Three Times Lucky by Shiela Turnage

Read December 2020
Recommended for fans of plucky young detectives
 ★     ★     ★     ★  

Occasionally I dip my toe into the waters of middle-grade fiction, hoping for that playful feeling of reading The Size of the Truth the first time, or perhaps even recapturing the glow of The Westing Game back in the day. Three Times had an enthusiastic review by a friend, cover art that reminded me of Castle Hangnail, was available as a download from my library, and –this cannot be underestimated–recent events led me needing something fun.

Ex-orphan Moses LoBeau, from Tupelo Landing, NC, is doing her fifth-going-into-sixth grade summer thang with her bestie, Dale. When one of her guardians takes off unexpectedly, as each is wont to do, she finds herself canceling a fishing trip with Dale so they can open her family’s diner. (As the Colonel has ordered her not to touch the grill, they go with “offering a full line of peanut butter entrées”). Alas, Dale might have “forcefully borrowed” Mr. Jesse’s boat for the trip, and when Mr. Jesse turns up dead, it looks newcomer Detective Joe Starr might have Dale pinpointed as chief suspect.

Quite possibly, some people might find it a little too adorbs; I can see that being an issue. It rides the line between that of the unself-conscious child–twelve might be a touch old for some of the things Mo gets away with, like the peanut butter specials–but then again, small town living. And while we are in Mo’s head, Turnage does not over-explain, letting the reader work out some of their own reasons for Mo’s thoughts. So for me it worked. But if you know the overly-adult precocious twelve-year-olds, you might find your beliefs tested.

I liked the sexual innocence of Mo and her crush on Lavender. Otherwise, much of it felt gender-neutral, with an absence of overly female-sexualized traits. (“Lavender, who I will one day marry, believes in NASCAR Zen”). As is appropriate for rural south, there is a fascination with NASCAR/racecar, although it mostly exists in the realm of older brothers.

There’s a solid mix of adult and youth characters, and I do admire the unique takes they all have. These aren’t kids who are running amok on their own–Dale’s mom ends up taking a firm hand in the situation. In a show of small-town support, she even volunteers Dale’s voice at the funeral.

“As far as I know, this is the first time an alleged suspect has soloed at the funeral of the Dearly Departed.”

But the kids are trying out identities and problem-solving, which I can completely support, even if they do use more unorthodox methods. After Mo and Dale form a detective agency to clear him of the murder (“We just opened a detective agency. Maybe you’ve heard of us? Desperado Detectives?”), one of Mo’s steps is to check in with Skeeter for legal services, who offers a special deal:

“Rumor has it she’s already written to Matchbook University for a paralegal course under an assumed name. She won’t say if that’s true or false, only that unsubstantiated rumor won’t hold up in court…

“In addition to standard services,” Skeeter said, “we offer unlimited access to the Cousin Information Network.”

I thought it was quite fun. It’s always a delicate balance to have a real death in your middle-grade book, but I thought it was handled well, with a good balance between serious and kids’ caper. Your mileage, as always, may vary. But the end of book punchline made me laugh out loud, and that ain’t nothing in the week of an insurrection.

“God help me,” he sobbed, sinking onto Mr. Jesse’s sofa and hiding his face in his hands. “I’m a lawyer.”

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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