Aggie Morton Mystery Queen: The Seaside Corpse – written by Marthe Jocelyn, with illustrations by Isabelle Follath
Tundra Books, 2022
Aggie Morton, confident girl detective, is back. In the fourth adventure (reviews of the others can be found here and here), she and her loyal friend and interpreter of clues, Hector Perot, are participating in a paleontology dig. Socially, if not geographically, far from her well-appointed home, Aggie is the first female Morton to sleep in a tent, as her brother-in-law James observes without an ounce of condescension. If you haven’t read the previous Aggie Morton books, they are crime novels loosely based on an imaginative approach to Agatha Christie’s childhood. Each book stands alone with no knowledge of Christie’s work required, although fans of both Christie and Marthe Jocelyn will be thrilled to find Aggie and Hector once again confronted with an apparent unsolved murder.
The novels are rooted in historical reality; The Seaside Corpse reflects early twentieth century fascination with dinosaurs, as well as the ongoing popularity of less scientific area attractions. An American millionaire and a British Barnum-like entrepreneur would both like to get their hands on a fossilized ichthyosaur, but first husband and wife team of Howard and Nina Blenningham-Crewe will need to excavate “Izzy” from fossil-rich beaches of Lyme Regis. Although a book for middle-grade readers and older, Jocelyn does not shy away from marital conflict, in this scenario observed by the young apprentice scientists. Aggie and the other female characters are challenges to stereotypes of women and girls, and Hector is the ideal, supportive boy who will undoubtedly grow up to be the same kind of man. Aggie’s no-nonsense Grannie Jane there is also on the scene, demonstrating how strong young women can develop into equally assertive older women.
Jocelyn is funny without descending to parody. Her control of language is as precise as the rational methods which Agatha and Hector applying to solving mysteries. No wonder Agatha is successful! Her dedication is far stronger than the limited expectations of her class for affluent, if intelligent, young women: “I had a moment’s pang, thinking how lovely it would be to stay another night in the hotel…but that was not to be. We had a murder to attend to! If Hector could face mosquitoes and nettles, I most certainly could do without a bergamot bubble bath.”
Interspersed throughout the chapters are newspaper articles, accurate, understated, but also laced with sensation.
Isabelle Follath’s black-and-white drawings are like delicate accessories added to chapter titles. “A Lovely Respite” is accompanied by a tiered display of sandwiches and cake, while “An Unanticipated Truth” features two glasses, one ominously fallen on its side. As in the other novels, the book opens with portraits of everyone the reader will meet, each one labeled for handy reference. An author’s note and list of sources clarify Jocelyn’s framework for the story and reflect her obvious love of the project. A description on the flyleaf refers to The Seaside Corpse as Aggie and Hector’s “fourth and final mystery,” but, if Arthur Conan Doyle could revive Sherlock Holmes, maybe readers could hope for more from this young team. In the meantime, there is plenty of rewarding material here for readers, young and older, who enjoy informed, literate, and inventive fun.