Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Clue when six children navigate a mansion full of secrets—and maybe money—in this “delightful gem” (School Library Journal, starred review) with heart.
Sweet, shy Tabitha Crum, the neglected only child of two parents straight out of a Roald Dahl book, doesn’t have a friend in the world—except for her pet mouse, Pemberley, whom she loves dearly. But on the day she receives one of six invitations to the country estate of wealthy Countess Camilla DeMoss, her life changes forever.
Upon the children’s arrival at the sprawling, possibly haunted mansion, it turns out the countess has a very big secret—one that will change their lives forever.
Then the children beginning disappearing, one by one. So Tabitha takes a cue from her favorite detective novels and, with Pemberley by her side, attempts to solve the case and rescue the other children…who just might be her first real friends.
Remember, my dear Mr. Tibbs, that mysterious circumstances frequently begin with an arrival: Unexpected letters or visitors or poisoned meat pasties are often indications that one will soon be forced into mental and/or physical strain.
—Inspector Percival Pensive,
The Case of the Petulant Postman
Just past three o’clock in the afternoon, when schools across London were releasing much-adored children by the bucketful, Tabitha Crum was ushered into the cold as well. She tarried at the edge of St. John’s gate, threading an arm through the bars and observing the world for a moment, ignoring the jostling of boys and girls who seemed in such a hurry to return to the places they belonged. “Today,” she whispered to a small lump in her satchel pocket, “we find ourselves in a curious situation, sir.” Slipping an envelope from her bag, she lightly tapped it against the obtrusion. “Off we go.”
The cobblestone streets in the village of Wilting were made eerie and muted by thick November fog, and clip-clopping carriage horses snorted up and down the road, emerging and disappearing into the mist. Almost like ghosts, Tabitha mused. She clutched and rubbed the pretty envelope, letting one fingernail linger along the seam. The hand-delivery messenger had passed two letters to the teacher, glaring severely and emphasizing three times that they were not to be opened, but given to the parents of the children. What she and beastly Barnaby Trundle had done to deserve the elegant envelopes was unknown. The only certainty was that the glue was of a stubbornly good quality and Tabitha’s nails were of a woefully short length.
“It’s as though they’ve sealed it together with spite,” Tabitha muttered to the pocket lump, earning an offended glance from a passing elderly lady. Whether it was the muttering, the remark itself, her outgrown uniform, her worn grayish schoolbag that resembled a mangy rabbit, or a combination, Tabitha couldn’t be sure. Perhaps the woman was offended by children as a whole, rather like her mum and dad.
Licking chapped lips as she passed the corner bakery with its beckoning aromas, Tabitha felt a stirring in her belly unrelated to having eaten only broken crackers and cheese rind for lunch. Ludicrous or not, it was impossible to ignore the tiniest possibility that the envelope might contain . . . a small bit of light. Hands shaking from chill and an unfamiliar amount of prospect, she lifted the paper to her nose and took a long sniff. It smelled faintly of flowers.
A summons from Scotland Yard to become an Inspector-In-Training.
An invitation from King Edward to attend and gamble on a horse race.
Notification from a long-lost relative who actually wants me and wouldn’t view me as an imposition.
“What’s that, Pemberley?” Tabitha whispered to the lump, which was now squirming and fretting about. Mouse whiskers poked out, followed by a mouse face. “I don’t know how you manage to read my mind, but I suppose that’s what best friends do. And yes, those are all unlikely scenarios, but it’s nicer to imagine such things than to rip into the paper and find an advertisement for tooth powder or elocution lessons, isn’t it?”
Not caring to dwell on the possibility of such disappointing contents, Tabitha was grateful when a distracting bellow sounded behind her. Oddly enough, the bellower seemed to be calling her name from the street. Before she could turn, a familiar bicyclist veered close to the curb and sprayed Tabitha with filthy water left by a midday storm.
“Your invitation is bound to be a mistake. There’s no way she’ll let you in!” yelled a horrid voice.
Wafting alongside the insult were the scents of burned toast and rotting cinnamon. There was only one boy at St. John’s who wore such pungent odors. Sure enough, she turned to see Barnaby Trundle pedaling a slow circle in the road.
“Best to stay home, Drabby Tabby! I’ve heard the place is haunted and the spirits are hungry for filthy, ratty girls like you.” Barnaby stuck his tongue out as far as it could go.
Tabitha wiped a muddy water streak from her face and flushed, both at the insult and the realization that he had opened his envelope and she had no idea what he was referring to. She thought of exactly seven things that she would like to do to her classmate, one involving a rather nasty collision with a refuse wagon.
Barnaby took one hand off the handlebars to send her a mocking wave before smoothing his reddish locks and disappearing around a corner.
Tabitha pulled Pemberley from the satchel pocket. “Nice and dry, are you? It was clever to tuck yourself away like that.” She nodded seriously. “And yes, Pemberley, you’re right. I should have defended us.”
“Oh, I don’t know, something like, ‘Believe me, Barnaby Trundle, I won’t be staying home. I rather think you should, though. I’ve heard most spirits have a fondness for repulsive boys with no manners and an excess of their father’s hair crème. And an obscene amount of completely unnecessary aftershave. Any ghosts will smell you out in a minute.’?” She let Pemberley sniff her hand for crumbs, run up her sleeve, and burrow under her shirt collar. “It’s a shame I’m not just a bit bolder, isn’t it? One day you and I shall make good on a bit of mischief.”
Even soaked and unavenged as she was, a flutter of excitement warmed its way up Tabitha’s back and neck, tickling the tips of her ears. So, he’s opened his. And according to Barnaby, her envelope was a mistake. Based on the boy’s despicable nature, his claim must mean that the contents were sure to be something quite good. (Well done, Inspector Crum.)
Tabitha put a pencil in her mouth as she walked along. Instead of reading through reports at the Scotland Yard office of the Metropolitan Police Service, Inspector Percival Pensive always did his deducing in a corner booth of his favorite pub, puffing a pipe or chewing pensively on his pocket watch chain. Neither pipe nor pocket watch was practical for an inspector of her youth and means, and so Tabitha made do with pencils. “Now, Pemberley,” she whispered, “what could it be? Let’s review the clues. Barnaby said to stay home, so that would make it an invitation to go somewhere . . . .”
“Yes, yes, a place owned by a woman . . . haunted, he said, though that bit was clearly rubbish.” It would be easy enough to find out more. There was a moment, one brief moment, where the act of disobedience hung in the air like a buttered crumpet, waiting to be fetched and gobbled up. Tabitha’s hand lifted as though of its own accord, and her free fingers rose to meet the envelope’s edge. Carefully, deliciously, she held her breath and began a tiny tear at the corner.
She dropped both hands, holding the note to her side as she continued toward her home. Tabitha Crum, she scolded herself, they’ll never grow to love you if you can’t even follow a clear and simple rule, especially one that was emphasized three times and accentuated with a glare. A second voice, that of her mother, snuck in to repeat the answer to a much younger Tabitha’s question. You want us to love you, is that right? Love, Tabitha Crum, is to be earned, not given away to just anyone like a festering case of fleas.
She’d been seven when her mother had made the comparison of love and irritable itching. Tabitha remembered the statement quite well because it was the same year children at school had suddenly gotten it in their heads that she had a case of head lice. That had been a difficult time and nobody had gotten close to Tabitha since. Of course, with the addition of a pet mouse over the last year, her lack of friendship could perhaps be further explained by the misapprehension that she spoke to herself. Pemberley was a most excellent consultant in all matters, but he tended to stay out of sight, so Tabitha could somewhat understand the slanderous comments.
Or it might have been the unfortunate, uneven, unattractive, blunt-scissored haircut her mother was so fond of giving her.
Or it could have been the simple truth that making friends can be an awkward and a difficult thing when it’s a one-sided endeavor and you’ve a pet mouse and you’ve been painted as odd and quiet and shy, when really you’re just a bit misunderstood.
In any case, nobody at St. John’s seemed lacking for companionship except her. But Tabitha reminded herself that there were far worse things than not having friends. In fact, she often made a game of listing far worse things:
• eating the contents of a sneeze
• creatures crawling into her ear holes
• losing a body part (Though that one was debatable, depending on the part. An ear or small toe might be worth a friend or two.)
While Tabitha stopped to stare at fresh scones piled in the window of Puddles Tea & Confectionery and speculated whether the envelope’s contents would outdo last year’s Christmas box of used tights, two passing men knocked her to the ground, as though she wasn’t worth moving for.
“Two more are floating around somewhere!” one of them said, stabbing a finger at his newspaper and not noticing her in the slightest. “It’s simply unfathomable. After all this time? That place has got to be like heaven above! Gilded soaking tubs and secret rooms filled with money and the like. And to ask children, of all people. I say, Rupert, life is simply beyond unfair . . . .”
Tabitha picked herself up, slightly rattled. She sighed at the careless bumpers and at the memory of Barnaby Trundle’s last words. Under normal, unsprayed circumstances she wasn’t filthy, but she was skinny and knobby-kneed and wearing a uniform far too small for someone who’d grown several inches in the last six months. And apparently those elements combined to make her the sort of person who was prone to being callously clipped down without notice or apology.
“Oh, Pemberley,” she said aloud, rounding the final corner before reaching her home and tugging on the end bits of her hair, wishing it would grow several inches, “if only life were like a book, and I could choose precisely what part I played.” She ignored the puzzled glance from her neighbor, Mrs. Dullingham, who was leaning out of her door to fetch a grocery delivery. “If only the envelope contained a—”
And at precisely half past three, Tabitha stopped musing and walking, having spotted a curious sight outside her modest brown brick home: her father’s briefcase, her parents’ traveling trunks, and a jewelry case crowded together at the front entrance.
Jessica Lawson is the author of The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, a book that Publishers Weekly called “a delightfully clever debut” in a starred review, and Nooks & Crannies, a Junior Library Guild Selection and recipient of three starred reviews. She is also the author of Waiting for Augusta and Under the Bottle Bridge. You can visit her at JessicaLawsonBooks.com.
"In the grand tradition of Roald Dahl. . . . A plucky amateur detective, secret passages, exaggerated characters, concealed identities, and dastardly villains equal a swell mystery."
– Kirkus Reviews
"Original, engaging, and funny.... The writing is beautiful, expertly capturing all the suspense, hope, and love in the story.... A delightful gem that will fly off the shelves."
– School Library Journal (STARRED REVIEW)
“A compelling puzzle, vividly drawn characters, and a clever and capable young detective.”
– Booklist (STARRED REVIEW)
"Packed with the delicious elements—hidden passages, unexplained noises, suspicious servants—of a traditional British mystery, Lawson’s (The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher) story, set in 1907 England, will keep readers engagingly puzzled throughout its multilayered twists and tangles....Well thought-out and deftly executed, Lawson’s novel will appeal to a wide audience."