Maeve Visser Knoth: 06/01/2007 - 07/01/2007

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Montmorency novels- old-fashioned Victorian thrillers

There are so many children's novels that I have to read for one purpose or another that it is easy to miss a great novel if I learn about it at a time when I have a huge pile already collected on my bedside. That is what happened with Eleanor Updale's trio of novels about Montmorency. The first book Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman? came out to great reviews but I missed it. By the time the second and third novels arrived, Montmorency On the Rocks: Docton, Aristocrat, Murderer? and Montmorency and the Assassins: Master, Criminal, Spy? I put off reading them because I had not read the first. Finally, this spring all three books were available in the library and neither my 11 year old or I had anything that we needed to read. My son raced through them first. He had finished the hefty books in just two days and insisted I get started so we could talk about them. Well he, and the reviewers were right. The novels are terrific. They are Victorian thrillers that pull the reader right in and don't let up until the bitter end.

In the first novel, the reader meets Montmorency when he is living in a London prison recovering from terrible injuries. A smart young doctor has decided that they way to showw off his surgical skills is to physically remake this criminal. As Montmorency recovers, he absorbs everything he sees around him. He learns important skills from other criminals and emerges from prison ready to remake himself. Montmorency succeeds, through the exciting and richly detailed novel, in creating two personas. As Scarp her travels the sewers of London stealing valuables from London's wealthy. As Montmorency, he uses these ill-gotten-gains to become a gentleman.

The second and third novels continue Montmorency's story but in these he has left his life of crime and is using his formidable skills to help the British government and solve crimes. The tension no longer comes from wondering if the gifted criminal will be discovered for what he is, but now comes from the more external political and social events that Montmorency becomes involved in.

There is much to draw a reader into the novels. There is London's seedy underside, carefully described and contrasted with the life of the upper class. There is a cast of characters all beautifully developed and complex. The bombers may have noble motivations, Montmorency becomes an honorable citizen but is seduced by opium addiction, the clever young doctor is as kind as he is blinded by his ambition.

Middle school and high school students will enjoy these novels as much as adults will. Luckily the covers don't sell these books short. I can easily hand them to readers who enjoy Agatha Christie but also to a child who has just finished The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi.

When you finish reading Updale's novels, curl up with Phillip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke.