The Southern Girl Novel. It’s pretty much a genre in and of itself in the children’s literary world. Some years produce more of them than others but they all tend to follow the same format. Sleepy town plus spunky girl equals mild hijinks, kooky townspeople, self-awakening, etc. After a while they all start to blend together, their details merging and meshing and utterly impossible to separate. I’m just mentioning all this as a kind of preface to Three Times Lucky. Sure, you can slap a Gilbert Ford cover on anything these days and it’ll look good. It’s how the insides taste that counts. And brother, the one thing I can say with certainty about Three Times Lucky is that you will never, but ever, mistake it for another book. We’ve got murder. We’ve got careening racecars. We’ve got drunken louts and amnesia and wigs and karate and all sorts of good stuff rolled up in one neat little package. I’ve read a lot of mysteries for kids this year and truth be told? This one’s my favorite, hands down.
It was just bad timing when you get right down to it. Dale just wanted to borrow Mr. Jesse’s boat for a little fishing and his best friend Mo LoBeau would have accompanied him if she hadn’t been working the town’s only café while her two guardians (the elegant Miss Lana and the amnesia-stricken Colonel) were unavailable. Then Mr. Jesse offered a reward for the boat, and that seemed worth taking advantage of. That was before he ended up dead. Caught inadvertently in the middle of a murder mystery, Mo decides to help solve the crime, hopefully without making Detective Joe Starr too angry in the process.
A good first page is worth its weight in gold in a children’s novel. I always tell the kids in my bookgroup to closely examine the first pages of any book they pick up. That’s where the author is going to clue you in and give you a hint of how splendid their writing skills are. Heck, it’s the whole reason I picked up this book to read in the first place. I had finished my other book and I needed something to read on the way home from work. Deciding amongst a bunch o’ books, I skimmed the first page and was pretty much hooked by the time I got to the bottom. It was this sentence that clinched it: “Dale sleeps with his window up in summer partly because he likes to hear the tree frogs and crickets, but mostly because his daddy’s too sorry to bring home any air-conditioning.” Aside from the character development, I’m just in awe of the use of that term “too sorry” which sets this book so squarely in North Caroline that nothing could dig it out.
Turnage’s writing just sings on the page. Naturally I had to see what else she’d created and the answer was a stunner. Mostly she’s done standard travel guides to places like North Carolina (no surprise) and some haunted inns. The kicker was her picture book Trout the Magnificent. It was her only other book for kids so I checked to see if my library had a copy. We most certainly do . . . from 1984. To my amazement, Ms. Turnage has waited a whopping twenty-eight years to write her next book. The crazy thing? It was worth the wait. I mean, I just started dog-earring all the pages with great lines. Here’s a sample:
- “I wouldn’t say stole . . . But I did borrow it pretty strong.”
- “By 7:30 half the town had crowded into the café and rising seventh grader Skeeter McMillan – tall, slender, freckles the color of fresh-sliced baloney – had claimed this counter’s last spot.”
- “The stranger looked slow around the café, his eyes the color of a thin winter sky.”
- “Miss Lana’s voice is the color of sunlight in maple syrup.”
- “Mr. Li started Karate Night at the café two years ago . . . I enjoy kicking others but would do better in an art that allows spitting.”
- “I used to think Dale was clumsy. Then I realized he only got clumsy when Mr. Macon took drunk.”
- “My voice is like a turkey gobble crammed in a corset, but nobody’s told me to stop singing, and I ain’t shy.”
- “Dale can choose not to worry like he chooses not to wear socks. Miss Lana says I have more of a Jack Russell brain. I think things apart for sport.”
- “I never forgive. I like revenge too much.”
I’ll stop there but you’ve got the gist of it. Woman knows how to lay two words together, you’ll give her that.
I’ve been reading a mess of children’s mysteries lately and there’s a trend amongst them that tends to bug me. I can understand why an author would hate the presence of cell phones in this day and age. Peril is so much less perilous when cops and parents are a mere dial tone away. To combat this potentially plot-sinking element, some authors set their books in the distant past (Two Crafty Criminals) and some just sort of try to pretend that cell phones don’t even exist (Ruby Redfort: Look Into My Eyes). I am a fan of neither one of these methods. What I am a fan of is how Ms. Turnage chose to diffuse the situation. Mo tells it to us straight right at the start. Cell phones aren’t used much in Tupelo Landing because the town is so backwater that reception is spotty at best. Suddenly landlines make a lot more sense and the tension can be beautifully ratcheted up at a moment’s notice without the inconvenient convenience of portable electronics.
As for the mystery itself, I liked it. I think a kid paying attention could identify the baddie if they wanted to and the ending is a slam-bang action finale, which is nice. The dead body was an interesting touch. Actual dead bodies in children’s books are always interesting. Kids love murder mysteries and that’s the long and short of it. They like Encyclopedia Brown and Cam Jansen just fine but if you ask them if they’d like those books a lot more if there was a corpse thrown in there every once in a while I suspect the answer would be a rousing yes. Trouble is, corpses by definition aren’t exactly “Ages 0-12” friendly. Even when you get one in a book for kids it’s usually a stranger. The idea of having a walking, talking character with a name and a personality show up dead by the hand of another in a book for children? Turnage throws that element into her book without so much as a bye-your-leave and darned if she doesn’t get away with it too. You know the guy who gets killed. Heck you even know who it will be by the end of the book’s first paragraph. Meeting him in retrospect makes the murder all the more interesting, and worry not squeamish parents. You never actually see the body itself. Just the murder weapon (mwah-ha-ha-ha!).
You can get a very different reading of a book by a 34-year-old woman and by a 12-year-old kid. For example, let us examine the case of the Colonel and Miss Lana. Turnage does not apprise us of their situation right off the bat. Reading this story makes you feel like you’re teasing facts out of the characters slowly. All we know at the beginning is that Mo is an orphan and lives with a guy named the Colonel and a woman named Miss Lana. That’s pretty much all a kid is going to care about, since it’s not like the personal lives of adults are all that much fun. But for adults like me? Heck, I was just dying to figure out what the nature of their relationship was. Are they shacking up together? They sure sound like an old married couple, though they’re certainly not together in that way. What is the deal? By the time you get to the end and all is explained you feel a bit baffled (and indeed one of the plot points doesn’t make a lot of sense when the secret is out) but I’m game and willing to go along with it.
The nearest equivalent that I’ve found to Turnage’s writing style isn’t a children’s author but the Southern novelist Bailey White. Turnage taps into that same kind of humor and drawl that White has perfected over the years. I didn’t even know we needed a kid-equivalent of Ms. White until I read this book. Now I’m wondering what can be done to up the number of Southern girl novels out there. As I mentioned before, in the past they’ve all sort of melded together in my brain. Now with the delight that is Three Times Lucky I’m going to hope for a kind of Southern kid Renaissance. Let’s see what we can’t do about getting more books like this one into the hands of children from all over the country. It’s got a murder for crying out loud. That’s gotta be good for something. A novel that hits on all cylinders. Grab it, read it, enjoy it, and find a kid to thrust it upon. Worth discovering.
On shelves May 10th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
First Sentence: “Trouble cruised into Tupelo Landing at exactly seven minutes past noon on Wednesday, the third of June, flashing a gold badge and driving a Chevy Impala the color of dirt.”
Notes on the Cover: Best known for creating the covers for Pseudonymous Bosch’s “Secret” series, there’s a fairly good chance that Ford’s style might lure in readers that are “Secret” fans and want something similar. And while this book isn’t exactly the same in terms of plot and tone, it’s my hope that maybe a couple kids will get so sucked it that they’ll read it cover to gorgeous cover. That’s the hope anyway. You can see the full cover with additional character silhouettes from the back here along with some justifiably rejected preliminary sketches (I’ve never approved of a final product so much in my LIFE!).
Like This Book? Then Try:
- Icefall by Matthew Kirby (for the mystery element)
- Freaky Fast Frankie Joe by Lutricia Clifton (for that small town feel)
- Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles (for that Southern flavor)
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