe in a curse? Given his work, he’d probably solve the mystery much the same way Saxby does. But this example simply highlights an aspect of the series that is also taken from the tradition of Encyclopedia Brown: the kids are smarter than the grown-ups.

The illustrations are just right, by the way. R.W. Alley’s cheery line drawings perfectly support the text and give us a very appealing Saxby.

Apparently The Curse of the Ancient Mask is the first Saxby Smart book, and a second book came out in February of this year: The Eye of the Serpent and Other Case Files. No one can ever completely take the place of Encyclopedia Brown, but Saxby Smart is shaping up to be a worthy successor to the boy who sits in a battered chair in his backyard office, solving other kids’ mysteries.

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