Inspired by our joint love of middle grade mystery books Amy of Golden Books Girl, Rachael of Bellis does Books and myself decided to indulge in a fun readalong of Lauren St John’s Laura Marlin Mysteries, and evoke the childhood joy of making a club!
Across August we have been reading or rereading Dead Man’s Cove by Lauren St John, the first story in the series which finds young Laura Marlin finally being placed with a mysterious uncle after a lifetime in care.
It’s been really fun and playful to take part in the Marlin mysteries marathon this month especially as I have been able to indulge in my creative side in making a new section of my casebook including playing with aqua brushes in my dotted journal casebook and lots of washi tape purchases (don’t tell the elf).
I read this book originally at the beginning of 2020 but thanks to the global situation I was not in the right headspace to really have enjoyed it so I am very thankful to my fellow mystery society members to have the opportunity to really read and deep dive into the story again.
Travelling to St Ives Laura finds an acceptance, freedom and trust she has never known before, but the idyllic setting of this Cornish town belies the struggles to be accepted socially and the loneliness Laura feels as her uncle wanders the coastline at all hours.
When her blossoming friendship with the adopted son of a local merchant goes badly, Laura blames herself, but as messages strewn in her path to school reveal, there is a dark secret to St Ives, and Laura has got herself wrapped up in the middle of it.
Dead Man’s Cave has this bucolic and coastal setting in one of the prettiest towns in Cornwall, perhaps in the UK, where a young girl has a Blyton–esque adventure. However her life is far from the middle-class 1940s ideal that light and imagined, yet the existence & tenacity of crime in Rural areas remains – it’s just adapted to the modern world.
Laura is a cared-for child , she’s been shunted from foster home to foster homes whilst her uncle was unaware of her birth thanks to the estrangement after his own parents divorced taking a child each, this is far from the privately educated protagonists of yore.
Laura made a note of the time because she had been waiting for this moment for eleven years, one month and five days and she wanted always to remember it- the hour her life began.
Yet whilst her experiences in care does affect her confidence in making strong links with people, she isn’t jaded nor disenfranchised. Laura is resilient, courageous and hopes. Whilst care is a part of her past, it is not “the issue” in the book which is wonderfully inclusive and freeing that children in care can have adventures too.
Laura is a wonderful character to read, she is brightly written, vibrant with quiet intelligence but smudged round the edges by her experiences making her very real, we feel her pain at rejection of friendship by Tariq, we soar with her as she runs across the sands, and we take hope from her grit as she faces peril. Lauren St. John has a real craft to be able to write such a real resonant child with innocence and hope yet the eyes to see beyond the ‘dressed up veils’ of society.
Mysteries were piling up and she could see no way of solving any of them. The whole situation was like St Ives itself- full of blind alleys.
Rural issues of fishing tariffs and associated poaching crimes, come head-to-head with the sorts of crimes many privileged people assume just doesn’t happen in places around them. Modern slavery, human trafficking, peonary (bonded labour) and the organised-crime that arranges such atrocities seem a “urban problem” but Lauren St John reveals the naivete of such thinking and shows us the darker underbelly of British society from slaveowners in the local store to ableism and snobbery of wealthy people in response to children and animals as toys or accessories.
And yet Lauren St John always stays just within the safety of Middle grade, she seeks to open minds but not horrify. So whilst the reality of the “silkworms” and Tariq is blurred, she still pushes children to view and become educated on the plight of others and to be strong and resilient themselves not just for their own well-being, but for others who cannot.
Unlike the clear structure, story arc seeding and strong pauses for reflection in say the Taylor Rose mysteries that I have done before, Lauren St John’s Laura Marlin mysteries take some more meandering approach to the plot, a meditative walk, spiralling into the problem approach which means that my casebook could not be structured in the same way that I have done so before which was actually an exciting proposition.
In the casebook much reflects around key plot elements retelling a compacted version of the story within the pages of the casebook. I took time to pick out the overarching themes and sections within the book and to particularly express some of the visual elements say Laura’s husky Skye’s eyes looking like x-ray blue to the variety of messages along the coast left for and by Laura, and the colours of St. Ives itself. I was delighted when I looked at a map of Saint Ives to say that the story pretty much lines up with the actual town itself apart from a few fictional liberties taken.
I employed a use of sea and coastal washi tapes along with aqua brushes and watercolour pencils edged in black ink in order to get this washy ‘fairy light’ dreaminess of the location that comes across in the writing against the hard edges of the plot.
Check out the other member’s thoughts!