Even though I read all types of books, give me a good detective mystery any day and I'm happy. No matter if it's a good mystery with a so-so detective or a so-so mystery with a good detective, odds are I'll like it. But I really like it when both the detective and the mystery are top-notch. Fuerst's small-time detective Eugene "Huge" Smalls and his whodunit mystery delivered me straight to readers' heaven.
If you read the book's synopsis you know that twelve-year-old Eugene (Genie to his mom and sister, much to his chagrin) fancies himself a bit of a private investigator and sets out to solve the mystery of who painted graffiti over the sign at his grandmother's nursing home. So far, it doesn't seem very different from those old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries many of us read as youngsters, but it couldn't be more dissimilar. In the first place, Huge (as he yearns to be known) develops into a complex character dealing with a wide variety of the kind of issues that plague most pre-teens.
Raise your hand if you didn't grapple with at least one of these in junior high: Huge is small for his age. He has anger management problems ("Some kids collected baseball cards, some hoarded mint-condition coins, others stamps; I collected shiners.") He is a borderline genius who has difficulty focusing in school. He is misunderstood by his elders. He's not popular. He worries that he may be developing into a pervert. He feels all adults have it in for him. He has a potty mouth.
On the other hand, Huge loves his grandmother, Toots. He's fiercely loyal to his single mother and his sister, Neecey, who is in high-school. He has a refreshingly old-fashioned sense of honor. He works on his flaws with a determination only possible for someone with a whole summer off.
And he's smart. Not school-smart but the kind of smart you get from reading books. During one of Huge's school suspensions - suspensions are the norm for a guy like Huge - Toots insisted he read his grandfather's entire collection of detective fiction to keep his mind active. Huge cut his literary teeth, as it were, on the likes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Arthur Conan Doyle. He later pores over a copy of Walden and tries to assimilate Thoreau's wisdom into his daily life. It is this unlikely combo of pulp PI-wit plus19th Century transcendentalism that contributes to Eugene's uber-unique charm.
Huge's narrative voice swings seamlessly from snappy wiseguy cant to philosophical musings, pre-teen naïveté and savvy smarts without losing the essence of the boy's character. Whether talking about his sidekick, Thrash; his awesome banana-seated bike, the Cruiser; or his neighborhood; Huge's view is fresh and engaging: "The building itself was ultra-modern in style; the kind of architecture that was supposed to look like it'd come from the future Luckily for us, it was a future that decided not to bother showing up when it saw what it would have to look like."
As for the mystery well, suffice it to say that for this bright, gritty pre-adolescent, life itself is as much a mystery as the case of granny's nursing home vandalism. While many mysteries get solved here what's most important is that Huge's future has never looked better. Likewise, now that James Fuerst has cut his authorial teeth on a winner his future as a novelist looks pretty good too.
Note: Some may feel that Huge's adult language and coming-of-age situations are inappropriate for young adults. As a mother of two boys who were once that age I would encourage them to reconsider. I expect teens might enjoy this book more than their parents who should read it anyway, just to know what their children are reading. Then discuss it with them.
This review is from the August 12, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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