In the Kaiser’s Clutch by Kathleen Karr, 1995.
After their father’s death during World War I (then called The Great War), the Dalton twins’ mother started supporting their family by writing. It’s the summer of 1918, and Dorothy Dalton is now writing the scripts for a silent movie serial starring the fifteen-year-old twins, Nelly and Fitzhugh. Times have been tough for them without their father’s support, but the serial means steady work and salaries for all three of them for the entire summer, enough to support them and buy school supplies for the fall, and maybe even enough to buy back some of the things that their mother pawned to keep their family going when they had to move out of New York to a less expensive town in New Jersey.
The movie serial, called In the Kaiser’s Clutch, is about a pair of wealthy American twins (played by Nelly and Fitz) who find themselves battling German spies. The serial is part adventure story, part American war propaganda. It’s also a subject that hits close to home. The Dalton twins’ father wasn’t killed while fighting overseas. He was in charge of the security force for the piers of Black Tom Island, just off the coast of New York, the port where most of the weaponry destined for the war in Europe were being shipped. However, a massive explosion destroyed the port at Black Tom and killed Mr. Dalton. Fitz wishes that he were old enough to fight directly in the war, but failing that, he wants to find the people who killed his father because he is sure that his father’s death was due to deliberate sabotage, not an accident. However, it’s possible that the saboteur himself is looking for the Dalton family.
Strange things start to happen which the twins realize may have some bearing on their father’s death. Someone has been spying on the family, listening by the window of their apartment. Then, the direct hires a new, part-time actor to play one of the villains in the movie serial who is oddly similar to the fleeing figure of the man who was spying on them. This man is German, and he seems to have some weird grudge against the twins, muttering insults in German and taking advantage of the stunts they have to perform in the movies to hurt and frighten them. There are plenty of opportunities for the twins to get hurt on the movie set because each episode of the series has to end with a cliff-hanger scene, and there are no stunt doubles. From fist fights to car chases to quicksand to a cave-in to a giant pendulum with a mysteriously sharpened edge to sudden explosions, the Dalton twins are constantly teetering on the edge of disaster, not all of it planned by their writer mother.
Mrs. Dalton admits to the twins that, shortly before their father died, he told her that he was close to uncovering something that would be a much better story than anything she could make up. Unfortunately, he never told her what it was. He did tell her that he was making notes about it, but those notes were never found and may have also been destroyed in the explosion. The only odd thing that Mrs. Dalton found after her husband’s death seemed like an ordinary shopping list: “cigars, eggs, dumplings, coal, pencils.” However, Mrs. Dalton realized later that it has to mean something else because her husband didn’t smoke. Could this somehow be the clue to what her husband was investigating before his death? Are there real spies operating in the area? Is there some other clue to their identity that they are now searching for, something that the Daltons still have in their possession? Will the Dalton twins manage to find the spies before the spies eliminate them? Will the family finish the serial and collect their salaries? Find out in this exciting installment! (Well, this is only a single book, not part of a series, but you get the idea.)
World War I books aren’t quite as common in children’s literature as World War II stories, so I found this interesting, and movie serials are also a thing of the past. The movies that the kids are acting in are black-and-white silent films, so there are interesting discussions of the techniques they use to make things show up properly on black-and-white film (makeup, dyeing the water black for Nelly near-drowning scene, etc.) and conveying emotion when the actors’ voices will not actually be heard. It’s a fun and fascinating story with spies, government agents, and the kind of movie stunts that a lot of kids wish they could do for their summer jobs!