Friday, October 26, 2007

A Message from the Dead: Dead Letter by Betsy Byars

In Betsy Byars' best and scariest Herculeah Jones mystery, Dead Letter, Herculeah's hair begins its warning frizzle when she finds a hastily scribbled message inside the lining of her vintage thrift shop coat:

"I don't want to die. I can't die. He's going to kill me. I know it. He keeps coming to the door. I've been a prisoner for days. There's no window. I don't know day from night. I shouldn't have signed. Now there's no reason not to kill me. He's back! Look inside..."
Immediately Herculeah's mind begins to search for leads to the identity of the victim--and the murderer. Herculeah goes back to the thrift shop and learns that the coat turned up in a box of riding equipment sold to the store. Then Herculeah goes to her police detective father Chico Jones to uncover the records of unsolved murders in the recent past. Although Chico withholds the name of the most likely victim from her, Herculeah eavesdrops on her father as he confides the name to her mom the name, adding that he doesn't want Herculeah getting following this lead into a dangerous situation.

Herculeah involves her chubby friend and fellow sleuth "Meat" in a library search of newspaper obituaries. There they find details of the death of a woman named Amanda Cole who died under unusual circumstances from a reported fall from her horse on the trails near her home on Elm Street. But when Herculeah goes to Elm Street to snoop around, she finds the old houses there being razed for the construction of new condos and is almost run down by the same mysterious black car which she realizes has been following her since she bought the coat.

When Meat has a dental appointment after school the next day, Herculeah goes back to the scene alone to investigate the riding trail. There on the secluded bridal path she is captured by a man with a menacing attack dog and locked up in a windowless stable--the same stable, she realizes, where Amanda Cole was held by her greedy nephew until she finally named him sole heir in her will. Alone in the dark room with a ferocious Doberman on guard, Herculeah wonders if Meat will come looking for her before it is too late!

Herculeah Jones is perhaps the best teenage girl sleuth in this genre since Nancy Drew. Newbery Award winner Betsy Byars' Herculeah Jones series is a great one for lovers of detective fiction. Short, pithy, with well-developed characters, proper attention to detective skills, and plenty of climactic action, the Herculeah Jones books are suspenseful fun for mystery fans from middle readers through early teens.



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