Page 45 Review by Stephen
"You survived your first day?"
"Oh, more or less, yes. The only problem is, I spent so long cleaning in the chemistry lab that I managed to miss dinner."
"Well, that would explain why you survived."
You won't be so lucky come lunchtime, I'm afraid.
You can smell the stench coming off the pages. It hits Daphne "like a brick in a fetid sock" and that's before what passes for the food has been served! You're in for a merciless twelve pages of malodorous school dinner, described in such stomach-curdling detail that I strongly suggest you avoid eating immediately before reading chapter twenty-two, certainly not during it, and trust me when I tell you that you won't want to risk anything for at least two hours afterwards.
As George suggests, it's been Daphne's first day at St Rita's School for Spirited Girls, and that she survived Chemistry was nothing short of a minor miracle. Mrs Klinghoffer is as blind as a bat.
"Yes, yes, child. Do not be worrying. Everything is being quite all right and I am being fine." Mrs Klinghoffer raised her voice. "But if anyone is finding the fire extinguisher, then can they please be bringing it me so that I can be putting out my hair. Thank you."
The long drive leading up to the school now boasts a substantial crater the size of a bomb blast. George explains:
"Chemistry experiment. Couple of girls messing about with stolen supplies. Mr. Klinghoffer was furious."
"I'm not surprised! Were they all right?"
"Dunno. Nobody saw where they landed."
George has a lot of explaining to do about St Rita's School for Spirited Girls - not least, why he's the only boy there. He doesn't, nor does the author, which is exactly as it should be: far funnier to leave the oddity in this anarchic asylum for barely contained idiocy alone. It's a private boarding school, by the way, during a time when trains still ran on steam, had porters to help you on board, and conductors with the power to throw you off - while in motion, apparently.
From the creator of the wonderful prose whimsy A BOY AND A BEAR IN A BOAT and the far more fearful THIRTEEN CHAIRS and the ridiculous graphic novel GOOD DOG, BAD DOG: DOUBLE IDENTITY (all in stock and reviewed) comes this very first 'Emily Lime Mystery'. They're all aimed at readers aged a few years either side of 11, but I'm the proud adult owner of both books of illustrated prose which we rack alongside all things Reeve & McIntyre, Gary Northfield's JULIUS ZEBRA and Simone Lia's THEY DIDN'T TEACH THIS AT WORM SCHOOL.
Whether or not it first appears so, every single scene here lies in service to the story - to the mystery itself - while other individual elements which you may initially imagine merely mined for their comedy gold will prove pivotal either to the unravelling of the crime or the unravelling of those caught in it. There is absolutely no fatty tissue (except served as meat), you won't be subjected to every cross-country run, nor will you be sitting through every lesson. You'll be out of your seat quite quickly during chemistry, either voluntarily or vertically propelled.
The only hours that may prove pointless are during detention. But then they usually are, aren't they? Detention will be in Room 101, by the way, and at 4am. You've got to put some serious effort into being detained at 4am.
What's so brilliant about this as an introductory case is that it's a running comedic contrast between the naive and the new, so not knowing what to expect (us as readers, stumbling several miles in poor, bewildered Daphne's shoes) and the blithely inured (George and Emily Lime). It's all quite quotidian to them.
It seems we're back in the dining hall. Do hold your breath.
"The younger girls were relatively subdued: loud and unruly, but mostly remaining seated and only occasionally indulging in petty acts of violence. The older girls, though, were wild. There were a number of minor food fights going on, one major fight with no food involved, and an improvised game of hockey using a bread roll as the ball. A chorus line of four sixth formers were dancing raucously on top of one table, which was annoying the girls trying to play poker beneath it."
The very last thing you would want is to meet these miscreants on caffeine. You will, but you won't want to again.
Every student and teacher seems on steroids. One of them is a nun who talks like a gangster. (She's may well be a gangster.) Even Matron's a force to be reckoned with. Actually, all school matrons are a force to be reckoned with.
"[She] possessed no shred of medical knowledge, training, or indeed sympathy, compassion or humanity. One of the less fanciful rumours about Matron was that she had only come to St Rita's after her international wrestling career had come to a controversial end following the death of (depending on which version of the story you heard) an opponent, a referee or both. Certainly the force of her slap gave George no reason to disbelieve any of these theories."
She has the touch. I'm not sure it's a healing touch, but you certainly feel it.
"See?" said Matron to Emily Lime. "I told you he'd be fine. I am proper good at my job, you know. When I make someone better well, they stay well. Do you know, I don't think I've ever treated the same girl twice."
As well as his immaculate comedy timing, ("The bus was old, dirty and noisy; the seats were old, dirty and uncomfortable; the driver was old, dirty and terrible at driving.") I love Shelton's descriptive playfulness. George's hair is "enthusiastically berserk", head girl Cynthia click-clacks in "important-sounding shoes" and Emily Lime's face "seemed to be built from twitches".
There are also plenty of linguistic flourishes ("An expanse of cloud blocked out the moon and the darkness deepened and bloomed...") and a theatre to it all which is so infectious that I defy you not to want to act this out to yourself:
"Yes. You know: accounts. Money and arithmetic. Numbers and so on." She pronounced the word numbers with a mixture of bafflement and disgust.
I tried 'numbers' with disgust my first time round, then added 'bafflement'. Brilliant!
That's the semi-titular Emily Lime herself (never just 'Emily', but 'Emily Lime'), ultra-studious, ultra-serious, hardcore Assistant Librarian. Aged 13 or something. She's just peevishly (and unnecessarily) interviewed our Daphne and now reluctantly offers her a contact. This is what I mean about comedic timing:
"What's this for?" said Daphne.
"Standard Assistant Assistant Librarian's contract. Absolutely normal procedure. Just sign it. I haven't got all day."
"But it's blank."
"No, it's not."
"Well, yes. It is."
"No, it's not. There's a dotted line. See? There."
"Well, yes, I can see there's a dotted line. But there's nothing else."
"Oh, don't worry, I'll put the rest in later."
"That," said Daphne, "doesn't sound right."
"It's fine. Trust me. Or don't trust me and sign it anyway, I don't care. And once you've signed, you get a badge. Two, in fact."
Daphne considered this for a moment. She did like badges.
All of this is, as I've said, spun around a central mystery whose thread is sewn through each and every scene, whether you can see its narrative needle in action your first time through or not.
Daphne Blakeway has been offered a scholarship to St. Rita's School for Spirited Girls. Which is a bit odd, since she didn't even apply. Also, Daphne's just been expelled from her own, local school because of an "incident". No matter, the school's librarian, Mrs Crump, believes that Daphne has qualities which may be of benefit St Rita's.
So Daphne, although reluctant to leave home, sets off solo by train. But on the very first page the station's porter passes her a book called 'Scarlet Fury: A Smeeton Westerby Mystery' by J. H. Buchanan' which was handed to him by an unseen, older lady who was apparently en route to St. Rita's herself, but thought Daphne could save her the bother. This is also a bit odd, because Daphne wasn't wearing an A-sign saying "I am en route to St. Rita's". Perhaps it was her school uniform that gave this away... worn on the opposite side of the country.
On arrival, Daphne discovers that St Rita's is severely dilapidated in the way that most fee-paying schools actually were back then, has the cheapest and most foul cuisine, lesson attendance on a voluntary basis, and a remarkably lackadaisical attitude towards Health & Safety.
What it does boast, however, is an extraordinarily vast library. Or at least, it boasts an extraordinarily vast array of library bookshelves, largely empty on account of most of the books having been burnt to a crisp during a recent fire, except for an almost complete run of 'Smeeton Westerby Mysteries'. Only Daphne's recently acquired copy is missing from that collection.
Things have already occurred. More events will take place. And they will do so in a thunderous, five-thousand-mile-an-hour stampede which will make you wonder how you could possibly read 300+ pages of addictive, so very satisfying Young Adult prose in fewer than five hours.