Review - Poor plotting and insufficient science

4th May 2012 at 01:00

The publishing world works in mysterious ways. J.K. Rowling famously received multiple rejections before the first Harry Potter book was published. Lord of the Flies was rejected by 21 editors. F. Scott Fitzgerald was once told he would have a great book on his hands, if only he would "get rid of that Gatsby character".

And yet, somehow, Poison Most Vial made it into print. The idea behind the children's novel, by New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey, is actually quite a good one. It is a science murder mystery: teenage characters solve a murder, acquiring scientific knowledge along the way.

The aim, roughly, is to provide a full-length version of one of those "Peter and Jane have #163;3.50 to spend in a sweet shop" exam questions, humanising otherwise dry facts. Unfortunately, those exam questions are usually better written than this novel.

There is a plot, of sorts. Ruby Rose's father, the janitor (they are in the US) in a toxicology lab, is framed for murder. Ruby and her friend Rex, therefore, attempt to clear his name.

Decent murder mysteries, however, require deliberately tight, controlled plotting. Carey's is full of loose threads, with so many holes it may as well have been attacked by one of his characters' toxins.

His characters all speak in some sort of Jamaican patois, which has the effect of making them sound like a Catherine Tate parody. "Girl brought it all in today," says Rex. "How 'bout those laces? Skills. She got skills, a true fact."

Carey need not have tried so hard. Because, unadorned, his own prose reads exactly as though it were spoken by a 14-year-old. "He hated it, but it totally fit," he writes at one point. At another: "What was happening? People were stopping by to look, was what."

Elsewhere, his language is simply imprecise. Ruby, for example, thinks about her old friend Lillian, "who was avoiding her emails and texts". Really? Avoiding someone is not the same as ignoring them. At a distance - and with no word from Lillian - it is impossible to know which she is doing.

Such casual disregard for language is unfortunate at the best of times. In a science and mystery writer, it is unforgivable. The upshot is that reading Poison Most Vial feels like struggling to see a plot through a dirty glass window.

And the science part? Well, there is some - just - in there. But it always feels tacked on: somehow divorced from the overall context. "Insulin is a substance that helps the body's cells absorb the energy from food," announces a character (not entirely correctly). Put it like that and we may as well read a science textbook. It would be a darned sight more fun.

Poison Most Vial by Benedict Carey is published by Amulet Books.

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