Identity crises

5th April 1996 at 01:00
The Midnight Detectives, By Carole Lloyd, Julia MacRae Pounds 8.99. Sticky Fingers, By Roger Collinson, Andersen Press Pounds 8.99. The Survival of Arno Mostyn, By Sara Garland, Collins Pounds 8.99.

Detective fiction for the late junior age range is fighting back against the continuing supremacy of horror. Bookshops now shelve Agatha Christie in children's sections. At least one of the titles under consideration here has echoes of the wonderful Paul Berna, but not all readers aged nine to 11 have developed the appetite for novels of the length of his A Hundred Million Francs, and the 100-page barrier is sometimes a long time in the breaching. These three short novels can be highly recommended to those still the wrong side of it.

Carole Lloyd made her mark six years ago, with The Charlie Barber Treatment, an excellent novel for older readers about a 15-year-old boy coping with the death of his mother. She is on lighter, fresher ground in The Midnight Detectives. Nevertheless, this book has the sensitivity and atmosphere which readers of older teen fiction will find familiar.

Michael (or Mick, or Mikey) befriends Dan (who turns out to be a girl) and together they spy on his older brother Angelo, from the branches of an apple tree he is forbidden to climb, because he fell out of it when he was five years old. Angelo seems to be up to no good, so Michael and Dan set up surveillance. What they discover is treated with subtlety and nuance.

These qualities are deliberately lacking in Roger Collinson's wacky and vibrant Sticky Fingers. The back cover broadcasts the fact that the climax of the story occurs at a school's summer fayre. Unpromising, I thought. This is Collinson's sixth book for Andersen but I was a fresh initiate to his gutsy and gritty humour, which can't help but appeal to any honest rogue aged nine to 15. It is terrifically well written. In fact, too well written for struggling readers, who may be encouraged to select it by its slimness and eye-catching Tony Ross cover. Collinson is a supremely confident, omniscient narrator, with a welcome penchant for addressing the reader directly, in a manner of "Now, you and I . . ."

The plot involves a goody called Buzz, and a baddy who speaks with all the dropped aitches and gruff indelicacy of a Burglar Bill. These are cartoon characters (in the best sense) who create an escapist world in which showdogs excrete stolen gems. Wonderful.

Less fluent readers can practise their skills on The Survival of Arno Mostyn, a more straightforward large-print novel. Again, the outlined plot is unpromising. Son Arno, resents single mother's new boyfriend. But that proves to be just the subtext, and not one that is essential to the main action, which concerns an artefact stolen from a museum. Told in the first person, with trenchant italicised asides at the end of chapters, and interspersed with quirky full-page illustrations, it has a good, heroic climax, only slightly spoiled by a return to that annoyingly pat subtext.

All these books contain choppily authentic dialogue, so often the weak spot in children's fiction. Carole Lloyd, in particular, has a fine ear for the way in which adults speak to one another in the presence of children.

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