Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series
Authentically told in the voice of Sally O’Malley, a girl at the cusp of growing up, in 1959, this is more a family and neighborhood story, a complex web of relationships and losses and discoveries, than a conventional whodunit, but the thread of mystery that holds the story together is woven in smoothly. Though the plot often revolves around Sally’s family’s secrets and her relationships with neighbors, there’s also the terrifying serial killer, the “murderer and molester” as Sally always says, who has killed two young girls so far. Sally is a tween with a wild imagination, a dead father, a sick mother, a drunken stepfather, and a wild, tough, beloved little sister Troo. She promised her father she’d watch out for Troo, and now there’s someone killing children.
Sally’s suspicions and fears about the murderer and molester are told with conviction, but you never forget, this is the girl who had nightmares about the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s the late ‘50’s, and monster movies are big in popular culture and in Sally’s mind.
The characters are well drawn, and they are always filtered through Sally’s affections or aversions. She idealizes a neighbor’s black caregiver Ethel as the wisest woman in the world, and Ethel’s goodness seems to earn this admiration. Sally doesn’t only choose good people, though. Her weird best friend Mary Lane is a fire-setter and a peeping Tom but Sally is loyal to her, as she is to the less-than-virtuous Troo. Sally’s antipathies are equally intense, and take time to change—a key element in the story.
Kagen portrays the times vividly, without sentimentality, complete with prejudices and bomb shelters as well as a close-knit community. Family tragedies don’t cut the O’Malley sisters off from love and nurturing, though they try to deny their needs to people who want to take care of them. In the fifties in a multi-ethnic urban neighborhood, people are in and out of each other’s houses and yards with a fluidity lost in the 21st century in most places. Playing on the streets and playground, kids in this book are unsupervised to a large extent despite the danger in the background. Sally’s frightening encounters are the stuff of every kid’s fears—being chased by the boogeyman—and it’s a plot element that’s true to its time period.
The bad guy’s fate is a little too neat, a little too perfect and a tad unlikely, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the book. Every turn in the story was set up well, especially the plausibility of the amateur sleuthing by Sally and Mary. I seldom believe amateur sleuths could really do what they do, but these kids—and Kagen—pull it off.