Kids, Mystery

A new appreciation for Ellen Raskin

When I was in the fifth grade, I read Ellen Raskin’s Figgs and Phantoms.  It stood out to me as a breath of fresh air, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what it was about except thinking it was funny — both in the odd and the ha-ha sense.  Now that I’ve read two more of Raskin’s novels, I am convinced that I probably didn’t get as much out of Figgs as I should have or it would have been more memorable.  Her sense of humor is reflected in her quirky characters and plot twists, making a delightful mystery that is as fun to be surprised by as it is to try to unravel.

The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues is the story of a first year art student named Dickory Dock (yes, indeed) who takes a position as an assistant to a temperamental artist whose job qualifications are as unusual as his character is.  The more Dickory gets to know Garson, the more she tries to unravel the mysteries surrounding him and the other unusual tenants of the building.  With lighthearted shades of Sherlock Holmes, the several threads of the story weave together in a final outcome that affects Dickory more personally than she ever could have foreseen.

For those who may have read it before, I’m curious what you thought of Dickory and Garson’s relationship.  I pictured him as a father-figure mentor.  My sister thought there was some clear romantic potential.  And online I caught an opinion of a reader who thought that Garson was gay.  So I’m curious if anyone else wants to weigh in on that ambiguous relationship.

The Westing Game is another great puzzler, and more notable in that it earned Raskin a Newberry.  In an almost Clue-esque adventure, a group of individuals are set with the task of figuring out who among them murdered the wealthy Sam Westing.  Whoever solves the mystery will earn the right to be his heir, and the story follows the many different characters as they try in their own unique and misguided ways to make sense of the clues.  Despite the many characters Raskin has to keep up with in a relatively short novel, I never felt like I was getting lost or confused about who was who.  There were some suspenseful moments, lots of ridiculous moments, and what had been just a fun romp earned more of my respect as the intricacies of the mystery unfolded, until at the end I felt like applauding.  That’s one I will need to add to my collection for the budding mystery lovers at my house!


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