At the start of this warped dark comedy mystery, the students of Winship Academy watch as a cheerleader in the Wildcat mascot costume apparently commits suicide by throwing herself off a bridge. But luckily the members of the Mystery Club are on hand: Benny Flax, one of the few Jews at the school, and blonde-haired Virginia Leeds set about getting to the bottom of this mystery.
Benny and Virginia do investigate and find clues, and they do uncover what is going on, and the plot does reach some sort of satisfying conclusion. But to read this deeply bizarre book as a straightforward whodunit would be to completely miss the point.
Benny set up the Mystery Club because he “believed in justice and inclusivity, and that everyone deserved the chance to improve themselves through the act of mystery solving.” But he eschews the human element of detective work, preferring the more cerebral observation work. Conversely, Virginia is deeply interested in people and what they get up to, but tends to get bogged down and sidetracked by small details. You might think this is the set up for a screwball romantic partnership as well, but you would be wrong, at least in this book. It does appear that this could be the first in a series.
Winship exists in its own bubble with its own logic, and there is a whole miscellany of support characters who, while familiar in some senses, are also completely out there versions of their archetypes. Brown-skinned Brit Zaire Bollo despises all things American; Gottfried the slacker German exchange student has managed to extend his stay to two and a half years; Corny Davenport, a cheerleader with a heart of pure schmaltz, and her boyfriend, Winn, who has an unusual relationship with his grandfather’s Civil War rifle.
Thrash, whose Honor Girl graphic novel (Candlewick, 2015) is also terrific, has a thrillingly deft hand with language – it’s both pinpointedly specific and observationally exhilarating. Here are just a few examples that I highlighted on my way through the book:
“Every time [Virginia] started to think Benny was kind of a badass, she’d catch him doing something really nerdy, like using ten different colored pens to take notes, or playing the flute way too earnestly.”
“Zaire had fantastic clothes, which seemed like a waste, because all she ever did was study. Who needed plush velvet skirts from Milan to read Moby Dick and do algebra?”
A musician is described as having “a round face and a trad Republican sidepart haircut that either his mother gave him or was supposed to be ironic.”
This is a mystery for those who don’t mind holes in their plots, or extravagantly unlikely resolutions, and who enjoy a setting and characters who might have stepped out of a YA David Lynch movie.
Thanks to Simon & Schuster and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.