Who doesn’t like reading about mystery and mayhem, when there’s a neat resolution to be had at the end of it? Here’s a look at two series that promise hours of good fun and some rather essential food for thought.
Murder Most Unladylike
Appropriate for: 12+ years
It is 1934 and despite the turmoil going on in the world, in the elite Deepdean School for Girls in England, girls from some of the country’s wealthiest and most prominent families are still gathering to earn an education and good manners to help them take their place in society. Hazel Wong is an heir, too, except she’s not British. She has come all the way from Hong Kong to fulfil her father’s dream of getting his brightest child a British upbringing. Wong does her best to fit in, but it’s not always easy. She stands out because of her Asian features; because of the rumours swirling on campus that her father is a drug dealer than the banker that he is. There’s one girl, though, who seems to appreciate Wong’s sharp mind and makes sure that she doesn’t feel too out of place — the Honorable Daisy Wells. A fledgling friendship flourishes between the two, and, then, one night, when Wong sees the body of a mistress in the school gym that disappears by the time she returns with Wells, it seems obvious to both what the girls must do: form a detective society and investigate the case of the missing school teacher.
Best of Express Premium
The first of her 11-part murder-mystery series, Murder Most Unladylike (2014) is a romp of an adventure, somewhat reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five or Secret Seven series, but updated suitably to keep up with the times. Its creator Robin Stevens has spoken of the influence of the Golden Age of detective stories on her and it is evident in the way she draws up a canvas true to its time (though gliding over any direct historical references), with all the ingredients of a classic mystery — plenty of red herrings, some daredevilry and a kindly police officer. But what makes Stevens’ book, and the subsequent ones that follow, a treat is the fact that she introduces various important issues that are perfect conversation-starters with adolescent readers — on racist, class disparity and gender. Pick up book one for the unladylike pursuits of Wong and Wells and follow them around through the rest of the series for the ingenious pulse-racing adventures and realisations they bring on.
The Mysterious Benedict Society
Trenton Lee Stewart
Appropriate for: 10+ years
Mystery lies at the heart of Trenton Lee Stewart’s quartet (besides a later book on the backstory of Nicholas Benedict) revolving around the Benedict Society — four gifted children, each either an orphan or unloved by their parents, who have been brought together by Nicholas Benedict to assist him in his mission to save the world. The Mysterious Benedict Society (2007) introduces us to these children — Reynie Muldoon, the leader of the group, whose logical mind is his chief asset; the preternaturally smart George Washington, whose eidetic memory ensures he never forgets anything he sees; the sporty Kate Wetherall, who carries around her red bucket of tools, a resource the four have frequent use of all; and, the youngest of them all, Constance Contraire, who can read people’s minds and send telepathic messages to them. Together, they have to stop Benedict’s twin Ledroptha Curtain, and his evil assistants, the Ten Men, from taking control of the world through brainwashing.
Different from the kind of mystery that Stevens’ books offer in that it involves a degree of supernatural powers, but similar in the way both explore the nature of friendships and what it means to be different, the hallmark of Lee Stewart’s series is how quirky it is, just like the characters that populate its pages. For patient readers, this offers a wealth of riddles and tics, whose meanings can be teased out through attentive deliberations, but even for those readers on the lookout for action and engagement, there’s plenty on offer. Since its OTT adaptation on Disney Hotstar in 2021, the series has gained great popularity, but a visual adaptation can only offer the broad strokes of a large intricate pattern. To savor it truly, dip into the books and enjoy the clever twists and quirky puns.