Aggie Morton Mystery Queen: The Body Under the Piano – by Marthe Jocelyn, with illustrations by Isabelle Follath, Tundra Books, 2020
Right now obviously seems like a good time to curl up with an engaging mystery, and why should middle grade and young adult readers be deprived of that experience? Marthe Jocelyn’s new series, based on an imagined childhood for author Agatha Christie, has debuted with The Body Under the Piano, an edge-of-the-chair whodunit built around charming humor and inventive characterizations, as well as suspense. The book’s clever conceit might be enough to interest readers, but it turns out to be far more satisfying than just an invitation to die-hard Christie fans to speculate about her probably quirky early life. Aggie Morton stands on her own as a new heroine for those who like mysteries, as well as those who just appreciate a well-crafted story about engaging people in difficult situations.
As Jocelyn explains in her perceptive “Author’s Note,” the book is not a biography, but an affectionate answer to her own questions about Christie, the writer who had given her so many hours of enjoyment. Aggie Morton is a spirited girl full of curiosity and determination; her Belgian friend, Hector Perot, is Jocelyn’s homage to Christie’s famed detective, Hercule Poirot, in the form of youthful backstory. “As a writer,” Jocelyn modestly explains, “I know that ideas sit for a longtime in the cobwebbed corners of the brain.” There are no cobwebs in this book, but there are a lot of interwoven events and peculiar personalities, as Aggie tries to determine who murdered a rather difficult woman right on the premises of the heroine’s dance school, casting her beloved teacher in a suspicious light.
Aggie does not set out to solve the mystery, but her refusal to accept illogical or incomplete answers leads her down a sometimes-dangerous path. Death holds a bit of fascination for her, especially as it allows her to reflect on the recent loss of her father:
I considered the idea that memories and ghosts are knitted together as closely as stitches of yarn on a needle, part of the same warming shawl that each of us wears. Occasionally my mind strayed to consider what my father might look like now, not his ghost, but inside his coffin. Or, what if he hadn’t been buried, but picked clean by helpful carrion, leaving him a skeleton, shining white and elegant?
Here is Jocelyn’s signature style: identifiable emotional responses paired with weirder associations, all leavened with some lugubrious humor. She isn’t afraid to give her heroine some off-putting thoughts, but she always stops short of caricature.
Isabelle Follath‘s sketches for chapter headings (some examples are shown above), and for the cast of characters that precedes the novel, lend Victorian authenticity and artful personal details to the story; the drawings are really essential to the book’s overall effect. I have been careful to omit any plot spoilers, although the novel is more than the sum of its parts and eventual resolution. Instead, I will let Agatha have the next-to-last word: “I do not choose my thoughts…They seem to choose me, like the lines in a poem.” Her understanding that one thought, one intuition, one clue, does not inevitably lead to the next expected one, is part of this new mystery heroine’s considerable appeal to readers.