This month, we lost a living legend in the magic world: Johnny Thompson. A mentor and consultant to many top magicians, Johnny came to prominence as the Great Tomsini in an act he performed with his wife Pam. The two created a slapstick act, integrating illusions with a series of hilarious mishaps, all of which made the magic more incredible. In the realm of magic, this is called routining. In the world of the writer, it’s called world-building.
This month, let’s take a look at two middle grade mysteries that prove world-building isn’t just for science fiction and fantasy. First up, “Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head”.
Written by Lauren Oliver and H.C. Chester, “Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head” features four orphans with amazing abilities who live and perform at Dumfrey’s Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders in early 20th century New York City. A mentalist, a contortionist, a strong man (err, boy), and a knife-thrower, the four kids attempt to solve the mystery of who stole the museum’s shrunken head, it’s most prized feature. Along the way, they encounter danger and deception, and even a few murders.
What makes this book work so well is the complete immersion into the setting. The museum’s many halls and artifacts are brought to life by the authors, as are the behind the scenes areas. The homey kitchen, the dismal basement, and the attic living quarters, itself a labyrinth of furniture, mattresses, and other odds and ends all help the reader experience the sights, smells, and sounds of the museum. By the time the book is over, the reader will have truly experienced the Dime Museum, with all it’s faults and flaws.
In addition to the setting, Oliver and Chester paid close attention to the abilities of the characters, including how those abilities would affect them and the world around them. For example, what happens to the world’s strongest kid when a concrete block falls on him from several stories up? “Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head” is a satisfying mystery made even more enjoyable by the sense of place and time created by the authors. It’s no wonder it’s an Edgar award nominated book.
If you’ve ever wondered what the afterlife might be like, “Denis Ever After”, written by Tony Abbott, is the story of Denis Egan. When we meet him, Denis is living a carefree afterlife in Port Haven, the place where souls go. When Matt, the twin brother he left behind, starts having problems, Denis knows he has to help. Helping, in this case, means solving the mystery of his own death. Because you start to forget who you are as soon as you reach Port Haven, Denis doesn’t remember his own death. So, Denis and Matt go on a search for answers.
Abbott’s world building really pays off for the reader. The view of Port Haven as the afterlife creates a story world that is both accessible and compelling. It also adds to the tension of the story. Because souls go to Port Haven to forget, and be forgotten, the details about his life that would help Denis and Matt are inaccessible. Also, the method of moving between Port Haven and the living world is ingenious. It exacts a toll every time, leaving the reader to wonder if Denis will be able to keep doing it. Even the day to day experiences in Port Haven (the daily ships full of souls arriving, the foursome gathering to play bridge but only ever shuffling the cards) make an otherworldly experience relatable to the reader. Like “Curiosity House” above, “Denis Ever After” is an Edgar Award nominee and the nomination is well deserved.
Well, that’s all for this month. I’m off to do some world building of my own. Have a magical month!