Sunday, July 19, 2015

Crime Is Serious - But Not So Much, in Gesternstadt, Bavaria: P. J. Brackston

Humorous mysteries come in wildly diverse shapes. There are the capers that Donald Westlake gave us, burglars and other petty criminals dashing around cities, slipping on figurative banana peels as they struggle to complete their crimes. There are the very dangerous Stephanie Plum investigations from Janet Evanovich, with the threat of pulling a muscle from laughing too hard at this Jersey Girl's detective work and allies. Not yet well known, but wonderful, are the "Junior Bender" books written by Timothy Hallinan, a cross between a Westlake caper and a heartbreak (no, I won't explain now -- but click here to know more).

But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that compares to P. J. Brackston's marvelous "Brothers Grimm Mysteries" featuring, in 18th-century Bavaria, the amazing Gretel (yes, that Gretel) and her eating-disordered but charming brother Hans, still sorting out their PTSD from that disastrous episode with the witch and the gingerbread house. Gretel is a very successful private investigator herself, weaving deftly among the political realities of kings, princesses, and "Kingsmen" (the police) -- but even with her local background in Jack (the one who planted the beans and climbed the beanstalk) and his family, she's had no preparation for coping with what this particular investigation demands, in ONCE UPON A CRIME.

It sounds simple enough at first -- Frau Hapsburg swears three of her cats (among more than two dozen) have been kidnapped and she has plenty of money to pay Gretel to take the case of tracking them down, even rescuing them. But after accepting a hefty deposit, Gretel checks in with a fortune-telling friend who's pretty accurate with a Tarot deck. The mention of a tall handsome stranger in the reading is something she figures is a put-on; it's the mention of a troll that has her worried. Good thinking.

I delayed several serious chores, in order to stick with Gretel in her perils. Is the king's executioner really going to take off her head? What was that about torture on the rack? Is that tall, dark stranger really interested in her? And how on earth did Hans come up with some real skills to assist Gretel in her work?

Come on, let go of any prejudice against a fairy-tale environment -- if you've read Jasper Fforde, you already know it's great grounds for crime and crimesolving, and Brackston's writing won't demand the literary background of Fforde's; those half-remembered stories will do you just fine for case background. I promise the plot makes sense, the characters (when not covered with mud) are endearing, and the insights into Gretel's thinking are good detective work, no matter how the costumes appear. Consider this moment as Gretel gets a good massage to make up for a trying visit to said troll:
She now knew someone was snatching the cats, or, more accurately, having the cats snatched. She knew also that this person lived over the mountains one day hence. Furthermore, she knew that the troll knew who this person was. In addition, she had a rare insight into the life, habits, and singular desires of trolls, but she decided against counting this as a plus of any sort. She had also deduced that the troll was more involved than he was letting on, given the missing finger on the corpse ... the only way to discover the identity of the cat collector was to obtain a human finger and take it to said troll.

"Argh!" she cried, as the masseur found a particularly sensitive spot.

"Fraulein, you have been overworking these muscles. It is important to build up stamina before attempting any serious activity."

Gretel groaned. "Needs must. Besides, I'm not sure what the recommended training would be before encountering trolls."
 Oh, I know, you're still skeptical. I can't blame you -- if Pegasus Books hadn't started me on Brackston's series with Gretel and the Missing Frog Prints (not a typo) last winter,  I might have missed out. This series sounds more than a little crazy, right?

But Brackston's books are fun, lively, well-written, inventive -- and they honor all the expectations for a well-knitted mystery, with a great balance of red herrings (or capes, or shoes) and useful clues and entertaining distractions. Didn't you promise yourself that you wouldn't take life so seriously? Here's a great way to start!

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