The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett, with illustrations by Adam Rex
I read a lot of funny middle-grade boy books. I, in fact, have something of a subspecialty in "If you liked Diary of a Wimpy Kid." SIGH. *I* didn't even like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Although the author sent me a really nice email thanking me for my extremely ambivalent review. Jeff Kinney = classy guy. No matter what you think of Greg Heffley.
So I end up using the words "goofy," "silly," "cute," and, when I'm feeling not-so-inspired, "funny," in my reviews kind of a lot. Every now and then I have a chance to bust out "witty." Not that often. Binky the Space Cat got a "witty" from me, for its winking and generous portrayal of Binky, an overweight housecat training to be an astronaut. The True Meaning of Smekday I called witty. Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant (which probably also got an "urbane"). And - not coincidentally - these are three of my hands-down favorite middle-grade books EVAR.
Joined now by this first book in what I hope will be a long long long (think Hardy Boys, Barnett - hope you're not doing anything for the next ten or twelve years) series of detective novels starring preteen everyman Steve Brixton and his honorary brother and actual best friend, Dana.
WITTY. This book. Wit to the Tee. There is a prom limo. There is a thug who is "nasty, brutish," and (you guessed it) "short." Mac Barnett even takes a swipe at the ALA's READ posters - truly, truly a man after my own fuggin' heart.
Our protagonist, Steve, a naturally bright kid to begin with, has been thoroughly schooled in the habits and techniques of solving mysteries by his heroes, Shawn and Kevin Bailey, cleancut, midcentury all-American boys who are not only ace teen sleuths but also varsity athletes! The Bailey Brothers' tips (haymaker punches, complicated knots, How To Spot a Scoundrel (hint: they limp)) come in handy when Steve tries to check out an old library book and is suddenly surrounded by a SWAT team of secret library agents!
Except - not only are Shawn and Kevin fictional, they're also conspicuously Golden Age. In the few instances when their advice isn't actually dangerous (Have to jump out of a second-story window? Roll when you hit the ground! Need a hiding place? Behind an airplane propellor is a good spot!), it's ludicrously old-fashioned.
Nice disguise, huh? Luckily, Steve is resourceful and knowledgeable and persistent - and heals fast - plus, all his experience reading detective novels has sharpened his deductive reasoning to a fine point.
The chapters are short, the funny is abundant, and the clues are all there. I'll bet my mom (an inveterate mystery reader) would have figured it out. But neither I nor my 8-year-old did. Listen: I kept reading this book even after the kids were in bed, my husband was out watching the Browns get creamed again (sorry honey) and I had those horny Southern vampires all cued up on the DVD player. I totally needed to see how it ended.
Oh wait - did I forget to mention Adam Rex's illustrations? Again? Adam Rex is brilliant. (I can't wait to read the forthcoming Fat Vampire - Laura, where's my copy?) Adam Rex's illustrations push this thing over the edge - from well-written serial fiction, exceptional grist for the mill of the middle-grade reader's imagination - to something that you could absolutely give as a gift. The cover and spine are exciting and packed full of things to look at, while echoing the format of older hardcover series fiction.
What I need now is MORE.