The Haunting of Nathaniel Wolfe, by Brian Keaney (Hodder & Stoughton, April 1, 2012, middle grade, 240 pages).
On a smoky, foggy, fetid March evening in Victorian London, young Nathaniel is engaged in his usual occupation--selling tickets to his father's show, one that promises that the dead will speak from beyond the grave. The audience is desperate to receive news of their departed loved ones (or not so loved ones), but Nathaniel knows it's all trickery. But even though his father spends the bulk of the money drinking, at least it keeps a roof over their heads....
But then the unexpected happens.
"Up there on the stage beside his father was a shadow, a shape, blurred at first but becoming clearer with every passing moment until finally he was looking at the figure of a woman, dressed in a long white robe. Her eyes were the palest blue and they were fixed directly on him. With every fibre of his being he knew her for what she was: a ghost."
And so Nathaniel finds himself unwilling drawn into a dark mystery as he tries to find out just what this ghost wants....and how she died.
He's not alone in his quest--a new friend named Lily, a plucky servant girl, has her own part to play in solving the mystery. But as Lily and Nathaniel come closer to figuring out what happened to the dead woman, their own lives become at risk. Murderers don't always stop at just one victim....
This was a very satisfying murder mystery for young readers--I guessed a key aspect of the plot early (because of having read the right Dorothy Sayers) but that didn't keep me from being enthralled by Nathaniel and Lily's adventures. Although my credulity was a tad stretched toward the end, when Queen Victoria made an appearance, the mystery itself unfolded very nicely, and I was quite anxious on behalf of Nathaniel and Lily. Nathaniel in particular is a character for whom I found it easy to care--his life is of neglect and poverty, yet he manages to keep going bravely (without being annoyingly Plucky) .
The book might perhaps be hard sell for young readers who aren't drawn to historical fiction, but once the ghost starts haunting Nathaniel in earnest, the pace picks up. I think it's one where the cover will do a good job of sorting out the readers who will like it from those that won't, in as much at it's a cover of historical, spooky atmosphere, as opposed to a cover of Exciting Adventure. It's certainly one to offer any kid looking for a good ghost story, and I'd recommend it in particular to fans of Avi's historical fiction, or perhaps, moving in the other direction, to readers of The Wolves of Whilloughby Chase, by Joan Aiken, who found the farcical fun of that book a bit over the top, but enjoyed the historical mystery.
Here's another review, at Serendipity Reviews
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)