Book Review By Eric Sandberg
From Aesop and Scheherazade to the Brothers Grimm, stories for children were meant to entertain as well as to educate young people about the dangers they might face out in the real world. Over the centuries these tales have been neutered and de-clawed as the world has ostensibly become more civilized, while parents' instincts to protect their children have adapted to content filtering.
As a youngster I eschewed books aimed at my ilk, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary and Scholastic fair, in favor of Marvel Comics, Doc Savage and Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks, and even Winston Graham's Poldark saga. I was never interested in the offerings at the book fair.
The phenomenally successful Harry Potter series began from a grim premise — a baby is scarred and orphaned by a murderous dark wizard and forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs by his disdainful relatives. These events are in the past and there is plenty of hi jinks to distract from them, but as the series continued and the protagonists grew older it became increasingly darker in tone, culminating in the murder of a student at the hands of a revitalized dark lord with the long suffering Harry ultimately exacting a lethal revenge.
It could be argued that the massive success of the Harry Potter franchise in books, films and on the stage, has opened the door for authors to challenge young readers with a bit more than a puppy who has temporarily wandered off, only to be found later in the shed.
Enter Fleur Hitchcock, who The Times has proclaimed to have "...cornered the market in hard-boiled crime novels for beginners." The prolific Hitchcock has ten novels under her belt for British publisher Nosy Crow [including four volumes of the Clifftoppers adventure series aimed at seven year olds, though their parents and grandparents also read them]. In her first published novel Dear Scarlett the title character must solve the mystery of her late father, a notorious jewel thief — or was he?
In the follow up Saving Sophia a frumpy girl gravitates to a mysterious new girl in her class who leads her to abandon her safe but lonely life and plunge headlong into a dangerous journey. With Murder In Midwinter Hitchcock really hits her stride, crafting a story of murder and international intrigue, all starting with a young student who inadvertently captures what might be a murder on her camera as she snaps crowd pictures through a bus window. Murder At Twilight involves the kidnapping of a young lord of the manor with the protagonist's mother held as the chief suspect.
"I was desperate to read this kind of thing when I was younger so I wrote it for myself," Fleur Hitchcock writes to me from her home near Bath, England. "I used to read lots of really inappropriate things because stuff just wasn't written for my age. Murder just wasn't thought to be an appropriate subject, certainly not in a contemporary setting."
I was walking my dog in the park recently and as my mind wandered I started to replay in my head an exciting scene from a movie I must have watched with my daughter. I could see in my mind's eye the daring escape from a second story hole in a brick wall and a chase through a marsh. I was racking my brain trying to recall the movie when I realized it wasn't from a movie at all, it was a scene from Hitchcock's most exciting and cinematic novel The Boy Who Flew.
Set in an alternate world, A young boy discovers the body of his mentor who has been murdered for his secrets. But Mr. Chen's secrets were also Athan's as together they were building a machine that could fly! Athan's mission is to prevent the killers from finding the flying machine and keep himself alive in the process.
Hitchcock was raised in a creative family. Her father Raymond was an acclaimed novelist and painter who is notorious for penning the surreal novel Percy, about England's first recipient of an...er...Percy transplant. The book was later adapted into a film starring Denholm Elliot and Elke Sommer and featured a soundtrack by The Kinks. Her sister Lal is a sculptor and a psychotherapist, while her brother Robyn is a musician and songwriter who often paints his own album covers and includes whimsical short stories in his liner notes.
"I have always written, ever since I was a child, but with more and more intensity and was actually finishing manuscripts by the time i joined an MA course at Bath Spa University. I looked for a program for adult writing but, to my surprise, found there was one specifically for writing for children. It paved the way for me to start writing seriously. I was alongside some really good writers so I had to be good myself. Two years later, I had an agent and my first book contract, but it wasn't plain sailing. I had an awful lot of rejections and had to write a second book. The first one died on it's feet. It actually didn't though — it was published ten years later as The Boy Who Flew."
In 2017 Hitchcock was awarded the Leeds Children's Book Award, followed by the Salford Book Award in 2018 and continues to be shortlisted for other prestigious awards including the Oxford.
Hitchcock's latest novel for young readers is Waiting For Murder and it is a tension building slow burn of a mystery which suddenly accelerates to a gushing [literally] and satisfying conclusion. As a reservoir in the English countryside recedes during a period of murderously hot weather, and archeologists dig for some historically significant bones, a sunken car gradually becomes exposed. Are there more recent bones in there? Only two young, fast, friends Dan and Florence see the clues that lead to stolen gold, a series of life threatening "accidents"...and murder.
The book recalls my long hot summers away from home for my family's seasonal business, quickly making friends with tourist kids passing through. No mysteries or murders, but lot's of reading. As much as I loved Doc Savage and Edgar Rice Burroughs I'm sure I would have enjoyed a few Hitchcock mysteries if they were available then, as much as I do now as an adult.
Fleur Hitchcock doesn't just write books, she promotes reading by touring area schools and giving readings. She actively promotes books by her peers in the thriving UK young reader genre through social media and is a prominent voice in the fight to keep libraries in the UK open and funded.
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.