The Secret Key (2018) by Lena Jones

Today’s read is bit of a departure for me, as I am delving into young people’s mystery fiction. After all JJ at The Invisible Event, ever the trend setter, has shown us there is still much to enjoy in such stories for the older person, so I thought it would make for an interesting experiment.

This book is the first in what will be the Agatha Oddly series, the latter name being a less than charming school nickname based on her actual surname Oddlow. Agatha is 13 years old and inspired by her mother, who died under suspicious circumstances, has begun her own detective agency, with her school friend Liam Lau. From the get go Agatha is presented as a teenager who does not fit in with social norms and is forever in trouble with her teachers for skipping classes and for her in-school detective adventures. But of course she gets her first proper case when she witnesses a hit and run in the park her father works at, the victim a professor of hydrology. Yet there is more than meets with the eye. After all what does the key tattoo mean on the professor’s wrist? And has the hit and run got anything to do with the water crisis that has just hit London?

Overall Thoughts

I wasn’t quite sure how best to start this section as yes I did have a few issues with this read. But then I wondered whether that was because I am an old fogey and that the intended audience, i.e. 11+, would not has these difficulties. So I would say bear that in mind as the Old Fogey Issues (OFIs) unfold…

OFI No. 1: The Agatha Christie Element

Initially I quite enjoyed this feature of the book. Agatha is named after Christie by her mother and when she zones out of the real world into her imagination, Agatha does indeed talk with an imaginary man who talks in a Belgian accent… Hmm wonder who that might be? Well it is Hercule Poirot and I liked how Jones gets his dialogue right. It is also fun in the beginning when Agatha’s father tires of her quoting Poirot all the time says that: ‘Not everything that Poirot says is gospel, you know.’ Yet for me I think after these opening chapters the Christie element is less effectively used and only gets the briefest of throw ins from time to time. There is a clue left in a Christie book but I don’t think this aspect of the plot was fitted in naturally, though I appreciate all of this might be due to my adult reader expectations. One positive at least of this element is that younger readers might be persuaded to try some of Christie’s original books.

OFI No. 2: The Thriller Take Over

The way the story becomes more and more of a spy/thriller plot is one of the main reasons that the Christie element increasingly starts to jar with what is going on. After all we all know that Poirot doesn’t fare too well in thriller plots. Thrillers by their very nature reduce the amount of deductive work the sleuth and reader can do and in a younger readers’ story this makes the narrative even more explicit, (as to what is going on), and gives the impression of overly joining up the dots. By chapter 5 Agatha has already been knocked out with a chemical soaked rag, though is ready to resume her mission at a very rapid rate of knots. Thankfully she is a very robust youth given what she goes through later in the book. Having said all that I do wonder whether a younger audience needs or prefers a more action focused and therefore a more thriller based plot. Not a question I can really put to the test, given the only young people I know are all under the age of 2!

OFI No. 3: Trope City

I appreciate this issue probably is a complete OFI, as having read hundreds of mystery novels I am going to be more keenly aware of mystery/thriller tropes and feel their presence more. I also acknowledge that when you are starting a new series there is a lot you need to set up in the opening book. Nevertheless, the dead mother, secret societies and passages, felt a lot to contend with in one book and for me as an adult reader required too much of a stretch of the imagination. Younger readers may well not have this issue.

OFI No. 4: Character Depth and Metamorphosis

Wow I really do feel like a grumpy old reviewer at this point, but I was surprised when reading this book how much I had to adjust my mind set to accommodate and get used to the more minimal character depth and the type of dialogue younger people use, (and I don’t mean slang). I don’t remember talking like that when I was that age. There is also one major character metamorphosis in the book, which I found a bit hard to swallow, but again I imagine this has been begun to set this character up for the rest of the series.

Juvenile Sleuths

This is not an OFI, but just a theme which I unsurprisingly gave some thought to when reading this book. It is also a theme which I think helps me end this review on less of a critical note. Agatha in the opening chapters makes for an enjoyable fallible sleuth. We get to hear about her sleuthing exploits at school that don’t always go to plan, such as the time she falls from the classroom ceiling, having tried to spy on someone she thought was selling the school’s sulphuric acid on Ebay. We also have her practising out her deductive skills, almost doing a Holmes trick of telling someone something about themselves they didn’t think was obvious. She tells the teacher telling her off that she hopes he enjoys his lunch with his wife, listing off the clues she has noticed. Yet I feel more astute readers will know it is not his wife…

This book also got me wondering about children sleuths as social misfits. When did this concept come into being? Although I remember the film, Harriet the Spy, from my childhood, the novel by Louise Fitzhugh was written surprisingly earlier in 1964. Thinking of even earlier examples of children sleuths, I find characters such as those devised by Enid Blyton and Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives (1929), to be shown as children having an adventure or lark, aided by a lack of parental supervision. Such sleuths seem a nuisance, but eventually are praised for their efforts. Yet for all that they never seem to be portrayed as socially abnormal or as bucking the status quo. They are not considered odd. Is this more modern trope an extension of what has been happening in adult mystery fiction? Or is it a way of promoting individuality in children? Any thoughts greatly appreciated.

To be honest I am not sure I am cut out for juvenile mysteries, perhaps JJ is more young at heart than I am, but I am glad I did the experiment nevertheless. After all if it was a choice between the latest Agatha Oddly and a P. D James, a Freeman Wills Crofts or dare I even say it, a Rupert Penny novel, then Agatha would win hands down, no contest.

10 comments

  1. I’m sorry I didn’t inspire you into a more rewarding for YA experience — it’s true that a lot of the issues you mention here (especially the Thriller Take Over) do rear their heads with alarming regularity in younger fiction, but equally when you find something that treats its audience with the repsect they deserve you can get some real delights (I mentioned in my review of Stuart Gibbs’ Space Case that I think it contains possibly the best piece of clue-dropped written this century, and I stand by that).

    There is also a lot of enjoyment to be had in the falibility of the youger sleuth, you’re right about that, and I love the point you raise about the sleuth as the outsider being seen as an encouragement for young people to follow their own path (which is very much how I read it). Hey, perhaps at some point you’ll get the bug again and have better success — maybe something a bit older, like the Bruce Campbell Ken Holt books or the Three Investigators, would be more to your expectations.

    And, good grief, could anything be as dull an unpalatable as Freeman Wills (gak) Crofts or — shudder — Rupert (urgh) Penny? I mean, what kind of weirdo could possibly enjoy that sort of ponderous, unimaginative, laborious drivel? Pff, just imagine. The loser.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Glad to see you and JJ tackling a few children’s mysteries – if we don’t get kids interested in the kind of mysteries we enjoy, where will tomorrow’s mystery readers come from? That said, may I recommend to you (and JJ) The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin? It was written in 1978 and won the Newbery Medal that year as the best American children’s book. It’s back in print. I reviewed it eight years ago, and it quickly became my favorite mystery for children. Here’s my summation of the story:

    Sixteen people (including four children) are invited to an old mansion to hear a lawyer read the last will and testament of Samuel Westing, who has been found dead in that house. What they hear is a very strange offer: if they will agree to follow the instructions in the will, they will be divided into two-person teams to play a sort of game. Each twosome will be given $10,000 to start and a few written clues. Clues? Yes – but to what? An open question – but, according to Westing’s will, he says that he did not die a natural death – and he wants the sixteen heirs to solve the puzzle and find the person – one of the sixteen – responsible for his death. The person who solves the problem will receive the bulk of his $200 million fortune.

    What I love is the way it takes our traditional mystery tropes and plays with our expectations while quite cleverly misdirecting us. More than once, I saw a particular twist coming (and felt quite smug about it) – only to find that I had only anticipated one twist which was promptly twisted in a different direction than I had expected. If kids enjoy this as we do – and I think they would – they may well grow to appreciate someone like Agatha Christie.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for the review, and you’ve made me wary about trying out a YA mystery novel… And I still need to dig into my back-catalogue of Nancy Drew Casefiles. 🤓

    Based on your review, I suspect I’d definitely pick Penny or Crofts over Agatha Oddly. 😅 In fact, the Penny novel I read a few months ago was probably one of my reading highlights for the year thus far.

    Liked by 1 person

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