CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 24 . . . . February 27, 2015
The Night Thief is Barbara Fradkin’s third Cedric O’Toole mystery. O’Toole is a loner who lives on hobby farm on the outskirts of the fictional cottage town of Lake Madrid. He earns a living by doing odd jobs for neighbours, and he supplements his income by selling his farm’s organic produce at his aunt’s general store in town. In this story, he finds produce going missing from his garden, and, while he initially suspects an animal, he figures out after an all night vigil in his field that it’s, in fact, a little boy who is stealing vegetables. O’Toole invites the boy into his house and agrees not to call in the authorities because of his own troubling childhood interactions with children’s services. Eventually, however, there are too many oddities and inconsistencies about the boy, his behaviour and the stories he tells that O’Toole turns to his aunt and then to Constable Jessica Swan for help. Although O’Toole wants what’s best for the boy, the circumstances are so complicated that, despite helping resolve the mysteries presented by the situation, in the end O’Toole has no real say in the case’s final resolution.
The volume is part of Raven Books “Rapid Read” series. Raven is an imprint of Orca Books, and the Rapid Reads seem to be aimed at much the same audience as the “Orca Currents” and “Orca Soundings” series English Language Learners, reluctant readers and readers with literacy challenges but who may be looking for something more than the teenage focussed stories those books tend to explore. Like many of the other “Rapid Reads” titles, The Night Thief is a mystery, following many of the conventions of that genre.
Simplifying mysteries to appeal to the audience Raven Books is courting can sometimes lead to narratives that feel like Murder She Wrote lite. Like Jessica Fletcher, Cedric O’Toole is a law enforcement outsider and not a detective or police officer, but yet he seems to find his way into various mysteries in his small town of Lake Madrid, much the same way Fletcher did in Cabot Cove. What sets The Night Thief apart, however, is the nature of the mystery. While Jessica Fletcher always seemed to be stumbling over corpses (just how many murders can one New England town sustain?), the mystery into which O’Toole (and by extension the reader) is drawn feels much more realistic for the intimate rural setting. O’Toole is faced with figuring out what this mystery boy’s story is and why he’s stealing from his farm. Eventually, there is a dead body, but the identity of the murderer is really secondary to the mystery of the boy’s origins and why he is behaving so peculiarly. The intrigue really does feel like something the town handyman could find himself caught up in.
Fradkin also seems to have a really good sense of small town characters and what motivates them. She focuses on the people who live year round in a town whose main focus is the summer cottagers. In each case, those with whom O’Toole interacts his aunt Penny, the men drinking at the local watering hole all feel like realistic portraits, rather than the caricatures that sometimes come with stories set in these kinds of places.
What is perhaps most interesting about the book, though, is the attention paid to the events that have shaped the characters and brought them to where they are. Without ever belabouring the point or laying it on too thick, Fradkin does a nice job teasing out O’Toole’s difficult childhood and how his mother’s mental health problems led to his bouncing back and forth between the farmhouse and foster homes. The way the police and children’s services dealt with his family as he was growing up have seriously eroded his ability to trust others. From O’Toole’s first person point of view, it seems entirely reasonable that he would hold off calling the authorities once he finally convinces the boy to come into the house to be fed and bathed; O’Toole sees many of the same traits in the boy that remind him of himself when he was 10-years old.
By finding a credible way to have her main character not involve the authorities, Fradkin is able to stretch out the mystery in interesting ways; the police have very predictable and blunt (though often effective) ways of approaching a case; O’Toole has none of their training and so goes about trying to find answers in a somewhat more meandering manner which succeeds in drawing the reader further into the lives of both O’Toole and this mystery boy. But Fradkin also uses this time to help develop the complex relationship between O’Toole as the broken saviour and the boy as the reluctant victim. On the jacket copy, readers are told that Fradkin is a child psychologist, and the understanding of behaviour and motivation that comes from that kind of work really seems to inform the scenes between O’Toole and the boy. Both have suffered traumas and are at different stages of dealing with it; much of what is revealed about O’Toole’s and the boy’s states of mind and their respective motivations, is suggested rather than revealed to readers explicitly.
And this is perhaps part of what ultimately makes the book so effective: Fradkin’s writing feels pitch perfect for this kind of piece. She largely follows the structure that comes with the mystery genre and employs many of the conventions we’ve come to expect from this kind of book. It’s a testament, though, to her storytelling skills and comfort with the language that these elements which in the hands of another might feel obvious and overbearing are subtle and organic to the story being told. Sometimes books aimed at the audience that “Rapid Reads” have set out to find can feel like dumbed down versions, but that’s not the case here. Fradkin has skilfully adjusted the genre to fit the story she wants to tell, making the book appealing to a wide range of readers, both reluctant and eager alike.
Scott Gordon is a high school teacher-librarian and English teacher in Ottawa, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any
other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.