The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd, 323pp RL: Middle Grade
It is rare to find a well written mystery in the world of young adult literature, especially one that doesn't have a "Scooby-Doo" type ending, the kind you never could have seen coming no matter how good your deduction skills may be. Not only is Siobhan Dowd's The London Eye Mystery gripping from start to finish, it is also an entirely plausible story beginning to end. And, most importantly, it is entirely believable that the narrator Ted and his older sister Kat were able to think their way through the mystery to a solution at the end when their parents and the police couldn't.
Although the great artwork for the hardcover edition of The London Eye Mystery caught my eye right away, I didn't pick it up until it was released in paperback a year later. I began by reading The London Eye Mystery during my breaks at work and, when I was about two-thirds of the way finished I stopped reading and flipped to the back of the book thinking, "This woman is a phenomenal writer. Who is she? Where did she come from??" It was then that I got a shock far more surprising than the end of any mystery novel. Because I feel so strongly about the excellence of this book and what I subsequently learned, I am going to print the author's bio in full here.
Siobhan Dowd lived in Oxford with her husband Geoff, before tragically dying from cancer in August of 2007, at age 47. She was both an extraordinary writer and and an extraordinary person. All royalties from her books will go to a trust created just before her death, The SiobhanDowd Trust, a charity set up to support the joy of reading for young people in areas of social deprivation.
After reading this, I knew that I would be buying the book as well as ordering in mulitple copies for the bookstore's summer reading tables. I hope that all of you reading this post will also support this remarkable writer and her amazing literary and humanitarian works by buying this book as well. It has been two years since I first posted this review and I am happy to say that The London Eye Mystery has enjoyed a very healthy (and rare, I might add) shelf life at the bookstore where I work and I am happy to think of Dowd's trust growing. What Dowd's biography in the back of The London Eye Mystery doesn't mention is that, before she was an accomplished writer for young adults, she was a member of International PEN for over twenty years. Her work in included investigating local human rights conditions for writers in Indonesia and Guatemala as well as establishing the Salman Rushdie Defense Comittee USA during the time of the fatwa that was placed on him by the Ayatollah Khomeini for supposed offenses to the Islamic world in his book, The Satanic Verses. Dowd then went on to set up an organization that brings writers to schools in socially deprived areas as well as serving as Deputy Commissioner for Children's Rights in Oxfordshire. Dowd was also very happily married for the last six years of her life to Geoff Morgan, a librarian and musician with whom she wrote and recorded many songs that can be heard on her website. Before she was even fifty, Dowd changed many, many lives for the better with her humanitarian work and brought good things into this world through her literary work, more than some of us can hope for in a lifetime.
The London Eye Mystery seems like a simple story at first, but as Ted, the narrator, discovers, some things are not as simple as they appear, and other things aren't even what they appear to be at all. Although Dowd and her characters never give a name to Ted's disorder, when describing to Salim that he is not sick, not stupid but also not normal Ted himself explains that the "brain is like a computer, but mine works on a different operating system from other people's. And my wiring's different too... It means I am very good at thinking about facts and how things work and the doctors say I am at the high-functioning end of the spectrum." Ted speaks from time to time of his "hand flapping" when he is in tense situations as well as the relief he got from jumping on a trampoline or banging his head against a wall when he was younger. He is also quick to define any figures of speech those around him use as well as point out that he is not good at reading people's facial expressions, however his friend and teacher Mr Shepherd has spent many hours showing him pictures and teaching him what different looks mean. As the narrator, Ted's unique perspective and fascinating thought process take up much of the story, yet, as the mystery unfolds the reader as well as Ted's sister Kat and the sometimes dismissive adults around him, learn that Ted's way of thinking and seeing can be a great benefit, especially in a time of crisis.
Ted and his older sister Kat, a sometimes surly teenager, live in London with their parents. Their mother is a nurse and their father is a demolition expert who's current job involves bringing down a housing project right down the street from their own home. When the story begins their mother's estranged sister Gloria and her teenage son Salim, his exact age is never stated, but he falls between Ted and Kat age-wise and must be about thirteen, are coming to London from their home in Manchester on their way to relocate in New York City. Ted's Dad describes Aunt Gloria as a hurricane and Ted, a weather watcher who spends sleepless nights listening to the shipping reports on his radio, ponders this comparison. The cousins haven't seen each other in several years, but Salim, who is half Pakistani, takes to Kat and Ted right away and the three plan their sightseeing for the following day. While waiting in line to buy tickets for the London Eye, the massive ferris wheel built for the millennium celebration, Kat, Ted and Salim are approached by a man giving away a ticket he can't use for a ride that is boarding that minute. Their mothers are having coffee while the kids buy the tickets, so it is up to them to decide whether or not to trust this person and take the ticket. Since Salim has never ridden the Eye before, Kat decides he should take the ticket. This is a decision she will regret for the rest of the book and she will come to believe that she is responsible for what happens next. For, despite Ted's keen observation of the pod Salim has entered, he and Kat do not see him exit and spend desperate minutes searching for him before they go and tell their mother and aunt.
What follows is the story of how Kat, wanting to be free of blame and genuinely worried about her cousin, turns to Ted to help her try to unravel the mystery of Salim's disappearance. Dowd does such a masterful job with both her adult and child characters that I never felt as though I had to suspend my disbelief at any point in the story. It seems as though there is always a part in a suspenseful young adult book when the children characters should ask adult for help but don't and often, their rational is not always plausible. There is a point exactly like this early on in the book, but the way Dowd works it out I felt as though I completely understood why Ted and Kat did not approach the adults at that point. Dowd manages to end the book brilliantly as well. I wrote the sentence describing how she does this five times before I realized that I couldn't write about the ending without giving something important away and, this book is such a gem, such an amazing, character driven story, that I want readers to be surprised, to gasp and to cry at all the same parts I did.
So, once again, I ask you: If, after reading this review you think you would like to read the book, please consider spending $7.50 ($8.50 in Canada) to buy this book and know that you are getting a book that is worth every penny - most of which will be going to support literacy and reading for children who's parents can't buy them their own books.