Mystery Back of the Mountain

MysteryBackMountainMystery Back of the Mountain by Mary C. Jane, 1960.

Anne and Stevie Ward are thrilled when they discover that their father has inherited a house in the country from a distant relative who has recently died. Neither of the children had met their father’s “Uncle” James (really a distant cousin of their great-grandfather), and even their father hadn’t seen him for years. Probably, the only reason Uncle James left him the old farm where he used to live was because he had no children of his own and the two of them shared the same name.

The children think that a country house would be a great place to spend the summer, and even their mother thinks that perhaps they should keep the house as a vacation home, but their father has some reservations about it. For starters, the old farm house, located outside of a small town in Maine, is kind of shabby and has no running water or electricity. It’s so isolated that people named the area Back of the Mountain. Then, there’s Uncle James’s reputation. Uncle James was the black sheep of the family, having apparently made his money in some unethical business dealings and then became involved in some kind of inappropriate romance that ended tragically. The children’s father isn’t completely sure of the details because he only heard whispered rumors about Uncle James when he was young, but he knows that the people of his town weren’t very fond of him, and he suspects that they might feel the same way about his relatives. He thinks that it might be better just to sell the house and forget about it. Nevertheless, he agrees with his wife that the family should go there and take a look at the house and decide what they’re going to do with it.

MysteryBackMountainMissingPictureWhen they get to Maine, they meet Uncle James’s lawyer, Mr. Palmer, to collect the key to the house.  Mr. Palmer tells them that the house has a few items in it that could be considered valuable antiques, including a portrait of the woman that Uncle James had wanted to marry, Drusilla Randall.  The children’s father asks Mr. Palmer more about Drusilla Randall, and he says that all he knows is that she had an argument with Uncle James and then disappeared.  He thinks that she just left town, although he says that there are rumors that Uncle James may have murdered her.  Mr. Palmer thinks that the rumors are ridiculous and doesn’t take them seriously, but Stevie and Anne are disturbed at the idea that their relative may have been a murderer, or that people thought he was.  Mr. Palmer also mentions that Drusilla’s sister, Marion, has decided to return to her family’s old house for the summer as well, so she’ll be living close to their farm.

MysteryBackMountainRunningThe house is certainly an isolated place, and their closest neighbors, the Hodges have an old grudge against Uncle James.  The unethical business deal that Uncle James did years ago involved buying some of the Hodges’s family’s best land.  Bert Hodges, who was young at the time, says that the deal ruined his father’s life, and it’s making his miserable, too, because he really needs that land to make his farm profitable.  Anne hears this from Bert’s young niece, Oleva, an orphan who has come to live with her aunt and uncle.  Although Uncle Bert is strict with her and somewhat bitter about the past and the family’s circumstances, Oleva likes her aunt and uncle and wishes they would adopt her, giving her the stable home she’s longed for since her parents died and she began being traded around among her relatives.  However, Bert doesn’t have much faith in other people, and even though he likes his young niece, is afraid to commit to adopting her.

MysteryBackMountainBridgeAnne feels badly that Uncle James’s land deal seems to have ruined people’s lives.  Oleva also tells her something disturbing about Drusilla, the girl that Uncle James loved.  They were supposed to be married when Drusilla turned twenty, but she disappeared before that happened, and most people think that she drowned in the natural pool on Uncle James’s property.  It’s deeper than it appears at first, and some things belonging to her were found nearby, so everyone thinks that she probably drowned and that her body is still somewhere at the bottom of the pool.  Whether her death was an accident, suicide, or murder is still unknown.

Mysterious things are happening around Uncle James’s property.  The portrait of Drusilla that Mr. Palmer said would be in the house is missing.  The family hears eerie howls in the night.  Oleva is sneaking around, doing something that she says her uncle would disapprove of, but which she insists that she can’t stop.  Then, Anne finds a poem engraved on a stone in an old graveyard, apparently written by Uncle James in Drusilla’s memory that points to the secret of their quarrel and her death.  The things that Uncle James did in his life still cast their shadow, and the only person who can tell them the full story of what really happened all those years ago and set things right . . . is Drusilla.

Uncle James’s problem, as the children eventually learn, was the nature of his ambitions.  He wanted to be a big man more than a good one.  It wasn’t that he was completely awful.  Drusilla herself (once the children learn where she really is and who she is) tells them that he could be charming, and she knows he never really meant to do anything wrong.  The problem was that he wanted to be important and admired by others to the point where “getting ahead” of others was all that really mattered to him.  There was a point when he could have used what he had to help his neighbors when they were in trouble, but instead, he used their troubling situation to his own advantage to take what they had for himself.  When he discovered something valuable on the land he’d acquired from Hodges family, something that would have saved them from their problems if they had known about it before the sale of the land, he could have turned it over to them to help make things right, but he refused to do it, which was the basis of his quarrel with Drusilla.  As far as Uncle James was concerned, he was entitled to what he found because he had bought the land legally, but Drusilla argued against keeping it on moral grounds, out of compassion for the Hodges.  In the end, Uncle James was admired by no one because of his selfishness, and Drusilla realized that wasn’t a quality that she wanted in the man she was going to marry.  Uncle James’s attempts to make people admire him for being wealthy and important ended up costing him friendships, relationships with relatives, and ultimately, the woman he wanted to marry.  Like others, Uncle James believed that Drusilla was dead, that she had drowned herself over their quarrel.

Uncle James’s drive to make people like him causes Anne to reconsider something that was bothering her as well.  She isn’t as good at making friends as her brother because her brother is more outgoing and good at sports.  The other kids always want Stevie to play for their team.  Anne often wishes that she could be more athletic, “to come in first,” so that other kids will like her better and want her to play with them more, instead of picking her last for every game.  However, she comes to realize that being “first” in things isn’t what really wins friends in the end.  Caring about others and being there for them when they need you wins real friends.  As Anne explores the old graveyard, she thinks about how just being alive and enjoying life is a great feeling by itself, whether you’re “first” or not, and sometimes, good things come to those who take their time instead of just rushing to be “first.”


Mystery on Nine-Mile Marsh

Nine Mile MarshMystery on Nine-Mile Marsh by Mary C. Jane, 1967.

Lucille Pierce has been feeling lonely because her other friends joined a club with some other girls that meets over the weekend, and Lucille hasn’t been invited to join. The only people who are available to hang out with now are her brother Brent and his friend Kevin, and they don’t always want a girl hanging out with them.

When Brent and Kevin have an argument because Kevin laughed at Brent’s horrible spelling during a spelling bee (Brent is horrible at spelling because he never stops to think about what he’s doing, and he gets into fights fast because he also has a quick temper), Kevin invites Lucille to join him as he goes out to have a look at the old house on Moody Island before the new owners take over. The old farmhouse stands on an island in the marsh. Sometimes, people hear odd sounds coming from the house, and some people believe that it’s haunted by the ghost of John Moody, who was lost at sea years ago. Old Mrs. Moody, John’s widow, was a hermit in her final years, and now, the only living member of the Moody family is Clyde Moody, John’s nephew. Everyone had expected that Clyde would inherit the old Moody house, but instead, Mrs. Moody left it to a man named Arnold Lindsay, an apparent stranger. Miss Rand, who owns the diner not far from the Moody house thinks that Mrs. Moody should have left it to Clyde. Clyde has had problems with alcohol and hasn’t been able to hold any job for very long, and Miss Rand thinks that having the house to care for might have been good for him, providing him with some stability. No one even has a clue who Arnold Lindsay is.

Nine Mile Marsh HouseLucille and Brent take a bike ride out to the island, but a noise in the barn frightens them away. It isn’t that they really think there’s a ghost, but they’re concerned that someone may be trespassing on the property. They decide to keep an eye on the house to see if they can see anyone sneaking around, but they don’t.

A short time later, Lucille, Brent, and Kevin meet Arnold Lindsay, who turns out to be a nice man. Like the children, he becomes concerned about the condition of Pedro, the donkey that the Turner family owns and leaves neglected in one of their fields. To give the donkey a better life, Mr. Lindsay buys Pedro, telling the kids that they can come out to the Moody house and visit him.

Mr. Lindsay doesn’t have any idea why Mrs. Moody left him the house, either. He’s a writer, but not a famous one. He just writes newspaper columns. All he or the children can think of is that Mrs. Moody must have been a fan of his columns. She didn’t get out, but she did read newspapers.

Nine Mile Marsh PedroMr. Linsday has also heard strange noises around the Moody house, and he asks the children what they know about it. They tell him the ghost stories about the Moody place, but they say that they don’t really believe that there’s a ghost. Mr. Lindsay is fascinated by the stories. He says that his impression was that the noises he heard came from the cellar, but he didn’t see anything when he investigated. He invites the children to help him investigate further sometime.

Meanwhile, Lucille tries to make friends with a new girl at school, Barbara Rosen. At first, Barbara doesn’t want to be friends because she thinks that Lucille is part of the Saturday Club with the other stuck-up girls, but she becomes friendlier when Lucille tells her that she’s not with them. Barbara had worried that the snobby girls didn’t like her because they thought something was wrong with her, but she really likes Lucille and thought for sure that she would have been asked to join the club, too, having been involved in a lot of other activities at school. Both girls find it reassuring that the fact that they weren’t asked to join the club doesn’t mean that that there’s anything wrong with them, but maybe with the girls running the club and their priorities in choosing friends. Having each other for friends makes them both feel less lonely, so they can stop worrying about the club and its members so much.

Nine Mile Marsh MeetingBarbara’s father owns a clothing store in town, and she says that some of his customers have been saying bad things about Mr. Lindsay. Some of them have even said that he might be a spy. Lucille thinks that’s ridiculous and that they’re only saying things because they wanted to buy the property or see it go to Clyde. Lucille has to admit that she doesn’t know much about Mr. Lindsay, so she can’t swear that the rumors aren’t true, but she still thinks that he’s probably just a nice guy, and she wants to see him keep the house so that Pedro will have a safe place to live.

With Clyde Moody and others sneaking around the property, seeming to look for something, and Clyde’s new accusations that Mrs. Moody was never legally married to his uncle and therefore had no right to will the property to anyone, Lucille, her brother, and their friends try to help prove that Mrs. Moody was really Mrs. Moody and that the house does rightfully belong to Mr. Lindsay.

Part of the theme of this story is about loyalty.  Lucille feels hurt that the girls she had previously thought were her friends abandoned her to join the Saturday Club.  She thinks that people who are real friends should stand by each other, no matter what other friends come into their lives.  However, looking back on her friendship with these other girls, she comes to realize that she was mostly friends with them because they were the girls who lived nearby, and neither of them really had other options.  In the end, they didn’t really have much in common, and she realizes that she doesn’t think very highly of them, so she is as free to move on and make new friends as they are.

Similarly, that is how some of the people in town feel about Clyde Moody.  It isn’t so much that they like him as he’s always been there.  He’s familiar to them, and it would have made sense for Mrs. Moody to will the Moody house to him.  It doesn’t make sense to them that she would leave her house to someone she’s never met, so they get upset about it and assume that there must be something wrong with the situation or with Mr. Lindsay himself.  However, nothing is wrong with Mr. Lindsay, and Clyde isn’t really worth their loyalty.  He’s a known troublemaker who associates with other troublemakers, like the Turners. Mr. Lindsay really is a better person.

In part of the story, the children catch Miss Rand sneaking around the property.  At first, they think that she was there to help Clyde or get Mr. Lindsay in trouble, but she tells Mr. Lindsay that she was actually there for very different reasons.  There was something on the property that she wanted to protect.  She wasn’t sure that she could trust Mr. Lindsay, and she knew that she couldn’t trust Clyde, so she was taking it on herself to look after it.

The Ship That Never Was

ShipThatNeverWasThe Ship That Never Was by Mickey Spillane, 1982.

Larry Damar and Josh Toomey are sailing in a boat off the coast of Peolle Island in the Caribbean when they rescue an old man from what seems to be a skiff. But, as soon as they get him aboard their own boat, they realize that what they thought was a skiff is actually more of a long boat, and it looks old. Very old.

They take the old man, who is suffering from exhaustion, to their fathers. While the old man rests, they inspect the boat and confirm that it is an antique. Oddly, from the condition of the wood, they believe that it has been resting in water for some years, but not salt water. It’s the kind of longboat that would have been carried aboard larger naval ships from a couple hundred years earlier. The name on the side of the boat, HMS Tiger, is familiar, but they heard that it was lost at sea ages ago. The old man is also carrying what appears to be some very old documents, but they are unable to read them, and when the old man speaks, they’re not quite sure what language he’s speaking.

They send a message to Sir Harry Arnold at the antiquities department of the British Naval Archives about the boat and the old man. When he arrives, he confirms that the longboat came from the HMS Tiger, a three-masted ship built in England in 1791. The Tiger was considered a jinxed ship because of everything that went wrong during its construction and its maiden voyage. Because of that, no one wanted to sail on it again or even work on the ship to dismantle it. So, the builder decided to send the boat on one last voyage by itself. He and his men loaded up the ship with supplies as if it had a crew aboard and then set it adrift, watching it sail off majestically, without a crew. Everyone had assumed that it would have eventually sunk, damaged by the weather, but apparently, it survived for longer than anyone had suspected.

Since no one can understand his language, the old man, who calls himself Vali, draws pictures to explain to them where he came from. Vali indicates which island he came from, and according to his other drawings, he lived there with many other people until many of them were killed in some kind of storm. He also draws a picture of a young girl with a crown on her head. Then, Larry’s dad, Vincent, recognizes the seal on a signet ring that Vali shows them. Vincent has read about the history of the country of Grandau (fictional country), and he recognizes its royal seal.

About 200 years before, Grandau was overrun by a neighboring country. Members of the royal family of Grandau escaped the invasion along with some loyal servants and tried to flee across the Channel to England to seek sanctuary. However, they were only in an old fishing boat, and it was thought that it sunk in a storm before they reached England because such a small craft would be unlikely to have survived. Grandau has not been a happy country since then. Over the years, they have been ruled by a series of dictatorships, and it has been in an almost constant state of unrest.

Now, the presence of the longboat from the HMS Tiger presents a much more intriguing theory of what happened to King Tynere of Grandau and his people. By an unbelievable coincidence (your suspension of disbelief is required for this story), the royal family’s attempted escape to England happened around the same time that the HMS Tiger was sent off alone and fully equipped for its final voyage. It now seems that the desperate people on the fishing boat were saved by encountering this grand, unmanned ship that no one else wanted, that everyone feared was jinxed. Grandau was not a seafaring nation, so the people were probably unable to actually sail the ship, simply letting it drift until they found land. Eventually, they arrived at an island in the Caribbean, and their descendants have been living there ever since in anonymity, until the disaster that prompted Vali to risk venturing out for help.

Unfortunately, their attempts to determine what language Vali was speaking and where he came from have also come to the attention of the wrong people. The government currently in power in Grandau has been working hard to stamp out the history and culture of the country in order to tighten its hold on the people, although their hold has never been more than tenuous, just like all the other dictatorships since Grandau’s royal family fled. Now that word has reached them that members of the royal family that the people of Grandau mourn may actually still be alive, they are determined to eliminate them before they can return to their ancestral home.

The author of this book, Mickey Spillane, is best known for his Mike Hammer series of hard-boiled mysteries for adults, and some of his hard-boiled style shows in this adventure book for children. This book is also part of a short series, although I don’t have the first book, The Day the Sea Rolled Back. In that book, Larry and Josh are helping their fathers hunt for sunken treasure, but their efforts are being sabotaged by a pair of treasure-hunting brothers.

Guns in the Heather

GunsHeatherGuns in the Heather by Lockhart, 1963.

This book was the basis for the Disney made-for-tv movie The Secret of Boyne Castle, however the book and the movie are very different.  Although they have a similar premise, many details were changed in the movie version, the first of which is that the location of the story was moved from Scotland, as it was in the original book, to Ireland.

Jonathan Flower, sometimes called “Posy” by his friends, spends most of his time at various boarding schools.  His mother died when he was very young, and his father has a government job that takes him all over the world, so Jonathan has been in boarding schools in various countries, seeing his father whenever he can during school breaks.  For the most part, Jonathan doesn’t really mind it.  He and his father get along pretty well, and he knows that his father’s work is important.

Right now, he’s at a boarding school in Scotland.  He’s made a lot of friends there, spending holidays like Christmas and Easter at various friends’ homes.  He’s also developed an interest in rugby and cricket.  He anticipates that his father will meet him at the end of the school year so that they can go mountain climbing together over the summer break.  However, shortly before his father is expected to arrive, Jonathan receives a telegram from him, saying that he is to go to a certain place and meet a Mr. Finch.  Because the telegram contains certain words that this father uses when a situation is urgent, Jonathan goes to meet Mr. Finch and is kidnapped.

Mr. Finch, who also goes by the alias Dr. Fisher, holds Jonathan captive in a house, pretending that Jonathan is a patient who has volunteered for an experimental treatment.  Fortunately, Jonathan’s father, disguised as a milkman, soon rescues him.

While Jonathan’s father, who is actually a government agent, attends to some of his duties, Jonathan tries to go to the American embassy, only to be misled and almost recaptured. For a time, he is on his own, unsure of who to trust and how to reconnect with his father. When the two of them finally meet again, they both seek shelter with friends, but their enemies aren’t far behind, no matter where they go.

They end up staying with friends who own an old castle, but their enemies are planning a siege.

The style of the writing in this book doesn’t make for a particularly easy read.  It’s not overly difficult, but it starts off slow and is very dense, unlike many more modern books.  The scenes also change quickly throughout the book, and I had trouble keeping track of who some of the characters were.  Overall, I preferred the movie, even though it didn’t follow the book very closely.

In the Disney movie version, a strange man drives on the grounds of an Irish boarding school, stumbles out of his car, and whispers an urgent message to a teenage American exchange student (played by a young Kurt Russell and renamed Richard Evans) that is meant for his older brother.  Then, the man dies from a bullet wound.   Another man, who is ostensibly from the American embassy in Dublin, abducts Richard after saying that he needs to go to the embassy to make a statement about the stranger’s death.  Richard is also accompanied by an Irish friend, Sean, when he is lured away from the school, and his friend helps him as they escape from the enemy spies holding them captive.  The two of them search for Richard’s older brother (who they have only just learned is a spy, whereas Jonathan was aware that his father worked for the government) to give him the dead man’s message.  In both the book and the movie, there is a final showdown with the bad guys at a castle, but in the movie, they go to the castle to retrieve a secret message that the dead man left there.  I don’t think that the movie is available on dvd, but I have seen it on YouTube.

Emil and the Detectives


Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner, translated by May Massee, 1929, 1930.

EmilHimselfThis book was originally written in German.  It was written in Germany during the period between the two World Wars.  The date of the story itself is never specified, but it may actually be earlier than when it was written, prior to World War I.  There is a sequel to the book that I haven’t read where Emil’s vacation ends early because he hears that war has broken out, an incident based on the author’s own boyhood experiences at the start of World War I.

The Emil books have an interesting history because of the time period when they were written.  By the time the Nazis came to power, Emil and the Detectives had become popular and, as a harmless children’s book, was saved from Nazi book burnings.  The sequel story, Emil and the Three Twins, wasn’t so lucky, which is why it isn’t as well-known as the first Emil book, although it is available today.  The author, Erich Kastner, was known to be a pacifist and opposed to the Nazi government, which was why many of his works were burned during the Nazi regime and publishers were forbidden to publish new books from him.  Although his political stance interfered with his writing, and he was questioned by the Gestapo several times, he chose to remain in Germany for the duration of the war.  Another of his children’s books, Lisa and Lottie, which was the basis for the Parent Trap movies by Disney, was written after World War II ended.

EmilTrainAt the beginning of this story, it explains that Emil Tischbein’s father died when he was very young and that his mother works hard as a hairdresser to support the two of them. When she can, she saves a little money for Emil’s grandmother as well. When the story begins, Emil is preparing for a train trip to Berlin to visit his relatives. Emil will be traveling by himself and will meet his relatives near the station when he arrives. His mother gives him some money to take to his grandmother and warns him to be careful. Emil pins the money inside his pocket for security.

On the train, Emil talks to the people who share his train compartment. One of them, who calls himself Herr Grundeis, tells him tall tales about what Berlin is like and gives him a piece of chocolate, which is apparently drugged. Emil falls asleep on the train, and when he wakes up, he realizes that he’s been robbed!

EmilGustavDetermined to get the money for his grandmother back, Emil searches for Herr Grundeis and spots him getting off the train. It’s too soon for Emil’s stop, but he follows Grundeis off the train anyway, tracking him to a café.

While Emil is trying to decide how to handle the situation, another boy who carries a horn that he likes to honk, Gustav, spots him watching Grundeis. Gustav asks Emil what he’s doing, and Emil explains the situation. Emil isn’t sure how to get the money back from Grundeis. At first, he’s afraid to tell the police what happened because of a prank he and some friends pulled at home. He worries that perhaps the police have found out about the prank and that they won’t take him seriously. Gustav is sympathetic to Emil and tells him that he can get together some friends to help.

EmilPonyChocolateGustav recruits a bunch of other boys from the neighborhood, and they continue tailing Grundeis through the city to his hotel. The boys call another friend at home, who keeps track of their progress and gives them reports about what others have said.  Emil gets one of the other boys to tell his relatives that he has been delayed on important business, causing his cousin, Pony Hutchen, to come and tell him that everyone is worried and that he’s going to be in big trouble with his relatives if he doesn’t show up soon.  However, they still have the problem of deciding how to confront Grundeis and get him to return the money.  In this case, the detectives don’t need to solve the mystery of who the thief is.  The real problem is how to prove it.

Overall, I liked the story, although I found the book difficult to read because the wording sounded strange and awkward in many places.  I think this is probably because of the translation between German and English.  I have the feeling that the translator was trying to be too literal in the translation instead of focusing on translating for meaning and tone.

EmilReportersThere was a note in the beginning of my copy of the book that says that many of the character names in the book are actually jokes on the part of the author. It’s not as obvious in English because the forms of the names sound reasonable for German names, but anyone who knows German would spot that they aren’t real names. For example, Emil’s last name is Tischbein, which means “table-leg,” and the thief’s alias, Grundeis, means “ground-ice.”

In the end, the boys use their numbers (they have about a hundred child detective recruits by the end of the story) to corner the thief in a bank, and when they confront him in front of the bank personnel, they manage to prove that Emil is the owner of the money using the pin holes in the bills, where Emil had pinned it to his jacket.  The author of the book also appears in the story as a journalist who interviews Emil and his friends for a newspaper story about how they caught the thief.

Like in another of Kastner’s books, Lisa and Lottie, there is the theme of a child who behaves well because of the family’s poor circumstances.  Emil, like Lottie, is being raised by a single mother who has to work hard to support the two of them. Both Emil and Lottie understand that if they behave badly and get into trouble, it would create more hardships for their mothers.  They basically live hand-to-mouth, and the children understand that their mothers cannot take time away from work to deal with their discipline problems.  Each of them has had to shoulder some of the household burdens from an early age, and it has made them more serious and also a little closer to their mothers than many of the other children from more affluent families. Aside from Emil’s prank at home (which causes him some worry), he is obedient to his mother and also very concerned about her welfare.

This book is known around the world and has been made into movies several times, including a Disney version in 1964.  The Disney version still takes place in Germany, but for some reason, Emil’s train trip is changed to a bus trip, and the criminal’s plot is much more elaborate.  It’s available on dvd, and you can see the trailer on YouTube.  The only full version I could find in English on YouTube is from 1935 and was made in England.  In that version, the location of the story was changed from Berlin to London, but Emil still travels by train.  Aside from the change in location, the story follows the book well.


LiarsLiars by P.J. Petersen, 1992.

Sam lives in the small town of Alder Creek in California. The town is so small that they only have a one-room school (well, two rooms, if you count the library/storage room). Sam’s friend, Marty, describes most of what happens there as SOT (Same Old Thing) or MOTSOT (More of the Same Old Thing). However, their town contains some disturbing secrets, which they are about to learn.

Uncle Gene, an old man in town, has a reputation for being a “water witch.” He has the ability to find good sources of water when they need to dig a new well. He lets the local kids watch him when he’s using his dowsing stick and even lets Sam and Marty have a try. Sam has never really believed that Uncle Gene has any special abilities, even kidding Marty for believing in it. However, when Sam takes hold of the dowsing stick, he finds it drawn toward sources of water, like a magnet. Uncle Gene says that Sam has the gift and is a water witch, too. Sam is still somewhat skeptical, thinking that there’s probably something more scientific behind what he experienced, but from that time on, he finds himself sensing other odd things from the people around him.

In particular, Sam can sense when people around him are lying. It sounds like it would be a handy gift to have, but it has some drawbacks. Even when he can tell that someone isn’t telling the truth, he can’t tell exactly what they’re lying about. Some lies are obvious, like those of classmates bragging about things or Mr. Lopez saying that he enjoys living in the small town when, apparently, he really doesn’t. However, Sam can’t always distinguish between small lies or serious ones. Some lies seem to affect him more than others, possibly because the liars themselves feel more guilty about those, but by itself, that doesn’t tell him whether the lie is serious or not. He knows about Mr. Lawlor poaching animals in the forest, so that lie is also obvious to Sam, and he later realizes that his wife is lying about her teaching credentials. When he exposes Mrs. Lawlor’s lies, everyone becomes aware of Sam’s gift.

This ability becomes disturbing for Sam because it seems like everyone around him is lying about something. It’s also somewhat unsettling for some of his friends, like Carmen, who worries about what he’ll think of her if he catches her in a lie. Even Sam lies somewhat himself, saying that he knows that Carmen wouldn’t lie to him when he’s already caught her. But, Carmen sees right through his reassurance, even without sharing Sam’s gift. She’s the one who points out to him that the problem with his gift is that, even though he can tell when someone lies, he can’t tell exactly what they’re lying about or why they’re doing it. She mentions the little white lies people tell to spare someone’s feelings, like saying that they like a person’s clothes when they really don’t, but also how people sometimes lie when the truth is none of someone else’s business. The lie that Carmen told Sam earlier was about why the two of them couldn’t hang out together one day. She said that her parents were expecting company that evening, but the truth was that her parents have been fighting a lot, and she didn’t want Sam to see it because their personal problems are no business of his. This incident, along with a time when Sam has suspicions about an innocent person because the person falsely thought that she might actually be guilty of a crime lead Sam to worry even more about his gift.

However, there are real crimes being committed in his town, and Sam’s gift might be the only way to find who is behind it all. First, someone tries to break into Uncle Gene’s house. Uncle Gene thinks he knows why. Supposedly, there’s a hidden mine in the area, and he’s been looking for it for a long time. He thinks that he’s getting close and that someone was after his maps. Later, his house is set on fire.

But, is the lost mine the real reason why someone is after Uncle Gene? He’s been poking around in some out-of-the-way places during his search, and the kids know that he’s reported someone for growing illegal marijuana. Is the grower out for revenge? With Sam’s own father lying to him about his whereabouts, Sam worries that he may have something to do with what’s going on. It’s only a pity that his gift can’t tell him what his father, or anyone else, is lying about. It only tells him that they’re liars.

With more places making marijuana legally these days, this part of the story might not seem so serious as it did back in the 1990s, when schools were emphasizing that kids should “just say no” to drugs. Marijuana was viewed as being as bad as any other drug, and in this book, the grower doesn’t seem concerned about the possible medical uses.

Sam’s father is not the villain of the story, although he is engaged in something that he doesn’t want to reveal to his son or the rest of the town immediately. There is also a subplot about the death of Sam’s mother. She is already dead when the story begins, but Sam and his father haven’t completely healed. At the urging of Marty’s mother, who also helps Sam to explore his gift, the two of them begin talking about her more, when they had been avoiding discussing her for some time because talking about her was too sad for them.

In the end, Sam thinks that he’s found a way to stop sensing people’s lies (the less he pays attention to what he senses, the less he feels it, so he thinks that ignoring his gift will cause it to fade over time), which is a relief to him because he didn’t like always wondering what people were really lying about, and as Carmen said, some lies are for the best and should be none of his business. I think that’s true, especially the part about lying about things that should be no one else’s business. Some people can be rather pushy in wanting to know the details of other people’s lives, and if they won’t accept “I don’t feel like talking about it” or “I don’t want to tell you” for an answer, a lie of some sort might be a person’s only recourse. Depending on the circumstances, a lie might be harmful or it might protect. Like with Sam’s gift, it may not be immediately obvious which it is, either. Not that people should make a habit of lying, but there are times when it might be the best course of action for all concerned.

I’d like to add that there are many different ways of being truthful as well as lying.  If there are partial lies, and there are partial truths as well.  Some people think that politeness is a kind of lying, like in Carmen’s example of pretending that you like someone’s clothes when you really don’t, but that’s not necessarily so.  Being polite doesn’t mean that you’re pretending but perhaps you’re just choosing which of your thoughts are the most important to mention. Many, perhaps most of us, don’t just think one thing when someone asks us what we think about something.  For example, when someone asks your opinion of their clothes, you might think something like, “Well, I like the color, but I don’t like the style.  At least, I don’t like the way that style looks on you.  But, maybe that’s just because I’m not used to seeing you wear things like that.  I might change my mind later.  Actually, later on, I’ll probably forget that you ever wore that because I don’t care that much about clothes anyway.  Still a nice color, though.”  At least, that’s what goes on in my mind frequently.  There’s no point in telling anyone those random, meandering thoughts, so I just pick the most important part and tell them that I like the color.  Why bother being critical in an effort to sound truthful when the real truth of the matter is that clothes in general aren’t that important to me and I’ll probably just change my mind later, if it sticks in my mind long enough for me give it a second thought?

Then, there are the lies that some people label as the truth for their own purposes. I’ve seen plenty of people say harmful and insulting things to others and then hide behind the defense that they are “just telling it like it is,” when they actually aren’t. Usually, when people say that, they’re actually telling it like it isn’t: lies, exaggerations, or just plain insults disguised as truth. In those cases, their intentions were not to point out some important truth for the benefit of anyone.  Often, they were just trying to hurt someone’s feelings and then further hurt them by accusing them of not being able to handle the truth.  My rule of thumb for distinguishing between people who are really “telling it like it is” and liars who are just pretending is the same as the one I use with assessing advertisements: If a company has to shell out lots of money to tell you something about their product, it’s because what they’re saying isn’t something that you’d ever notice by actually using it.  If it were obviously true, there would be no need to put so much effort into telling you because you’d just know.  I think it’s the same with people who “tell it like it is.”  If someone has to actually say that they’re “telling it like it is,” it’s a strong hint that they’re probably not.  Similarly, anyone who brags about being truthful and trustworthy is probably doing it because they know that no one else would ever think to associate those qualities with them without being told.

Coffin on a Case

CoffinCaseCoffin on a Case by Eve Bunting, 1992.

Twelve-year-old Henry Coffin’s father is a private investigator, and Henry hopes to be one himself someday.  He’s learned a lot by watching his father in action.  One day, a sixteen-year-old girl, Lily, comes to the office and asks for help in finding her missing mother.  Lily found her mother’s car in their driveway with groceries still in it, and her mother is nowhere to be found.  She doesn’t want to go to the police because she once called the police about her mother being missing only to discover that there was a mix-up and that her mother had tried to leave her a note that she hadn’t seen.  Lily has double-checked this time to make sure that there was definitely no note from her mother and none of her mother’s friends have heard from her, but she worries that the police would think that she’s being paranoid, so she decided to consult a private investigator instead.

Henry’s father is concerned about the disappearance of Lily’s mother, but he’s unable to take the case because he has to go out of town.  He tries to refer Lily to another investigator or a friend of his who is with the police, but Lily just storms out of the office.  Henry wishes that he could take the case for his father.  His own mother abandoned him and his father when Henry was just a baby, so disappearing mothers are of great concern to him.  Later, when Lily gets in touch with him, Henry agrees to help her without telling either his father or Mrs. Sypes, the housekeeper who has looked after him since his mother left.

At first, there doesn’t seem to be much to go on.  Lily’s mother makes wooden storks that she sells as lawn decorations to people who have recently had a baby.  She was going to sell a couple before going to pick up the groceries, but Lily says that there is an extra one missing.  Somewhere between the grocery store and home, Lily’s mother made an unexpected stop . . . and there are signs that someone other than Lily’s mother drove the car to Lily’s house.  But, who was it, and what happened to Lily’s mother?

The answers to these puzzles put Henry on the trail of some dangerous thieves who would do just about anything to cover up their crime.

Henry shows excellent deductive reasoning as he analyzes the clues and reconstructs Lily’s mother’s trail to learn what happened to her. Both Henry and his father are inspired by the fictional character, Sam Spade, and Henry makes frequent references to him in the story, thinking what Sam Spade would say or do in certain situations.

Throughout the book, Henry also considers his own mother’s disappearance years ago.  Her abandonment of her family was her own choice, not an abduction, which makes her situation different from what happened to Lily’s mother.  Henry has no real memory of his mother, which pains him somewhat.  He sometimes dreams that she’ll return home one day for a happy ending, like in the movies, but he also realizes that’s really just a daydream.  When Lily’s mother is finally rescued, Henry and Lily continue being friends, and Henry also considers whether a relationship would be possible between his father and Lily’s mother.  It’s a nice idea, but Henry also thinks that isn’t likely, and he’s okay with that.

A Clue in Code

ClueInCodeA Clue in Code by Marilyn Singer, 1985.

This book is part of a series about a pair of twin boys, Sam and Dave Bean, who solve mysteries with their friends.

One day, the boys’ teacher, Ms. Corfein, has one of their classmates, Roger, collect money from the students for a class field trip.  Ms. Corfien tells Roger to put the money in her locker, but later, the money is gone.

Anyone in the class could have taken it.  When Dave went into the classroom to feed the class’s pet gerbil at lunchtime, he saw Willie, the class bully, there as well as his friend Patti, who thought that it was her turn to feed the gerbil.  Of the two, Willie seems like the best suspect for the theft because he’s been in trouble before for stealing, but perhaps there was someone else in the room before any of them arrived.

ClueInCodeSneakingSam and Dave decide to begin their investigation with Willie.  His father is the school’s custodian, and Willie has been using a copy of his father’s key to the school to sneak around after hours.  To the twins’ surprise, when they confront Willie, not only does Willie deny stealing the money, but it turns out that he’s actually been scared and upset himself.  After being caught stealing the last time, his parents have been especially strict with him, sending him to bed early, limiting his time with friends, and not allowing him to watch tv or read comic books.  In fact, his father tried to get rid of his entire collection of comic books by throwing them in the trash, but Willie rescued them and has been hiding them in the school, sneaking away to read them when he can.  However, someone has discovered them and stolen them.  Willie wants his comic books back, but he can’t report them stolen because his father thinks that they’re already gone.  Worse still, his parents will be even harder on him if he ends up taking the blame for stealing the class’s trip money.

ClueInCodeMessageIn spite of Willie’s reputation, which he deserves, Sam and Dave think that he’s telling the truth about the thefts.  Then, they happen to find a strange message that appears to be written in code after some of their classmates were throwing paper airplanes.  With the help of Rita, a friend who is very good with codes, they decode the message and uncover a valuable clue that explains why the comic books were taken and leads them to the thief’s identity.

I was pretty sure, from the very first chapter, who had stolen the money, but I wasn’t completely sure of who had taken the comic books until the end.  At first, I thought perhaps Willie’s father had found his stash and got rid of it again, but that wasn’t the case.  The thief who took the comic books was the same person who took the trip money and for the same reason.  This person’s father has been out of work, and they need the money.  It turns out that Willie has a number of comic books that are now collectors’ items, and someone is willing to pay a lot of money for them.

Top Secret

TopSecretTop Secret by John Reynolds Gardiner, 1984.

Nine-year-old Allen Brewster’s teacher, Miss Green, is obsessed with the science fair. Every year, there is a silver trophy awarded to the best science fair project and another prize for the best science teacher. No one in Miss Green’s class has ever won the trophy, and so Miss Green has never won the best science teacher award. All the best projects are done by older students. Miss Green hates it, and she’s been known to flunk kids who do especially bad on their science fair projects.

However, Allen Brewster thinks that he’s got the kind of project that Miss Green has been waiting for. When his mother served liver for dinner one night, Allen got to thinking how much nicer it would be if people didn’t have to eat, if they could just get nutrients from the sun, like plants do during photosynthesis. So, he decides that he wants to research human photosynthesis. When he tells Miss Green what he wants to do, she says that’s impossible and refuses to take his idea seriously. Instead, she tells him that he’s going to do a project on the topic of lipstick.

TopSecretTeacherAllen is angry that Miss Green didn’t take him seriously, and lipstick is the last thing that he’s interested in. His parents think that he should just do the lipstick project and forget about it. Even if human photosynthesis were possible, how could a nine-year-old possibly achieve such a thing? Real discoveries are made by important men, not little boys. However, Allen’s grandfather encourages him to persevere in what he wants. He says that Allen has everything that a important man would have: five good senses and a brain that he can use to think. Allen’s grandfather often thinks about strange things himself, and he encourages Allen to think all the time.

“Cause you know what you are when you stop thinking, don’t you?”


“You’re dead.”

TopSecretGrandpaAlthough Allen acts like he’s carrying out the lipstick project, with his parents’ help, he continues studying photosynthesis on the side. When Allen gets stuck on what to do next, his grandfather advises him to “think crazy,” to just let his mind explore possibilities and see what it comes up with.

What Allen comes up with is that, in order for a person to experience photosynthesis, the hemoglobin in human blood would have to act like chlorophyll in plants, and the difference between the two substances is magnesium. By experimenting with kitchen leftovers, especially (and unfortunately), the liver his mother made, Allen discovers that he is beginning to experience photosynthesis. He is no longer hungry for food, he craves water, loves sunlight more than ever, and he is turning green.

When his parents realize what he’s done, they panic and take him to a hospital, but the doctor can’t find anything wrong with him. He thinks that Allen is green because of allergies. When he goes to school, people notice right away how weird he looks, but they think that it’s just makeup. Miss Green is furious, sending him home to wash the “paint” off.

Trying to get everyone to believe what he’s done, Allen goes to the local newspaper. They do a story about him, but people still aren’t convinced. However, the President of the United States happens to be visiting the city. Allen writes to him, hoping to convince him of his discovery. In the end, Allen’s discovery is recognized by the government (whose scientists also figure out how to turn him back into a normal human), but it’s also, unfortunately, now considered top secret. Allen won’t be allowed to talk about it anymore or claim credit for it. Putting it in the science fair is completely out of the question. Allen could keep quiet about the whole thing . . . but he doesn’t want to.


Allen’s discovery has problems. One of which, as he learns for himself while he’s a plant person, is that with photosynthesis, he’s completely dependent on sunlight. During a spell of bad weather, it’s only his desk lamp that keeps him alive. Then, the government people point out that if people aren’t dependent on food, society as we know it would break down. Industries that produce food or food-related items would no longer be necessary. In fact, people wouldn’t really have to work at all because they would no longer need to buy food. Allen thinks that sounds pretty good, but the world would no longer be the same. To the government, the economic and social repercussions of Allen’s discovery are the most important, but personally, I think it’s just as well that the project does end because I think bad weather would be an insurmountable problem.

The humor really makes this story.  I love Allen’s grandfather, who loves coming up with odd ideas and fully supports Allen’s project to turn himself into a plant person.  He matter-of-factly sprays his grandson with bug spray when he gets aphids and has a spot for Allen reserved in his garden, if he needs it.  I’m glad that Allen didn’t remain a plant person because I found his state a little disturbing, but Allen’s description of his experiment is pretty fun.

The Return of the Plant That Ate Dirty Socks

ReturnPlantDirtySocksThe Return of the Plant That Ate Dirty Socks by Nancy McArthur, 1990.

Michael and Norman’s father has finally gotten the chance to take a vacation, but his sons’ weird, sock-eating plants complicate things.  You can board pets or ask someone to come in and feed them, but how can you ask someone to leave out socks for your houseplants?  The boys’ parents still kind of think that the plants are more trouble than they’re worth, but the boys love them like pets and can’t bear to get rid of them.  Instead, they persuade their parents to rent an RV for the family’s vacation.  That way, they can take the plants along.

It seems like a good idea, although before they leave home, the boys notice that the plants are starting to produce seed pods, something that they decide not to tell their parents.  Instead, they simply remove the seed pods from the plants when they find them.  So, the family sets off for Florida and Disney World in their RV with the sock-eating plants sticking out through the sun roof.

At first, it seems like things might be okay on the trip, but one night, when the boys are visiting their grandmother and sleeping in the house instead of the RV, they forget to set out socks for their plants to eat.  When they wake up in the morning, the RV is gone.  The boys worry that the plants somehow got control of the RV and drove it off to find more socks, but it turns out that it was stolen by car thieves.  The police recover the RV but are puzzled when witnesses describe the thieves as abandoning the vehicle, screaming and running away without their shoes on, one of them only wearing one sock.  The family is relieved to get their RV back, not to mention their plants, however their adventures are just beginning.

The family has a good time when they get to Disney World, but the plants start drooping because they feel neglected, all alone in the RV all day.  To get the plants out in the sunshine and supervised more, the boys ask the people at the daycare center at the RV park if they can leave their plants there during the day.  The plants perk up a little more, getting attention from the staff and children, especially when they sing.

But, it turns out that the mother of one of the girls who has seen the plants, Dr. Sparks, is a botanist, and she’s very curious about the origin of these unusual plants.  The boys’ parents think that it might not hurt to get an expert opinion about their strange plants, but the boys worry that if the plants turn out to be very rare, scientists will want to take them away or their parents might decide to sell them.  Their parents still think that the plants are too weird and too troublesome to keep, but Michael and Norman think of them as their friends and pets.  They’ve been trying hard to keep their plants’ sock-eating abilities quiet.  Is it finally time to tell someone?  Can Dr. Sparks be trusted?

They end up asking for Dr. Sparks’ help when Fluffy accidentally eats something he shouldn’t.  Dr. Sparks knows that the plants are unusual, but by the end of the book, she’s still not sure that she believes that they really eat socks.  The boys give her some seeds so that she can experiment without taking their plants, knowing that she’ll eventually discover just how unusual the plants are.  By the end of the book, other people are also growing more plants like Fluffy and Stanley, partly because Michael’s friend Jason stole some of the seeds they were saving and sold them to other kids while Michael and Norman were out of town.  The boys can’t get back the seeds, but they force Jason to at least confess to the other kids that the plants will eventually eat socks.  Jason doesn’t think that they’ll believe him, but the boys know that it’s only right that the buyers be warned because they’ll discover the truth eventually.  Fluffy and Stanley are also starting to acquire the ability to move around on their own.