Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

A mystery puzzle book! I loved the Westing Game by Raskin, and I had heard great things already about this book from some of my students in LIS403, Children's Lit. So I read it in one night, which was a both a blessing and a curse. It was a quick and breezy read. I felt no need to translate the coded messages, because the content was given by the context of the surrounding text.

What struck me as odd was the interweaving of a mystery-genre story with supernatural, almost ESP elements. Generally, mysteries are about discovery, finding out that what appeared mysterious is in fact explainable. In this book, the appealling-misfit characters Petra and Calder each have amazing "communications" from either a painting (in Petra's case) or from the letters formed by a set of pentominoes (Calder). And these communications are never explained, although the rest of the pieces eventually fall into place.

All the empowering things about a mystery novel, such as being able to figure the puzzle out along with the protagonist, or learning to be skeptical of the evidence presented to you, are in my mind defused by the presence of the supernatural information that the characters "pick up" in the world around them.

So it seemed a little mechanical to me. Great premise (a Vermeer has been stolen, these kids have to solve the mystery on their own) and good suspense, but the actual execution seemed a little flat somehow, a little mechanical.

There are ways of situating the fantastic in children's fiction. The wardrobe, which divides the real world from Narnia, or any number of other passages or tools such as the Subtle Knife represent one way of positioning the world of the fantastic as nearby to the world of the real. Near enough to be tantalizing to the reader, but accessible only through one magical portal. Harry Potter has elements of this in Platform 9 and 3/4. Artemis Fowl takes a similar approach--the fairy world is hidden, but all around us if we're observant, and yet the heart of the LEPrecon and the fairy world is still separated, deep underground. Gregor the Overlander uses the same trope.

In Chasing Vermeer, the kids have magical visions that come from somewhere, but the somewhere is never explained. I find it jarring to juxtapose the idea of telepathic communication with a painting with the process of logically piecing the clues together to solve a mystery.