08 March 2011


Young Detectives: B is for Bellairs

The "open letter" format of this feature is totally working for me. If you read a book with its own young detective and want to participate, feel free to use the badge and write your own letter to the author.

Note that you don't have to read a Young Adult or Middle Grade novel. Just the other day, I saw a Mystery with a teenage detective shelved with the "grown up" books. And I just might write its author in a couple of months.

If you do make your own "Young Detectives" posts, let me know about it so I can link to it the next time I do one of mine. I already have a "C" book lined up.

Yes, it's a terrible photo . . . but Camera Man is in school.
See the telltale cross of ash?
I wrote this post for Shrove Tuesday, but delayed publication--
and now the evil of the Sorcerer's Skull has been put down by the power of Ash Wednesday!

Dear John Bellairs,

Greetings from the Church Militant! I wasn't sure whether to send this letter to the Church Triumphant or the Church Suffering, but I have a good feeling you'll get it in the end, no matter what.

I've just read my first book by you, the
The Secret of the Sorcerer's Skull--and it certainly took me long enough! There's something about this one which makes me wish I had become familiar with your novels much earlier and read most of them as a child. Based on what I've read, your stories have the cozy quality of warm, secluded book nooks that are perfect for rainy day reading but that only a child-sized body can comfortably squeeze into.

That doesn't mean I won't be trying more of your books, however! In fact, I'm now quite curious about the Mysteries featuring Anthony Monday and Lewis Barnavelt, because I want to see how they're different from Johnny Dixon, who is, of course, the protagonist of this book. And Anthony and Lewis are bound to be different, because otherwise you would have just written all those Mysteries for Johnny, who is a real sweetheart, and judging by your bibliography, your favourite.

One interesting thing I've noticed about Mysteries--which I'm sure you hardly need me to tell you--is how character-driven they really are. The plot might seem like straightforward problem solving, but no two detectives ever solve a case in the same way. Gilda Joyce, for instance, whom I wrote about in my A is for Allison post, is a psychic investigator who would
love a challenge like the curse of the Childermass clock and the disappearance of Professor Childermass. She would have dashed right in, setting up an Ouija board next to the clock and using a pendulum to locate the missing professor. She is very much the anti-Johnny--and I can hear your horrified reaction from where I sit. Gilda would never have cracked this case, would she?

There is something special about a timid, mild mannered boy whom one does not expect to get into as much trouble as he does without also causing it. Johnny Dixon's hesitant manner, far from holding him back, is probably his greatest asset. If he were any more of a go-getter, like Gilda, he would never have saved his friends' lives. In fact, he kind of reminds me of another literary detective known for his
innocence. Did G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown have any influence on the character of Johnny?

Which reminds me . . . When one's main sleuth is a pious, dutiful
altar boy, the priest becomes an important character, too. There are many ways he can help or hinder the young detective--many variations which depend on how much he lives up to his identity as an Alter Christus. I'm glad your Father Higgins is one of the good guys. Very glad--and very relieved. The world has changed quite a bit since your death, Mr. Bellairs, and it is next to impossible these days to read about a priest taking two of his pre-teen altar boys with him on a special overnight trip, without feeling some trepidation . . . and maybe even some collective guilt.

That note may not be the best one on which to end a "fan letter"--but we're about to step into Lent and I know you will understand. Please remember us, wherever you are.



Nota Bene: The Secret of the Sorcerer's Skull was supposed to be my "companion novel" to King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard, which I read for my Extraordinarily Cheddary Postmodern Steampunk Challenge (i.e., the Victorian Literature Reading Challenge). Remember that I want the Victorian classics to match up with the retro reads I'll be getting to for the YA of the 80s and 90s Challenge? Well, John Bellairs' name came up when I asked for recommendations, and I picked this one because it was the only title my favourite bookstore had in stock. Now, I'm glad I read it, but it doesn't quite line up with Haggard's Adventure novel. I can draw parallels between the characters of Johnny Dixon and Allan Quatermain, but not much else. I'm currently reading another contender for "companion novel": let's hope it works out.

YA of the 80s and 90s Reading Challenge


Kate said...

Thanks for the link! Yes, I missed this one on my unscheduled absence. I hope you continue reading Bellairs since he's well worth a read. The Lewis Barnavelt books are pretty popular, and Lewis is a very different character with some good, strong females in his life - I wrote a post once comparing the women in Bellairs, which are sadly few and far between, but two of the very strong ones show up in Lewis' books.

Happy reading to you, and thanks again for the link!

Enbrethiliel said...


Bellairs seems very much a "boy's writer"--which is not such a bad thing, considering how much harder it is to get boys reading. I don't think I would have minded the paucity of females in his books, had I read them earlier, as they would have given me a chance to insert my usual Sue self into the story. ;-)

Thanks again for the recommendation.