Aggie Morton Mystery Queen: Peril at Owl Park – written by Marthe Jocelyn, with illustrations by Isabelle Follath
Tundra Books, 2020
Aggie Morton is bright if somewhat unconventional girl living with her mother and grandmother on the coast of England during the Edwardian era. Readers of the first book in Marthe Jocelyn’s series, Aggie Morton Mystery Queen: The Body Under the Piano, will already be familiar with her preternatural talent for sleuthing and uncovering uncomfortable truths. If you have not yet read the earlier mystery, this second entry in the series stands alone as a wonderful tribute to Agatha Christie, imagined here as a fictional version of what the great detective novelist might have been like as a child. There is an outrageously entertaining cast of characters, a complex series of mysterious events, and a somewhat compromised Christmas setting in which finding a body takes the place of pulling gifts out of stockings.
This holiday season will be different for Aggie. Instead of staying home with her recently widowed mother, she will travel to visit her sister, Marjorie, at Owl Park, the country estate where the newly married Marjorie and her husband James are lady and lord of the manor. As with the first book in the series, Isabelle Follath supplies a visual introduction to various people, good, bad, and in-between, before the text begins. Follath’s small illustrations above the title of each chapter are an essential part of the Aggie’s story, wonderful period drawings which enhance the plot’s unfolding. The decorative signature on a calling card placed on a tray calls attention to “A Disquieting Scene,” while a small writing desk on spindly legs stands above “A Worrisome Absence.”
Jocelyn’s inventive approach involves recreating the mystery novels of an earlier time with authenticity and humor, not parody. When Marjorie sharply reminds her younger sister of her good fortune with the admonition, “Count yourself lucky that James’ mother has agreed that you may be at table with the adults this evening and not up in the nursery eating buns and hot milk,” we are transported to a distant past. At the same time, Agatha’s frustration at the limits of childhood and the irrational social roles imposed by adults seem perfectly up-to-date. Readers will cheer for Agatha and her persistence at violating rules, but also appreciate her love for family, and for her special companion, aspiring detective Hector Perot. As in the first book of the series, the Belgian Hector’s endearing personality and astute but modest crime-solving abilities, (“A logical breakthrough!…But he should remain on the list until we can dismiss him logically.”) play a big role.
Young readers will not require experience with mysteries to enjoy this one, but even those who are fans of the genre will have a lot of fun unraveling this one. Even as the story draws to a close, there are frequent surprises. For those who pick up the book for its historical setting, or just to meet unforgettable characters, the plot may even be less important than watching Grannie Jane impose her ironic eye on the surrounding chaos, or wondering whom Anabelle Day will charm next with her acting skills. There’s even a boundary-challenging journalist whose frequent updates appear as newspaper pages interspersed among the chapters, courtesy of Follath’s drawing skills. As the label on Jeever’s Lavender Pocket Salts located by Aggie cautions, “Refuse Worthless Imitations” of this inventive book.