The Case of the Missing Moonstone (2015), by Jordan Stratford

17 December 2016

stratford-moonstoneIllustrated by Kelly Murphy.

Jordan Stratford begins the notes at the back of The Case of the Missing Moonstone by telling us that “the year 1826 itself is practically a character in the book,” and it seems that in fact the year 1826 might just be the most historically accurate character in the book. In his story, Stratford brings together a plethora of well-known historical personages (Ada Lovelace and her half-sister Allegra Byron, Mary Godwin and her step-sister Jane (Claire) Clairmont, Charles Babbage, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Dickens), adjusting their ages, rewriting their characters, and conflating their stories to construct his narrative. He provides factual accounts of each of their lives in his notes, wherein he explains his decisions, and how the real historical characters were connected (and they all are, in interesting and complicated ways).

The novel opens with the unconventional young Ada being upgraded from a governess to a tutor. Mary Godwin is introduced into the equation when she comes to learn with Ada under the tutelage of Percy Bysshe Shelley—Peebs, as Ada calls him, based on his initials. The two girls form The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, named after Mary’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous advocate for women’s rights. As such an enterprise would be unacceptable for young ladies in their time (Mary Wollstonecraft’s advocacy notwithstanding), the young Charles Dickens is co-opted as their courier. At the end of the novel, the girls are joined by Allegra and Jane, in preparation for the sequels to follow.

The two protagonists’ reflect the complementary strengths of their namesakes: while Ada Lovelace is famous as a mathematician, Mary Shelley—as Mary Godwin eventually became—is known for her literary prowess, writing Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818. “In real life,” Stratford tell us, “Mary was eighteen years older than Ada … But I thought it would be more fun this way—to cast these two luminaries as friends.” Despite that Stratford does tell us that Percy Bysshe Shelley “ran off with sixteen-year-old Mary to Switzerland, and they were married two years later,” the difference between his Mary Godwin and Mary Shelley the author is not only striking but problematic. It would be difficult, however, to create a novel for middle-school readers that tells the truth of the extremely unconventional lifestyles that Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary, and her step-sister Jane (Claire) Clairmont (who was the real Allegra Byron’s mother) engaged in before Shelley’s early death by drowning. “While in reality Peebs had died even before our story begins, I have extended his life so that he, Ada, and Mary can be in this story together.” “As with Mary,” Stratford continues, “Jane’s timeline is moved so that she can be young alongside Mary and Ada,” and “in real life, Allegra died of fever at the age of five.”

These alterations do a great disservice to young readers; Stratford’s intent of creating an engaging story peopled with historical figures is perhaps well intentioned, but more problematic than effective. Young readers interpret story as reflecting reality in some way: the expressive-realist error, no doubt, but not surprising in the middle-school audience this mystery is intended for. While it is fascinating to read a well-written novel set in a historical period and learn from the research the author has engaged in, when it is difficult to discern where history ends and fiction begins, the novel becomes far less valuable as a vehicle of knowledge acquisition—which young readers will take it to be.

It really is a shame that Stratford plays so lose and easy with the characters, as his research is strong, and he incorporates the factual history smoothly into his story. Ada is brilliantly constructed as an excessively intelligent young girl, with strong characteristics of high-functioning Asperger’s. Anyone who lives with such a child will recognize both the frustrating and the rewarding aspects of living with someone like Stratford’s Ada. Ada’s mathematical and scientific investigations are described in just enough detail to inform the reader without boredom, and the dynamics between the socially oblivious Ada and the more psychologically astute Mary are delightful. When the characters are this engaging, and the plot interesting and well constructed, we can forgive the author some degree of liberty with historicity.

And herein lies another issue with The Case of the Missing Moonstone, at least for me: as I read through it, having suspended my disbelief regarding the characters—I quite enjoyed Ada’s youthful eccentricities and Mary’s rampant imagination—I couldn’t help but feel that I had read this plot before… The title should have been a dead giveaway, but it didn’t occur to me that an author would unabashedly copy an earlier plot.

Again in his notes, Stratford is entirely forthcoming, telling us about Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), commonly accepted as the first detective novel written in English. “Our mystery,” he admits, “is a nod to some of the elements of this classic.” More than just a nod, Mr. Stratford, when your plot can be so readily anticipated through knowledge of Wilkie Collins’s. Middle-school readers will almost certainly not have read The Moonstone, so we can see how Stratford’s idea that “it would be fun to have the world’s first computer programmer and the world’s first science-fiction author solving the world’s first fictional detective mystery” could appeal. The writing is of course all Stratford’s, and he has an effective authorial voice, hints of sarcasm underlying the more straightforward narrative that young readers will really enjoy. But yet the novel bothers me. The use of an already well-known and successful premise, the drastically changed biographies of well-known historical figures: for me, these infringe upon my appreciation of the strong characterization of Ada and the interesting explorations of nineteenth-century science and literature. If it were only Ada, with a supporting cast of unknowns, in a story with an original plot… but it is not, and it is up to my readers to decide to what degree the lack of historicity and originality impacts their enjoyment. For me, it was too much.

Post-Human (2009), by David Simpson

Accepting that Post-Human is self-published by David Simpson, a young Vancouver author, we can overlook a number of publishing and editorial mistakes.  The plot itself is original and interesting: humankind has approached physical perfection through the introduction of nanobots into our bodies.  When a universal update goes devastatingly wrong, a few scientists momentarily off-line on Venus are saved.  The plot revolves around their search for other surviving humans, and their battle against the A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) that has taken over control of the nanosystem.  Concepts in the story remind one strongly of M. T. Anderson’s Feed (2002) melded with William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), but Simpson has introduced a number of interesting elements that bear consideration by those readers interested in contemplating where modern and futuristic technology will take the human race.  The strongest success in the novel is the characterization; Simpson’s ethnically interesting mix of characters avoids stereotypes and allows us to engage readily with individuals on both sides of the human conflicts that develop.  Overall, a very interesting novel that suffers most from a lack of professional editing and publication.

Dragons in the Waters (1976), by Madeleine L’Engle

Another win for Madeleine L’Engle, the mystery writer. Dragons in the Waters, like The Arm of the Starfish (1965), presents a well-structured, interesting mystery set in exotic climes, this time aboard a steam cruiser headed from America to Venezuela.  Again, Poly O’Keefe, Calvin and Meg’s oldest daughter, is a central character, this time joined by her two-year-younger brother Charles, whose dreams are sometimes visions. This tendency to the paranormal is artfully introduced in The Arm of the Starfish, when Charles’s seemingly irrational tears are noted as foreshadowing crisis: in that case, the death of a friend. In Dragons in the Waters, his dreams help steer the children’s understanding of the complex relationships between the adults aboard the ship, and ultimately the informal investigation of the murder of one of them. The plot is tight and leaves no loose ends; the characterization is up to L’Engle’s usual high standards.

One interesting aspect of Dragons in the Waters (that is also present in a significant degree in A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), which shares other characteristics) is the exploration of an indigenous culture, in this case the fictional Quiztano tribe.  As in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, L’Engle does not tackle the lived experiences of a real indigenous tribe, but nonetheless does present a sympathetic relationship between the more forward-thinking Americans (i.e.: the Murry-O’Keefe family and their friends) and historically disadvantaged cultures. I would love to see what Native American reviewer Debbie Reese thinks of these texts and L’Engle’s representation of indigenous cultures… From my privileged, very White perspective, I think she has done a good job. Her Quiztanoes are healers.  While the ancestor of the children’s friend Simon is responsible for helping the Quiztanoes to build “Caring Houses” (explicitly different from hospitals), which seems like yet another “White-man-teaches-the-Native-a-better-way” trope, L’Engle is careful to have Quentin Phair—the ancestor—be a flawed individual, with some positive ideals. The balance is there in his life as well as his accomplishments; all he brings to the Quiztanoes is a sense of how to strengthen their own culture and way of living so that seven generations later it can still exist in a world dominated by American and European powers. Ultimately, their culture is shown to provide for Simon what American society no longer can, which is a very powerful commentary on what really matters in life.

The Arm of the Starfish (1965), by Madeleine L’Engle

Well, I am glad I listened to my friend’s sincere request that I read The Arm of the Starfish (1965) and Dragons in the Waters (1976) before I abandon Madeleine L’Engle… and I find it extremely interesting that The Arm of the Starfish was written between A Wrinkle in Time (1962) and A Wind in the Door (1973), in fact, only three years (so, for an author, fairly immediately) after A Wrinkle in Time. The story centres on young Adam Eddington, who has been sent to Europe to work with Dr. O’Keefe (Calvin, that is). There, he is caught up in corporate intrigues and torn between the alluring young Kali and Calvin and Meg’s eldest daughter, Poly.

The Arm of the Starfish is not science fiction, nor is it the questionable fantasy that L’Engle engaged in later. It is, in fact, pure espionage, delivered successfully to a younger reading audience. My one disappointment was young Adam’s inability to discern the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” Granted he is only 16, and granted he is enticed by a beautiful young socialite, but with his years of association with “Old Doc” Didymus, you think that he’d have developed a sufficient degree of loyalty not to be immediately and disastrously swayed by the first pretty face that came along. He is presented as a relatively street-smart New York youth, but this characterization is not delivered in his actions or attitudes. L’Engle should have cast him as only naïve, and there would have been less of a problem. Apart from this discrepancy, though, the novel is very successful.

Taken as a pure, unadulterated mystery, Arm of the Starfish satisfies. It has the requisite number of players—leaders and followers—and a premise that was valid not only in 1965, but is still today: corporate power is unassailable, often even for governmental agencies. Adam gets caught in the middle of a corporate attempt to steal scientific research, and in the end learns a number of valuable lessons about what really matters in life. L’Engle manages to depart from her usual strong Christian stance to include both admirable and corrupt church officials and a very positively presented atheist as part of her cast. That the atheist dies is perhaps problematic, unless you believe the underlying theological position of the novel, which is far more humanist than others of her texts. Overall, I would highly recommend The Arm of the Starfish to young readers wanting an exciting and yet ideologically supportive text. It is unlike anything by L’Engle I have yet read.