Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham

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scarlettScarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham
Little, Brown, due out in May 2015

In this spirited, multicultural detective novel, Scarlett, a “freckled, cappuccino-colored, sixteen-year-old“ Muslim, takes on an apparently simple case when 9-year-old Gemma Archer asks her to investigate her brother’s connection with his friend’s suicide. But as Scarlett digs into it, she realizes it has a life-threatening link to her own family.

Set in the fictional city of Las Almas, which feels so much like New York I’m not sure why it isn’t, Scarlett Undercover has a large, mainly Muslim cast. As her Egyptian father and Sudanese mother are both dead, Scarlett has assembled around herself a new quasi-family, many of whom have a role to play in this mystery. The author deftly thumbnail sketches the many characters, even minor ones, to give them clear definition: “Sam Johnson was short, round, and topped off with a shock of indignant red hair.”

The mystery hinges around Islamic stories of evil jinn, and their leader Iblis’s battle with Solomon and all of humanity. Scarlett is a casual Muslim, though her sister, Reem, is devout, and, over the course of the book, we see Scarlett’s commitment to her faith grow as her investigations lead her into a deeper understanding of her religion. The author is not Muslim (nor am I) but appears to have done a thorough job of researching both the religion and the culture. An author’s note on what she assimilated and what she made up would be useful, though there wasn’t one in the ARC I read.

The hardboiled style is well done, and Scarlett has many neat turns of phrase: “Mr Prazsky was as hard to pin down as a soft-boiled egg.” However, though she professes to be independent and self-sufficient, the reader will easily see cracks in the façade where her vulnerability shows through, particularly when it comes to her love interest, Decker.

The novel is satisfying and complete in itself, but with this out of the ordinary and eclectic team of players, and all of the mean streets of Las Almas to go down, Scarlett Undercover feels like it could be the first in a terrific series.

Thanks to Little, Brown and Netgalley for the ARC. And thanks to Little, Brown for ensuring that the girl on the cover of the book looks like a 16 year-old Egyptian/Sudanese girl.

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