The Very Merry Murder Club edited by Serena Patel and Robin Stevens

The Blurb On The Back:

Join The Frosty Foul Play

Cat-napping and crazy heists, suspicious Santas and scrabble games, frost fairs and fancy dress … join the Very Merry Murder Club and put your detective skills to the test with these fiendishly fun and festive mysteries.

You can order THE VERY MERRY MURDER CLUB edited by Serena Patel and Robin Stevens from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Serena Patel and Robin Stevens’s anthology of 13 winter-themed crime short stories for readers aged 9+ is a disappointing affair.  None of the stories are bad but equally none of them really gripped me or stood out.  I liked Harry Woodgate’s illustrations, which bring scenes from some of the stories to life and the diversity of characters and backgrounds is good but ultimately this was a collection that left me cold rather than cheered.

SHOE-DUNNIT by Elle McNicoll is the strongest story in the collection.  Briar and her basset hound Flute live in an inn in Aviemore, Scotland that’s owned by her parents.  There are currently 11 guests in the inn, including celebrated former ballerina Posy Lennox, who is very unhappy at the fact that the inn is snowed in, preventing anyone from leaving, and is horribly vile to everyone staying there, including her mum Renee and manager, Marianne Hobson.  So it’s no surprise when Posy is found dead outside in the snow but while everyone wants to think it’s an accident, Briar is certain it’s murder and it’s up to her to find out who did it.  Briar is an interesting character – direct and insightful – it’s a shame a revelation about her comes at the end because it would have and the mystery works well and has a good solutions.

IT’S SNOW CRIME by Roopa Farooki sees twins Tulip and Ali who are looking forward to Christmas because their doctor mum has 3 days off for the first times in ages.  Their Nan-Nan works in a super secret spy ring and when she tells the twins that she’s tied upon a case, they have to make their own way to the hospital after school with the help of their friend Momo who owns an ice cream van.  There they discover that someone has trashed the grotto set up for the sick kids and stolen their presents and the twins are determined to find the culprit.  I was really confused by this because it seems to refer to a previous short story with events that I wasn’t familiar so although it’s got a lot of pace, the plot developments seemed quite chaotic and I just wasn’t able to engage with it.

THE BEAST OF BEDLEYWOOD by Annabelle Sami follows Tamsin and her older brother Rumi who are grounded over the New Year period in their tower block flat after being wrongly blamed for a prank on the local police constable.  When they see a man lurking in Bedleywood, a nearby nature reserve whose ancient yew tree is due to be torn down, they know they have to leave the flat to see what he’s up to and find themselves caught up in a nasty plot that may involve a local legend …  Sami makes an interesting point about how kids on council estates are viewed and I liked Tamsin and Rumi’s nurse mum who works hard and is trying to get them to behave.  The mystery itself is a bit telegraphed and the element involving a beast didn’t work for me but the story did hold together and kept me turning the pages.

In THE CHRISTMAS HEIST by Abiola Bello 12-year-old Roe is part of a dance troupe called Masquerade, who are wrongly robbed of winning the Drop That Beat dance competition when their rivals, Pledge, accuse them of tampering with their music track.  Roe and the crew are determined to clear their name and take back the trophy that rightfully belongs to them, even if they have to pull off a heist during a Christmas Showcase show to do so.  This is another strong story in the collection, which packs a lot of energy and I liked the all POC cast.  The plot turns on some technological points, which Bello explains well and it has a satisfying ending.

COOL FOR CATS by Patrice Lawrence follows Evie and her young brother Ulric who live with their older sister Melody and their mum.  Melody is supposed to be looking after their Aunty Maria’s cat called The Hammer, while Aunty Maria spends Christmas with her parents in Trinidad but Evie and Ulric decide to pick up the slack when they realise that she has failed to do so, only to discover that Aunty Maria’s back door has been left open, some of the rooms have been left in a mess and even worse, The Hammer is missing.  As Evie and Ulric try to clear up the mess, they make some discoveries that suggest there’s something else going on with Aunty Maria …. This story is more an emotional mystery than a crime novel and uses Lawrence’s trade mark pitch perfect narrative voice to talk about love and grief and how important pets can be to people.  

In IT TAKES A THIEF TO CATCH A THIEF by Maisie Chan, Alma is looking forward to a normal Christmas now that her mum has finally decided to retire from being the notorious thief known as the White Rabbit and become a locksmith instead.  But when Alma and her grandma, Nanny So Kim, get back home after some Christmas shopping, they discover the word “help” in the bathroom, her mum’s bedroom has been ransacked and her mum has disappeared!  The only clue is a sweet wrapper, suggesting the kidnapper is Claude Van Twix, a burglar who recently moved to town and is intent on claiming the White Rabbit’s spot as top thief.  Alma and Nanny So Kim must track him down to find her her mum and get the Christmas they were looking forward to.  This is a fun story and I liked Alma’s attempts to get her mum to go straight while Nanny So Kim takes a shine to interrogation techniques, plus the clues are neatly signalled and there’s a satisfying ending.

THE FROSTWILDS by Dominique Valente is a fantasy set in a world where 3 tribes living in the Frostwilds (essentially a world that’s in perma-winter) have to comply with the Frostlaw (a series of superstitious rules).  Failure to do so 3 times risks rousing the Gelidbeast from the bottom of the frozen lake, which will take 1 child from each of the tribes as a punishment. The Frostlaw has already been broken twice and the elders of the tribes have said that if it happens again, the offending person (or their parent) will be killed.  13-year-old Frostine lives with her father and 9-year-old sister Iclyn and despite only having one leg is one of the best hunter in the tribe.  When Iclyn questions whether the Gelidbeast even exists and decides to deliberately break Frostine to find out (getting herself taken by the beast as a result), Frostine must go after her and find a way of defeating the Gelidbeast to get her sister back and maybe even end the perma-winter forever.  The world building here is well done and the fantasy elements are neatly handled while Frostine is a determined, smart character who is easy to root for. 

It’s the first day of the Christmas holidays in SCRABBLE AND MURDER by Nizrana Farook and 11-year-old Saba Hassan, her 5-year-old brother Jameel (known as Jam) and parents are driving to Saba’s grandmother’s house when heavy snowfall forces them to abandon their journey and take shelter in a nearby hotel owned by the very strange Bob and Margie.  Among the other guests are recently released murderers, Jack and Jill, Bob and Margie’s grandson Oliver and his friend Brad, backpackers Kayla and Chenti and Mr Shoto.  When one of the guests is found murdered after a game of Scrabble, it’s up to Saba to piece together who did it and why.  The mystery itself here is well constructed and I enjoyed the dynamics between Saba and her family but there is a lot of contrivance here and the weirdness of the hotel and its owners and guests was a bit contrived for me and didn’t add anything.

THE TICKING FUNHOUSE by Benjamin Dean is not so much a mystery as a horror story as Billy Beck follows his two dads into a Christmas funhouse and finds himself trapped in a series of increasingly dangerous games.  If he doesn’t find the solution to the mysterious game controller’s riddles, then just like his dads, he’ll find himself trapped there for eternity.  Although the execution of the various games is creepily done, to be honest this story just didn’t seem to fit with the overall collection as there’s no real mystery here (unless you count how Billy needs to figure out each riddle and for me, that wasn’t enough) plus it has an open ending, which I really didn’t like.  I do enjoy a good horror story and this has the makings of one, but the execution didn’t work for me and the story itself didn’t work for me in this collection.

ICE AND FIRE by Joanna Williams is set in December 1776 when the harsh winter has led to a Frost Fair on the Thames.  12-year-old Lizzie Sancho (daughter of the celebrated man of letters and grocery store owner Ignatius Sancho) is desperate to visit and when her dad agrees to take her, she is thrilled by the performance of the Black Poetress, who urges attendees to donate to London’s poor and homeless children.  But when a group calling themselves The Silencers questions the validity of helping the poor and a spate of thefts at the Fair leads the Black Poetress being arrested on suspicion of running a criminal gang and Ignatius himself is accused of being in league with them, Lizzie must uncover the truth of who is behind this in order to save the Black Poetress’s life and her father’s reputation.  This story is based on the real-life Ignatius Sancho (a truly remarkable man) and although it’s well-intention and I liked the way it’s a historical story focusing on people of colour, it is very heavy handed and the plot overly convoluted and heavily expositional.

In SILENT NIGHT by Serena Patel, Arjun has to stay at home after an operation to have his tonsils removed and although his grandmother (called Ba) is with him during the day, she wants him to speak Gujarati to her and Arjun feels awkward because he doesn’t speak it very well.  When he bores of playing PlayStation by himself, he takes to watching his neighbours for something to do, becoming familiar with their routines and one day witnesses a heated argument between Mr Abara and Mr Borokov.  When Arjun realises that Mr Borokov has disappeared, he suspects Mr Abara as being responsible but first he needs to find some proof …. I enjoyed the relationship between Arjun and his Ba in this riff on REAR WINDOW but a smuggling subplot didn’t make a lot of sense to me and the ending was a little underpowered.

In NO PISTE FOR THE WICKED by E. L. Norry 13-year-old foster kid Luca is used to being judged and under-estimated and feels an affinity for Hercule Poirot in the Agatha Christie novels he likes to read.  Paired with Ishan, who has autism, the two are on the school ski trip to Italy led by Ms Scarlett, a teacher who recently joined from a posh private school and who is already unpopular with some of the other teachers and even some of the hotel staff.  When Ms Scarlett is found dead out on the ski slope, the teachers tell the students that it was an accident but Luca and Ishan think differently and it’s up to them to get to the bottom of what really happened and why.  I liked the sardonic Luca and the friendship that develops between him and Ishan (in fact I would happily read a full length novel featuring them) and Norry throws in a wide range of suspects and motives, which keeps you guessing who is responsible.  However (and at the risk of being picky) I did wonder how foster kid Luca was able to afford to go on the ski trip in the first place given he’s living in a children’s home.

The last story in the collection is THE COVE(N) AT CHRISTMAS by Sharna Jackson, which really didn’t work for me at all unfortunately.  13-year-old Malorie and her mum have recently moved to The Cove, a small community of 4 houses on the Cornish coast.  Malorie’s mum recently won a 2 year scholarship to study dolphins and has moved into a house belonging to fellow zoologist Phoebe Morgan’s house as Phoebe has moved to Costa Rica to study animals there.  Malorie’s mum is hosting an annual Christmas party for the other women who live in the Cove – Peggy Seaver, who lives with her husband Mark (a wealthy lawyer) and their three children), Diane Dunbar who is also studying dolphin behaviour and Beatrice Strand-Hythe, a retiree who lives with her husband Philip.  But while looking for Christmas decorations Malorie discovers something that suggests that Phoebe hasn’t actually moved to Costa Rica and instead was murdered by one of the other women.  Now she has to figure out who and why …. I found this whole story really contrived and the pay-off doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, not least because the characterisation of the three suspects was all a bit shallow and under-developed.  

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