Saturday, July 24, 2010

Book Review: The Big Splash by Jack Ferraiolo

Book: The Big Splash
Author: Jack D. Ferraiolo
Published: 2008
Source: Local Library

Matt Stevens has a reputation as a guy who can find things out. But he's an independent contracter, see? He's nobody's patsy. That's why he has reservations about taking a job from Vinny Biggs, the school's go-to guy for such contraband as forged hall passes and forbidden junk food. But twenty bucks can buy a lot of root beers.

Matt shoulda listened to his gut. While he's doing the job for Vinny, somebody takes out Nikki Fingers right next to him. Once she was Franklin Middle School's most feared squirt-gun assassin. One twitch of her trigger finger and her luckless victims were standing there with apparently peed pants, a subject of scorn and mockery forever. Now she's been served a taste of her own medicine, but who ordered the hit? To Matt's surprise, both Vinny and Nikki's cute sister Jenny put him on the case. As he starts to detangle the strange web of loyalties, grudges, and crushes that surround the event, Matt realizes that people who are his friends, his enemies, and a little of both may be involved. And if he's not careful, he might find himself staring down a Super Soaker with his name on it.

As a mystery, this worked really well for me. Loads of false leads and secret motives clutter Matt's path toward the truth. I got a little lost toward the end, but it all worked out reasonably enough. Mostly, though, I have to talk about the tone of this book. The softboiled, faux-noir thing has been done with Bruce Hale's Chet Gecko series, but for a different audience, and there it's played purely for laughs. The Big Splash can't really decide whether it wants to be funny or serious about its own tone. Initially, it's pretty tongue in cheek. Matt calls his school "the Frank," kids gather at a backyard shed called Sal's for cheap root beer and PBJs, and hall monitors keep a sharp eye out for rubber bands and chewing gum. Then as we get deeper into the story, the cynicism and meloncholy feel of noir begin to seep in.

This seepage occurs in large part because Ferraiolo's characters are more fleshed out than Hale's. Matt has history with all the people he's investigating, most notably Kevin Carling, who was Matt's best friend until he accepted Biggs' offer to be a "lieutenent" (read: head bullyboy) in his organization. In addition, Matt's home life is hardly the stuff of Nick at Nite. Since his father's mysterious disappearance, his mom has had to work two jobs, leaving Matt to largely care for himself. His tough-guy demeanor becomes less an assumed persona that he can lay aside and more like a defense mechanism against all the blows life has dealt him.

Also, Vinny Bigg's organization is pretty funny until you realize the implications. The various hits carried out, from Nikki's Super-Soaker antics to a revenge hit on the apparent perpetrator, are downright nasty. What else can you call stripping a kid naked except for a chocolate-smeared diaper? Funny? Yeah. The stuff of years of therapy? Oh, yeah. I wrestled with that, trying to reconcile my adult horror with my memories of middle school. Is it exaggerated? Sure, but not by much, and for kids going through it, maybe not at all. The meloncholy tone may resonate with kids who are starting to deal with changing friendships and difficult choices.

I really hope that Ferraiolo writes more Matt Stevens books. Meloncholia aside, I really enjoyed this one, and I'm deeply curious about the larger mysteries that were set up in this novel.

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