Sunday, June 5, 2022

The Clue in the Trees

The Clue in the Trees
by Margi Preus
Recommended Ages: 12+

Francie Frye, the sometime child star of a TV show about a girl detective, has transferred to a small-town high school in norther Minnesota for her senior year after helping solve a murder mystery on the remote lake where her two great-aunts live. She brings with her a reputation for meddling in local mysteries, which is the last thing she needs when she's just trying to fit in at a new school, earn good grades and try out for the school play. But before the school year even gets started, her long-absent older brother Theo turns up and drags her into a mysterious, cloak-and-dagger chase scene involving a figure actually wearing a trench coat and fedora.

To make things even more mysterious, the lead arecheologist in a mastodon bone dig at the lake turns up dead – and Francie has reason to suspect Theo of the murder. The more she digs, trying to prove his innocence, the worse it looks for Theo. Pretty soon the sheriff suspects him, and Francie, too. Meanwhile, Miss "I'm Not a Girl Detective But I Played One On TV" also can't resist digging, or rather, diving, for a silver box that she saw at a neighbor's house last summer, and that triggers one of her few early memories of her vanished mother. For some reason, somebody is willing to go to great lengths to keep her from finding it. But Francie is willing to go to great depths – even beneath the ice of a frozen lake. If that doesn't kill her, maybe the murderer will, as her search for answers to one mystery leads her dangerously close to the solution of the other.

This book plays with one's expectations in a fun way. You expect the sheriff, and everyone else, to tell Francie to steer clear of the mystery. What you don't expect is for the sheriff, her grandfather, her aunts and a teacher at the school to encourage her (more or less) in her inevitable investigation. Despite her protests of "I'm just here to live a normal life," they all know she's the one who's going to figure it all out. And a lot of people care about her – a couple of them, maybe, in a romantic way – which subtly influences you to care, too. So her danger makes your breath catch, and her need to know more about her mom is a feeling you share. Finally, the setting comes with its own colorful history and its own set of environmental, cultural and political concerns, which may interest you as well; the book concludes with an author's note that provides a sketch of these real-world components.

This is the second book in the "Enchantment Lake Mystery" trilogy, which hits me as if it was set in a thinly disguised version of the area where I live in northern Minnesota. The other installments in it are Enchantment Lake and The Silver Box. Margi Preus is also the author of the Newbery Honor book Heart of a Samurai as well as the young adult novels Shadow on the Mountain, West of the Moon, The Bamboo Sword, Village of Scoundrels, The Littlest Voyageur and, coming in September 2022, Windswept. Her children's picture books include the recent (May 2022) release Lily Leads the Way, and her nonfiction titles include Celebritrees: Historic and Famous Trees of the World.

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