KIDDIE KRIMES: Murder Meets Marketing in The Agathas

On behalf of the thousands of teenagers that I taught for thirty-one years, all of whom deserve to have wonderful stories created for them, I would like to demand that the following cliches be retired from books, films, and television aimed at kids: 

  • Can we stop setting stories in tony California towns where the rich live in mansions, neglect their children, and sneer at the poor, while the poor live in motels, beat their children, and work for (and grumble about) the rich?
  • Can we never ever rely for characterization on a trip through the school cafeteria in order to see how the school is divided into cliques by where they sit? And if we must have that scene, could we maybe come up with some different cliques from the Mean Girls, the Jocks, the Stoners, the Band Nerds, etc., etc., etc . . . ??
  • And if we absolutely must include the cafeteria scene, can we at least not add the part where the Unclassified Newcomer and/or the Disgraced Rich Kid carry their tray into the room causing utter silence to ensue before they finally sit at an empty table???
  • Can teachers, principals, cops and authority figures in general ever get a break?!? 
  • Finally, can I sneak one in that’s just for me? I’ve learned to my peril that I cannot stop publishers from marketing this author or that novel as “a modern Agatha Christie!” So could we maybe establish some sort of quality control department whose sole task is to examine these books before they are published and somehow fix them? 

Okay, okay, I’ll admit that I’m coming to this review in a grumpy state of mind! The International Agatha Christie Festival is currently live and underway in Torquay, and, as you might guess . . . I’m not there! There will be no signing of my copy of Lucy Worsley’s new Christie biography, no cheering on at the live editions of All About Agatha or Shedunnit, no passing the time with Drs. Curran, Aldrich, or Bernthal-Hooker, even as I remember how many doctors in Christie were murderers . . . 

Instead of moping about, I’ve been trying all week to steep myself in Christie. There are rehearsals every night for the upcoming production of Murder on the Nile. Ms. Worsley’s biography is sitting on my bedside table, and the slightly controversial collection of new Miss Marple stories should arrive at my door by next Tuesday. I’m also gearing up to read one of my Christie novels, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, in preparation for the next Spoiler Warning podcast with Jim Noy and Moira Redmond. (Oh dear, could that really be our last . . . ?)

In the midst of all this, I have to confess that I fell into a marketing TRAP when I visited my favorite used bookstore to buy mystery novels for my Secret Santa (yes, it seems early, but I think they’ll be pleased). The store has a large room devoted to books for young people, old and new – that is, the books and the targeted age range is old and new – and I spotted this new novel called The Agathas, a first collaboration by YA authors Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson.  My first thought was, oh, the chutzpah of these people! Did they actually name their book after my favorite author? And, by implication, do they expect me to pick this up and read a mystery inspired by the Queen of Crime??

My second wave of feelings could be described as various states of envy: it’s no secret that for years I’ve wanted to write my own mystery for kids that would no doubt be inspired by my love for Christie. Had I once again been beaten to the punch? Was there any way I could actually enjoy this book or review it objectively? I looked at the top of the front cover, at the quote from Karen M. McManus, an author who has made a cottage industry of high school mysteries with One of Us Is Lying and its ilk: “Part Agatha Christie, part Veronica Mars, and completely entertaining.” I perused the back cover, where another author writes: “Agatha Christie would be proud.”

Would she, though? 

It turns out that crafting an homage to Christie is the least of it here, for Glasgow and Lawson are channeling a lot of pre-existing crime industries. In setting the book in a town called Castle Cove, they spark a memory of both Cabot Cove (Murder, She Wrote) and Crystal Cove (The Scooby Doo Online Game), and there is certainly a touch of the “Rooby-Roo!” vibe in the book. The sharp divide between rich and poor in the town, as well as certain elements of the case, directly calls to mind the first season of Veronica Mars, a TV series I happen to love. This also feels like the latest incarnation of a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew adventure where a bunch of close friends get together to solve crimes, only this time they drop the F-bomb a lot. In fact, if this novel had been called The Missing Chums and had been an homage to all the detectives that live in kids’ hearts, I might have different feelings about my reading experience.

But, honestly, if it hadn’t been called The Agathas, I might not have bought this book. The authors know this, and their publishers know it, too (read the acknowledgments at the end I cannot fault Glasgow or Lawson, both experienced YA authors, for wanting to channel the Queen of Crime while joining together to craft the first mystery for both of them. I also must remember that I am not the target audience for this book. But then, Glasgow and Lawson (and Delacorte Press) should be aware that a rabid Christie fan, no matter what their age, might show interest in this book, that at least some of these fans might be crabby bloggers (well, especially crabby this week!), and that we just might let everyone know what we think of The Agathas

The story is told in alternating narratives by two high schoolers, Alice Ogilvie and Iris Adams. I smell a series here, so it’s important that we like these characters, and I’ll say right off the bat that I very much liked Iris and Alice grew on me a little. Their background stories suffer from a lack of imagination that makes everything a little trite: “poor little rich girl” Alice is wholly neglected by her movie star mother and international businessman dad, while Iris and her bartender mom have a restraining order out on her abusive father. It all plays out as you would expect, so let’s get to the mystery . . . 

Wealthy mean girl Brooke Donovan disappears from the annual Rich Kids’ Halloween Party after having a very public fight with her basketball-star boyfriend Steve and a skirmish with Steve’s ex-girlfriend. A few days later, her body is discovered washed up on the Central California shore, and it seems clear that Brooke fell – or was pushed – from the cliffs above. Steve, who was acting disoriented the morning after the party and could not account for his time, is arrested for Brooke’s murder. 

Alice has quite a personal stake in the goings-on here: she happens to be Steve’s aforementioned ex-girlfriend, and she used to be Brooke’s best friend before Steve hooked up with Brooke. Also, Alice has the oddest quirk: at some point in her life (it’s never made clear), she has read and memorized everything ever written by Agatha Christie, and this inspires her to play detective and prove that the thick-headed police force has arrested the wrong guy. 

Alice lives and breathes Agatha Christie, and while I can relate, I never for a moment bought the idea that a teenager would be so hung up on Christie’s life and writing that, after breaking up with her boyfriend, she would drive off and disappear for a week because “that’s what Agatha would do.” I also know for a fact that even reading every one of her mysteries – some of them over and over again – is not a primer for capable detective work. 

This was ironically my least favorite part of the book, this surface homage to Christie, whom the authors refer to in their dedication as “one bad bitch,” and her two major sleuths, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple (also referred to here as a “badass”). If Alice acts like any of Christie’s heroes, it’s Tuppence Beresford, who gets nary a mention. And why does such a well-read Christie fan take no note of the fact that her school counselor is named Ms. Westmacott? Sometimes, too, there are assumptions made about the canon which are problematic or simply wrong, such as Alice’s insistence on holding a meeting in her conservatory because “a bunch of (Christie’s) books and plays have scenes set in conservatories.” I asked a group of fellow fans to name one scene in Christie that was set in a conservatory. This led to an interesting discussion about summerhouses and such, but it was hard to come up with one example.

An actual conservatory . . . nice, isn’t it?

Fortunately, Alice does not have to go it alone. Enter Iris, who is everything Alice is not: a good student, an empathetic person, and quite funny, despite the dark threat hanging around her family. Her group of stoner/techie/D&D friends make a pleasant enough “Scooby Gang,” even if they remind us of characters we have met time and time again, in Stranger Things and Mean Girls and Freaks and Geeks and countless teen movies. Ms. Westmacott forces the two girls together when she orders Iris to tutor Alice, and again we have a rushed version of the “opposites repel then attract” trope that marks too much easy reliance on old storylines. But the two girls form a nice friendship and help each other grow, although I fully expected (and hoped) that at some point Iris, who has never heard of Agatha Christie would shut down Alice, who tends to quote the author on every other page. 

I imagine that most teen readers will figure out whodunnit as quickly and as easily as I did, but there are some affecting scenes of the girls trying to deal with the specific loneliness of their own existence and starting to realize how their friendship can bridge a lot of social and emotional gaps in their lives. The Agathas is an adequate addition to the pantheon of teen mysteries, and the hints at the end of a sequel suggest more interesting cases than that got them started may be ahead. But honestly, if they will compare this book to Nancy Drew, to Veronica Mars, to Agatha Christie, for God’s sake . . . then my suggestion is that you skip this one and head on over to the originals. 

10 thoughts on “KIDDIE KRIMES: Murder Meets Marketing in The Agathas

  1. Thanks for that overview of The Agathas. I drip with so much ickiness for cliched young adult fiction, especially when it swings the mystery way. I’m glad people are being introduced to mystery but these girls (I assume mostly young-ish girls are the hoped-for audience?) are using up their finite cache of words. One day you do come to an end. Why shouldn’t they try the real stuff? It’s not like young adults can’t “get it”.

    Hey, tho! Break a leg with your show! Ironically I was supposed to be in Berkley the end of September (all the way from the deep South, too) and I would have loved to come over and see it. We’ll just have to keep up with the reviews as they are published. Can’t wait to hear how it goes.


    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Mahlon! I expect ONE review from the local paper, but hey! I’m having fun! As for the book . . . I started reading Christie herself at the age of eleven. Based on the mature language and situations in The Agathas, I would say the target audience is mid-teens, which is a tough group to induce to read for pleasure. What’s odd is that I think few kids would relate to the stereotyped rich and poor kids featured here. And as for kids reading it for the mystery, this doesn’t come close to the cleverness of even an average Christie.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. After reading this review, I wondered why “Castle Cove” sounded so familiar. Now I remember:

    It’s probably one of the best known episodes of Murder she Wrote, with a former student of Jessica’s writing a scandalous novel in a fictional town named “Castle Cove” and having her characters be very thinly disguised versions of the inhabitants of Cabot Cove. Then someone gets killed the same way as their fictional counterpart in the Castle Cove book.

    I love the episode, because it really brings the village/small town setting to life with all the gossip and outrage over the book. The mystery itself is for Murder She Wrote standards not too shabby either. At least it has a clue that I still remember.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Could a teenage girl (especially a rich and probably spoiled one) really disappear for a whole week in these wired times? Could ANY teen go without a phone for that long? Not to mention the credit and debit cards leaving a trail. Of course, there’s the possibility that no one would WANT to find Alice!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh definitely. Teenage girls go missing all the time. Not that many years ago, remember Natalee Holloway from Birmingham? Went missing while on holiday in Aruba. Never found. Joran van der Sloot was suspected of murdering her and is serving 28 years in Peru for another murder which came to light 5 years after Natalee Holloway’s case. So, yeah. Definitely, wealthy people go missing all the time. Same as middle class and lower class.

      Liked by 1 person

      • In answer to Marty’s question as far as the novel goes, an explanation for Alice’s disappearance is briefly provided and is unsatisfactory on many levels. First, it utilizes a tawdry old theory about Christie’s reason for disappearing and passes it off as fact, and second it suggests that Alice’s international financier dad and movie star mom didn’t really look.


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