In the words of Norva ‘Oh my days!’ This is a fantastic book!!! I absolutely adored this urban almost single setting book which is just perfection for the development of a murder mystery!!
This is an incredible mystery story, the detail and depth of the plot can stand beside the intricacies of ‘grown up’ mystery novels but is cleverly adjusted in tone and gory details for Middle Grade reader.
It’s the hottest days of summer, school has just broken up and things are getting heated on the Tri, a Brutalist era High Rise estate that’s falling apart in South London. Hot… and stinking, and not just because of the bins-strike.
Our heroines Nik and Norva are suspicious, but when they check out the skip underneath the rubbish chute of block one they find their neighbour, and friend antiques dealer Hugo Knightly-Webb dead.
With a very public argument the night in question, opportunity and lack of an alibi all fingers point to the girls’ father Joe the estate supervisor, so can the girls find the real murderer in time?
A wail grew from deep inside me. I opened my mouth and it left my body, loudly. Hot tears streamed down my face as we ran, hand in hand, full pelt across the Tri.
Nik (Anika) is wonderful as a narrator, her logical mind in contrast to her emotion-led sister results in a fabulous duo whose strengths and weaknesses counterpoint to each other wonderfully.
Nik’s inner thoughts and frustrations at her sister, the dog (comedic relief) the situation and the punctuation of grief at the loss of Hugo is compelling and sweeps us away into the plot quickly caring for the outcome, and the girls.
The way the book is a compelling but suitable and accessible mystery is largely due to the perspective of Nik being 11 years old which gives beautifully opportunities for both a narrative style and plot-building as despite her being logical and scientifically minded, she may be a tad unreliable in a plot-perfect way.
This is because she is still a child and by nature may misunderstand or miss those subtle cues and behavioural nuances an adult may pick up on that betray deeper relationships or motivations which keeps some wonderful twists and turns tucked up tight to the end.
‘Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god!’ Norva shouted, staring at me eyes wide with panic. ‘There are gonna be two more murders when this exposed. Why did you let go? What’s wrong with you?’
Norva is such a perfectly formed character it’s unreal! I strongly identified with her having been one of those teen girls who are emotionally-led but both stronger and more intelligent than they probably understand yet equally lacking confidence around an (almost always unworthy) crush.
The way Sharna wrote Norva’s crush on Mark is excruciatingly accurate into the realms of ‘OMG does she have a mainline into my 13 year old mind?’ reactions.
This is such a beautiful and honest part of the writing for so many young people who may feel and act like Norva.
No one in books when I was a teen acted like this and even if they had these emotions none had a realistic outcome of unrequited obsession because in books it was always their crush falling for them because of a meet-cute or ‘thrown together’ situation or the other trope of reciprocity as secretly having been in love with them forever giving tickets to disappointment for most hopelessly devoteds out there.
To see an unrequited all-consuming crush depicted on page that compared to my own is another reason why this book is so perfect on inclusion levels, if readers from different backgrounds, whether urban or rural, privileged or not can feel the same and have the same realistic disappointment that’s a powerful tool for empathy.
Don’t crush shame me ok? When I’m near him, I can’t function. One day you’ll understand.’
Which brings me onto the diversity factor that is a strength of this book, but not in the way that trolls have spun it.
Sharna Jackson set out to write a book that anyone can enjoy (achieved with cherries and sprinkles), but especially children from a BAME background who can feel represented and to engage in fun, realistic and mystery stories where the protagonists just happen to be black, happy and being the hero rather than perpetually ‘issues’ focused books.
There’s sparse hints of ethnicities of other characters so personalities and behaviours take centre stage largely crowding out preconceptions or tropes and the focus brings us to centre on the relationships, the drama and the mystery.
Nik and Norva are beautifully different ‘Gut and Nut; NSquared’ Norva with her long braids and Norva with her shaved head (sidenote: it is so great to see a deliberately short haired female protagonist celebrating different ideas of femininity and beauty!!) Nik and Norva are fully fleshed people they aren’t ‘tropes’ they are beautifully unique and everyone no matter the reader can find something to identify with, but black children especially can see awesome role models having fun and doing amazing things.
‘I just think it’s important that we celebrate people and places where we can. With the Tri’s imminent anniversary, we should celebrate her, all her corners; her beauty, the best times, the tumultuous times.’
Now whilst it’s not an ‘issues’ book, it wouldn’t be outstanding Middle Grade if it didn’t have a bit of pause for thought and grit.
There are social complexities touched upon such as the dilapidation of the council block juxtaposed against the gentrified surroundings, stereotypes bandied on social media of its inhabitants and are totally expected in the context of the story, in fact ANY crime or mystery novel that would be set on a council estate/block would be unrealistic to not make reference to these issues and in these cases they contribute to important and clever plot points that give an interesting flavour and nuance to the mystery that another more privileged setting would not.
In fact, Jackson makes fantastically clever use of the Brutalist principle of the High Rise estate design which were originally intended to create ‘villages in the sky’ by making wide passages, communal spaces to gather and socialise where the people living there would rebuild the shattered communities from WWII bombing and share their lives looking out for each other and their children.
Jackson’s open eyed embracing of the setting with the positive community sides balanced against some of the unfortunate realities of estates not only is inclusive of many readers who may live in similar circumstances but also is directly challenging beliefs by showing and celebrating that despite the bad reputation estates and characters any community can have, a positive can live and thrive in the community spirit if you seek to find it.
We’ll start a real detective agency one day. A local business for local people. Give something back to the estate.
This book is awesome for fans of Mystery stories and I LOVE the fact that the girls Detective notes are included spliced between chapters to keep the reader on track and up to date and guessing themselves!
High Rise Mystery is a fresh breath of perspective in both middle grade and within that the mystery genre but ita a book that puts sisters and the mystery at the centre and has secured its place in my heart and mind.
No pressure Sharna but I am looking forward immensely to whatever you write next!
High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson is published by Knights Of and available online and through bookstores.