Okay, this book is just awesome. Granted, when the alternative is working on a Sunday, it doesn’t take much to keep me engrossed. That being said, Evan Munday’s The Dead Kid Detective Agency kept me giggling all afternoon. I kept promising to read “just one more chapter” before getting back to work, then picking the book back up. It was just so much fun to read!
From the book jacket: Thirteen year old October Schwartz is new in town, short on friends, and the child of a clinically depressed science teacher. Naturally, she spends most of her time in the Sticksville Cemetery. While writing her novel Two Knives, One Thousand Demons, of which she admits the title is “the single best thing about the book so far,” October accidentally raises the spirits of five dead teenagers. When October’s French teacher dies in suspicious circumstances, she teams up with the dead kids to form the Dead Kid Detective Agency and solve the case. It’s Nancy Drew with ghosts, and these ghosts happen to love board games and musical theatre — how could I resist?
The mystery is more Scooby Doo than Agatha Christie — there are suspects galore, and the victim has some serious skeletons in his past, but Munday seems more concerned with creating an amusing caper than writing a truly perplexing whodunnit. The big reveal does come as a surprise, but the plot twist that leads to it feels more convenient than “aha”-inducing. That being said Dead Kid works for the same reason Scooby Doo does — it’s wild, it’s an adventure, and you can’t help but turn the page to see what Munday has planned next.
I don’t usually like narrators who provide commentary — I figure, give us the story, and let us make up our own minds. In the case of Dead Kid, however, the narrator’s personality is as much a character as October and the dead kids, and I love his snappy asides and geeky references. From page 6: “But even if her classmates didn’t know, October was sure they could smell the tween on her — the stench of Sour Keys and Saturday morning cartoons.” Not sure if it was the phrase “smell the tween on her” or the stench of Saturday morning cartoons, but with that line, I was hooked.
I love the dead kids, but just as entertaining are October’s live friends Stacey (a boy with a Walkman) and Yumi. In one scene, Stacey tells off a popular girl/bully in such a fitting way that I cheered out loud reading it. The standout, however, in terms of secondary characters, is October’s father. With a book so filled with wisecracks and pop culture references, I expected to be entertained, but I didn’t expect to be touched. Yet the subplot about October and her clinically depressed father is heartwarming. His awkward attempts to connect with his daughter, and October’s desire to learn more about her mother, make you want to just hug them both. Take this passage:
I had always imagined [...] all would be revealed on my thirteenth birthday, ten years after the fact. The anniversary was like some kind of mythic event; it would mark a new era of understanding. Mom would have this ultra compelling reason for ditching us, it would be obvious.
October admits this is “like some kind of tragic TV movie,” yet her offhandedness belies deep pain. And when her father “looked like someone had sprinkled broken glass inside his slippers” when October asks about her mother, such that October decides to rephrase her question as a joke, there is just so much going on beneath the humour. I cared for these characters — I wanted to hug them both, and to find out exactly what happened to October’s mother.
A couple of quick bonuses to this book: each of the dead kids has died under mysterious circumstances, so they’ll each then get a book dedicated to their mystery. Next up is the story of Morna MacIsaac, whose body had been found frozen in a snowy alley. Then there is the appendix of pop culture references in Dead Kid. Entries include Darth Vader (“Carries a lightsaber and (spoiler alert) is the dad of that Luke Skywalker kid”), Johnny Depp (“Do you really need to be told who the sexiest man alive is?”), and my personal favourite, Jackie Chan (“if you don’t know who Jackie Chan is, drop this book immediately and go rent Police Story 2 or Project A 2 or something. Forget The Karate Kid and Rush Hour. Go for the Hong Kong stuff. You’ll thank me later.”) This appendix is subtitled “Important Cultural History!” and all I can say is — it is indeed.
Hilarious, geeky pop culture fun and surprisingly touching, Dead Kid Detective Agency was an absolute joy to read. And any writer who says about Jackie Chan that readers should drop his book and watch Chan’s “Hong Kong stuff” makes an immediate fan of me. I finished this book on a Sunday afternoon and already look forward to Book 2.