The Red Blazer Girls: The Ring of Rocamadour
I should come clean about this now: I was a total mystery addict as a kid. Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, and The Boxcar Children were my favorites. I jumped at the chance to review a new mystery that claimed to follow in the same tradition.
The Red Blazer Girls: The Ring of Rocamadour, by New York City high school teacher Michael D. Beil, has the requisite Nancy Drew cover homage: three girls sneaking through dark shadows. A call-out graphic promises, “A puzzling mystery! A mystery with puzzles!” Three hundred pages made for a satisfying heft in my hand. Before I started reading, I found myself wondering if a story written by a male teacher could realistically communicate the distinct voices of three modern young women.
The answer is... sort of. The way the girls act is modern, funny, and intelligent, but I found the dialogue a bit flat. It’s like a pastiche of the slightly stilted cadence more associated with Nancy Drew and her sidekicks, Bess and George. Once I accepted this, the book was a fun, well-paced blast. Encouragements to have a go at solving clues made up of word puzzles and numerical equations before turning the page are good-natured and persuasive. I found myself willingly stretching my brain into mathematical shapes I hadn’t attempted since eighth grade, and was rewarded by more twists and excitement as the story led to its gripping and well-constructed conclusion.
Beil’s characterizations are thoughtful and thorough. The three young detectives are strong, positive role models. They are seen working hard at several academic subjects and looking cool doing so, challenging bullying behavior within their own friendship group, and supporting friends to pursue their ambitions. Their client, introduced as a "mad old lady," could easily have remained one-dimensional, but is instead developed into a quirky and capable character in her own right. Beil also seems to have written himself into the story as the girls’ Dickens-loving English teacher who regularly supports their escapades, which, while indulgent, makes their adventures more plausible.
I discovered fairly quickly that the girls attend a Catholic school. The story swiftly introduces the school, its affiliated church, and likable clergymen--all of which become important to the plot. Indeed, the mystery itself involves treasure hunters searching for an ancient relic. Organized religion in general and Catholicism in particular can be divisive topics, particularly when viewing this book from a feminist perspective, so I felt it was important to mention it. The book’s promotional material and website leave this information out, which seems slightly, but needlessly, clandestine. It was actually very refreshing to read a book where cultural, rather than religious, Catholicism is presented in a way that felt realistic and honest to me as a New Yorker from a half-Catholic (both practicing and ‘recovering’) background.
Speaking of the website, it was pretty sparse in general, which isn’t in keeping with the gadget-tastic lives of these modern girls. Knopf is doing Beil and his readers a disservice and should up their web presence to maintain interest until the next book. (Jasper Fforde’s playful, literary-based mysteries for grownups have outstanding supporting material online, for example.)
By the end of the book, I’d decided that The Red Blazer Girls: The Ring of Rocamadour did live up to its promises, and was clearly written by a fan of the genre. I think it would best suit ten- to twelve-year-olds. I’d also certainly recommend this book to Catholic school libraries in the U.S. and abroad, because it does present a very hip and modern image of the school, teachers, and priests. Parents who choose to limit their children’s organized religion intake shouldn’t dismiss The Red Blazer Girls: The Ring of Rocamadour, though; it doesn’t proselytize, and its setting provides a unique world that will make this series stand out.
I suspect even Nancy Drew would enjoy it.