08 June, 2010

"We always solve them, too."

Meg #6
Mystery in Williamsburg

We take a break from Nancy this week with a lesser-known mystery-solver who was nonetheless a huge part of my childhood. The 'Meg' mysteries were aimed at younger children, so the stories have far fewer cliff-hangers (and larger print).

Meg has a number of similarities to Nancy Drew - she's motherless, and largely raised by her housekeeper, she loves solving mysteries (of course) and she never makes any mistakes, leaving that to her best friend, Kerry, to do.

The case:
It's spring, and Meg is painting a picture of some dandelions for her father, who is away on business. Apparently she's amazingly talented at art. I suspect this will be relevant later in the book. You can tell she's talented because Mrs Wilson, the housekeeper, tells her her painting is "real pretty". She also brings Meg some news: her uncle is here to see her!

Uncle Hal has a Very Important job at the museum, although Meg's not allowed to ask questions about it. I'm thinking he's actually a government spy. He's also young and handsome. I'm thinking
sexy government spy. Anyway, Uncle Hal has arrived to invite Meg and Kerry to Williamsburg. A friend of Meg's (dead) mother is holding a toy exhibition, and she's asked Meg and Kerry to help, as tour guides.

When the three of the get to Williamsburg, Meg's (dead) mother's friend isn't home, and although she leaves her front door open, it sticks in the rain. No matter - her house has a secret entrance! There's a door next to the chimney which leads into the old wood shed, and then into the house. That is actually pretty cool.

Meg's (dead) mother's friend, Lucy, arrives home. Uncle Hal tells her something smells good, and Lucy flirtatiously suggests that it's her, although it turns out he's actually talking about dinner. Still, Uncle Hal is clearly a UILF. Lucy tells the girls about the mysterious Miss Mariah, who is donating some of the toys to the exhibition. She carries an old doll around with her all the time, and there's a locked room in her mansion (aka the River House) which she visits every day between 2 and 3pm. No one says anything about Bluebeard, but I bet they're all thinking it.

Before visiting Miss Mariah, Meg and Kerry get dressed up in Colonial style clothes. I remember doing that at school when I was a kid, and it being
totally fun. Kerry is a tomboy, so she has to wear stockings and breeches, which sounds less fun. They go to show off their outfits to Uncle Hal, and Meg finds a photo that he's dropped, of a man who is smiling - except the smile doesn't reach his eyes. Ladies and gentlemen, we have found our villain, and we don't even know what the mystery is yet.

Miss Mariah introduces Meg and Kerry to Paris, the doll she carries around with her. She was named Paris because... she was made in Paris. This seems like the doll-equivalent of naming your child after wherever it was conceived. Number 17 Bus Shelter knows what I'm talking about. Paris was one of the first talking dolls ever made, but one day... there was a tragedy. And after that Paris
never spoke again.

Miss Mariah's parents died when she was 6, and her Grandfather took her in. He filled her playroom with toys, all of which she was allowed to play with - except for two little peg dolls, named Mercy and Charity. Apparently, they were incredibly valuable, but Miss Mariah could never work out why. After all, they were made from clothespins. But one day, her visiting cousins completely wrecked the playroom, breaking the doll's house that was an exact replica of the River House (right down to a secret room), injuring Paris, and losing the two peg dolls. The resulting arguements and accusations broke the family apart.

Apparently Miss Mariah's grandfather found the two dolls, and hid them to keep them safe. But she was ill when he told her where, and all she can remember of his instructions is to "turn the house upside down, and you'll find them". She has turned the whole house upside down, searching everywhere, but she's never found them.

Strangely, a lot of people have suddenly started visiting her, and asking her about her toy collection. She's sure that someone's out to steal her toys. Perhaps she's been visited by Angelica Pickles. But she's sure they'll be safe at the exhibition while she's out of town, and Meg and Kerry promise to look after Paris as if she was there own child. Er, doll. Then there's a knock at the door. A young man, Stephen, comes to the door and asks where he can find the River House and Miss Mariah, Miss Mariah is incredibly suspicious, and turns him away before he can say why he's there.

Lucy takes the girls home with the toys Miss Mariah has donated to the exhibition, and it starts pouring with rain. They see Stephen waiting for the bus and offer him a lift, and as they talk he starts revealing that he knows things about Paris and Miss Mariah that she had said no one else knew. As thanks he offers to help carry the toys into Lucy's house. And they let him, because that is the
ideal thing to do when you think someone is trying to steal your shit - let them carry it for you. The front door is still stuck, so they have to go in through the chimney door again. Stephen, who is carrying the doll's house, slips in the dark, but the doll's house seems to be unharmed. The only thing that has changed is that the roof, which was slightly crooked before, is now straight. Meg notices this with her "artist's eye", by the way. Stephen apologises, saying he tripped over his own large feet.

The next day, Lucy, Meg and Kerry go out for a walk, and Meg decides she wants to do some sketching. Up until now, Meg has been the one looking after Paris, but she gives the doll to Kerry to hold so she can work. Lucy sends Kerry to buy some fresh cookies, and in the bakery the baker accidentally bumps into Kerry with a hot baking tray, burning her hands. She puts Paris down on the counter while she gets her hands bandaged up - and when she comes back, Paris is gone! Meg, of course, wouldn't have put Paris down for a second, 3rd degree burns or no.

Lucy thinks someone must have just picked up Paris thinking she was lost, but Meg wonders if she was stolen. She's further convinced when they visit the toy exhibition and she finds out that a lot of old toys are worth a lot of money - especially early models, like Paris. Lucy finally considers going to the police, but before she can ring them Meg hears someone coming up the steps towards the exhibition, and leaving again quickly. When Meg and Kerry open the door, they find Paris leaning against the doorframe. And I read enough horror stories as a young kid to be pretty convinced that Paris is alive and out to kill everyone.

Back at the exhibition, Meg and Kerry find footsteps muddy footsteps going up the stairs. Footprints made by large feet. Which is just the kind of feet that Stephen has! Even more suspiciously, after the exhibition opens, he comes to visit and makes a joke about Paris "getting back in time". The girls are sure he stole Paris, but Lucy points out that that isn't the hard evidence that they need. She might not have used those exact words.

Now, Meg's age is never actually given in the book, but I have to assume she's quite young - for one thing, she wears her hairs in pigtails, which is usually a sign of "young girl", and for another, Lucy worries about leaving the girls alone at night. So let's say she's thirteen, maybe fourteen at most (maybe younger). Stephen, on the other hand, is described as a "young man". So when Lucy goes out for the evening, and Stephen rings Meg and asks her if he can come over with "someone who wants to see you and Kerry", it is pretty damned skeevy. Particularly since Stephen doesn't say anything about checking with her parent or guardian about whether it's OK. Luckily, Meg tells him no. But it totally reads like a child abduction just waiting to happen.

Stephen's not the only suspicious person around, though. Meg notices a guy hanging around the toy exhibition with long hair, a bushy moustache, and a smile that doesn't reach his eyes. Personally, I suspect anyone who thinks a moustache is a good idea. He introduces himself as Mr Adam and asks a number of interested questions. Kerry answers quite happily, but Meg isn't sure about him. She tells him he'll have to leave, as the girls are about to go on their lunchbreak. When they get back from lunch, they find that someone has emptied all the furniture out of the dollhouse. (DUN DUN DUNNN!) Meg and Kerry try to put things straight again, and in the house Meg finds a cufflink shaped like an 'S'. S... for skeevy Stephen?

Lucy takes a delivery of an old diary and a bunch of other papers, but has to go out for the evening again. Meg looks through, and finds something shocking - an article on The Mystery of the Missing Washington Dolls. Turns out George Washington gave his sister two little peg dolls, named Mercy and Charity. Meg realises that other people have read the article, realised that Miss Mariah was (is?) in possession of Mercy and Charity and have started sniffing around for information.

Meg realises that the dolls must be hidden in the doll's house. She and Kerry remember the secret room and decide to open it and see if the dolls are inside. At first they can't get it open, but then Meg remembers Miss Mariah's message - "turn the house upside down". They do, and the secret room opens - but there's nothing inside but a scrap of material. The dolls are gone.

At the end of the day the girls are getting ready to leave when they spot Stephen and another man talking to Mr Adam. Panicked, Meg almost drops Paris, and hears a ripping noise. She realises what caused Paris to stop talking, and decides she needs to get to Lucy as quickly as possible. Lucy is working at the old jail, solely, I assume, so that Meg and Kerry can get locked in there after closing.

Luckily they're rescued... unluckily, it's by Stephen and the other man, who turns out to be his father. They say that Lucy asked them to pick the girls up, but Meg and Kerry are somewhat skeptical! Before they get to Stephen's car, they make a run for it, taking a shortcut which leads away from the road and towards Lucy's house. Just as they arrive, someone yells at them to stop running, because he wants the doll. It's Mr Adam, of the unsmiling eyes. They duck in through the chimney door, and Meg tells Kerry her discovery. One of the Washington dolls has been inside Paris, all this time!

But there's more - on the woodshed floor they find another doll. It had been inside the doll's house, but on that very first day when Stephen dropped the house it had popped free.

So that's one mystery solved! But what about the bad guys? Well, Uncle Hal and Lucy bring the girls out of the woodshed and Meg and Kerry finally get a proper introduction to Stephen and his father. Turns out, his father is one of Miss Mariah's cousins, one of the brats that hid the Washington dolls in the first place! He shoved one of them into the doll's house, and the other down the couch; it was Miss Mariah's grandfather who hid on in Paris. None of this makes Stephen's behaviour any less creepy, but whatever.

It was Stephen who found and returned Paris - he hadn't stolen her, but had thought she had been left behind. And the cuff-link isn't his, either. Oh, and they didn't actually know Mr Adam - they'd just met him when the girls saw them talking together. Uncle Hal becomes interested in Mr Adam, though. He produces the photo that Meg saw earlier and asks the girls if he's the one. Kerry says no, but Meg the artist draws on long hair and a moustache and bingo! It is Mr Adam after all! Turns out his real name is Scott, and he's one of the cleverest art thieves in the world. The cufflink is his, too, which places him at the scene of the crime. Uncle Hal is totally a spy. Scott is apprehended, Miss Mariah reunites with her family, and Paris gets her groove back. Case closed.

Case notes:
  • Miss Mariah's name irritates me. Not because of the alliteration, which is awesome (naturally), but because every time I read it I wonder if it's ma-REE-a or ma-RAY-a.
  • I have never understood the "eyes not smiling" trope so often used in kids' books. Don't people's eyes just naturally crinkle when they smile? Or does this mean something else?!
  • Mercy and Charity are such moralistic names for children's toys. But at least neither of them were named "Chastity".
  • Miss Mariah really comes across as having never got over the loss and destruction of her toys. To be fair, her grandfather died not long after, but even then, she's still tearing up while she talks about him. Then again, it would appear that she doesn't have anything in her life except her memories of her childhood. It's just sort of sad and awful.
  • There's actually some really decent descriptions of Williamsburg. The author is not without talent.
  • Meg and Kerry have to give speeches at the exhibition. Meg is a natural, of course, and Kerry keeps screwing up.
  • And on the first day, although they're both nervous, Meg gets over her nerves super-quick. Then, once Kerry gets into it, Meg just sits around and sketches while Kerry does the tour/demonstration/speaking.
  • Meg figures out there's a doll in Paris and just... doesn't tell Kerry for a while. Which is a total dick move, but just exactly what I'm starting to expect from her.
The cover: Is not really that mockable. Although I do wonder why Meg is trying to smother a baby with a pink blanket.