CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 33 . . . . May 1, 2015
More than 125 years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, his older brother Mycroft, and his associate Watson, audiences still can't seem to get enough of these quirky characters and their penchant for solving complex crimes.
The novel Every Breath doesn't feel like it is taking advantage of the rebirth in the popularity of the Sherlock Holmes "brand"; it's just a cool offshoot, a fresh take on the characters we're familiar with. Ellie Marney, the author of this fantastic book for teens, seems to be satisfying her urge to ask the question, "What if?" What if Holmes and Watson (in this case, renamed Mycroft and Watts) were modern Australian teenagers, and what if Watson were a girl? In Every Breath, Marney proves that playing with an old formula can be a truly worthwhile experiment.
From the start, the pace of this mystery/thriller hybrid is relentless. It begins in medias res and doesn't give readers much time to catch their breath. The main characters are largely established on the fly as they work to solve the murder of Homeless Dave, one of Mycroft's unusual "friends" from unexpected corners of Melbourne. Mycroft and Watts, high school friends who are also neighbours, discover Dave's body one night when they take him some food and hot tea. Upon stumbling on the scene of Dave's gruesome murder, the brilliant Mycroft starts almost immediately to use his uncanny ability for piecing together forensic evidence. (This knowledge is, in part, thanks to a high school forensics course; yes, I know it's beyond convenient for the plot, but given Marney's terrific storytelling, the reader is willing to suspend her disbelief over this point.) The two teenagers decide to dig deeper into Dave's case than the Melbourne police inspector who seems ready to dismiss it as a "sport killing".
The narrator and protagonist of Every Breath is Watts: Rachel Watts, who serves as both a sidekick and [eventual] romantic partner to the troubled, enigmatic genius Mycroft. These are smart, engaging characters who leap off the page. Watts is struggling to adjust to moving to Melbourne with her family after spending her life in an isolated rural area where her family members all worked together on a farm. Now they are leading separate lives, struggling to make ends meet: she calls their city home "the Watts family way station". Mycroft, a brilliant student whose rebellious behaviour keeps getting him suspended from school, also has a disappointing home life; he has been living with his aunt since the deaths of his mother and father, but she does little to fulfill the role of a parent. He spends much of his time online, posting scientific theories under the name Diogenes.
Although Watts and Mycroft have a couple of terrific friends, they are outsiders at their high school, and both of them have created emotional barriers to cope with loss in their lives. The evolution of their friendship is intriguing: there's powerful chemistry between them, but their relationship is far from a typical "boy meets girl" storyline and the gender stereotypes that we often meet in YA fiction. Watts and Mycroft make for an original and appealing sleuthing team as they use their wits and unique strengths—from online research into zoology, to persuading complete strangers into giving up information, to climbing out of dangerous situations—in order to solve Dave's murder. Early on, Watts challenges Mycroft into justifying his obsession with the case:
The dialogue is natural and believable, with plenty of swearing. Marney has also liberally seasoned her novel with Aussie slang. Having lived in Australia for a year, I was able to decipher most of it, but not all; Marney doesn't patronize the reader by stopping to explain what words like "ute" and "macking" mean. I think most Canadian teen readers would not be put off by the unfamiliar vocabulary; rather, the slang makes it a more immersive experience, placing readers firmly in modern Melbourne along with Watts and Mycroft.
Marney deftly employs suspense throughout Every Breath, and she leaves the reader wondering if there's more to Mycroft's backstory and the mysterious circumstances of his parents' deaths. Thus, I was relieved to find out that Every Breath is the first novel of a trilogy featuring Watts and Mycroft. I'll be looking for book two, called Every Word, which does not seem to be available in Canada yet; book three of the "Every" series is still in progress. In short, Every Breath (now shortlisted for an Inky Award, which recognizes the best in teen fiction) is YA fiction at its best: smart, thrilling, and addictive. More, please.
Gillian Lapenskie is a teacher-librarian at Barrie Central Collegiate in Barrie, ON.
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