Gosh, it seems like I've just hated everything I've read lately, doesn't it? Peter and the Starcatchers got the big raspberry, I got all kvetchy about Peak, and The Name of this Book is Secret just didn't ring any bells for me. I haven't even put up my review of The Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson, and just as a preview? it's not 100% positive either.
Skulduggery Pleasant is Derek Landy's first book for children, and the second is already in the can, which is a Very Good Thing. His characters are broadly drawn, meaty, yet precise - like Chinese calligraphy done with a big fat brush dripping with ink. The dialogue is snappy, with some fun deconstructionist bits; and the plot is just twisty enough: not even the very close listener Mr. Four could find any holes.
But the real revelation here is Skulduggery Pleasant himself, a several-hundred-year-old living skeleton working as a freelance detective. He's urbane. He's competent. He's noble. He knows it. And his wit is very, very, very dry. He puts me in mind of James Bond, if Clive Owen had gotten the job. Or Indiana Jones, perhaps as played by Hugh Grant.
It's fairly unusual in contemporary children's literature to find a leading man per se: that is, an adult male that carries the book. Adult males are villains (say, Voldemort), or guides (Dumbledore), or surrogate fathers who aren't around much either (Sirius Black), but it's usually the eleven-year-old orphan who is the center of attention. Skulduggery Pleasant is written from the point of view of its main female character, an eleven-year-old girl named Stephanie Edgely, but it's Skul who drives the action. He's more than a mere guide for Stephanie. It's interesting, and I think it's because Derek Landy's background is in screenwriting rather than children's literature. My guess is that nobody told him.
Which is not to say that Stephanie falls by the wayside. More than your usual preternaturally resourceful girl protagonist, she is written from the inside out, and feels very real, though a bit devoid of background. Even her parents, bit players for sure, are people who you feel you kind of know.
A word about the audio edition - GET THE AUDIO EDITION. Like the Lemony Snicket books read by Tim Curry, it has original music: deep, jazzy bass, thumps of percussion, fingersnaps and distant screams; and, also like those books, it is read by a MASTER of vocal characterization.
Rupert Degas is apparently a voice superstar in the UK, with everything from Bob the Builder to Haruki Murakami on his resume, but this is the first time I've heard him. He reads an Irish tween girl as convincingly as an adult woman from London, and he has a vast repertoire of deep, hoarse, whispery, creaky, etc. that he gleefully applies to everyone else in the book. The cackling, gibbering, transforming Troll under Westminster Bridge should win this guy an Audie all by itself. We've played that chapter "about a hundred and sixty-seven times, and it KEEPS GETTING FUNNIER EVERY SINGLE TIME"!
When we finished the audio book this afternoon, my two boys and I were left craving more Skulduggery, and there it was! a bonus track featuring an interview with the man himself: relaxed, egotistical, coy, and dead-on funny. Can't wait for the sequel.