If the TV show “Veronica Mars” and some 1940s-era Nancy Drew books got together and had a love child, it might be “The Girl is Murder” (Roaring Brook Press, 2011), by Kathryn Miller Haines.
It’s the fall of 1942, and fifteen year-old Iris Anderson’s world has turned upside down. Her father (“Pop”), a private detective, lost his leg at Pearl Harbor. Her mother, a German Jew, killed herself a short time later. Her mother’s inheritance has run dry, forcing father and daughter to move from their comfortable Upper East Side apartment to a house shared with their Polish landlady in the Lower East Side. Pop’s disability makes it difficult for him to carry out the physically challenging side of his detective work, and they are perpetually behind on the rent. No more posh private all-girls school for Iris; she’s attending a public school for the first time.
Iris longs to help her Pop, especially when she learns that he is investigating the disappearance of Tom, one of the few people at her new school to show her some kindness. Pop steadfastly refuses her help (“This isn’t a business for little girls.”), but Iris is determined. Soon, good-girl Iris is sneaking out behind her father’s back and cozying up to the tough crowd at school. Lies pile upon lies as Iris, determined to crack the case, double-crosses even her friends.
“The Girl is Murder” crackles with 1940s-era slang (“Our Benny thinks you’re murder. . . . “You know—marvelous.”), the tough boys wear oversized Zoot Suits, and they all do the jitterbug at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. I did have some problems with the plot, particularly with an improbable coincidence that I hoped would be somehow explained in the end (it’s not). Nevertheless, Haines successfully captures the race, religion, and class issues of wartime New York City while delivering a fast-paced page-turner. Recommended for readers 12 and up—there is drinking, some drugs, and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. If you like this book, you might want to check out the sequel, “The Girl is Trouble,” coming in July 2012.
“The Girl is Murder” was a nominee in the YA category for the prestigious Edgar Award, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. I’ll review the YA winner of the Edgar Award, “The Silence of Murder,” in my next column, but for now, you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got to take a powder.
This review originally appeared in the Sunday, May 6 print edition of The News-Gazette.