Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kagen

Finally -- I'm getting a chance to tell you about a book I've been dying to talk about for ages, but life kept getting in the way.

As I'm sure you know by now, I'm a mystery nut. But it's always nice when you come across a mystery novel where the characters, the setting, and the writing are just as delicious as the whodunnit aspect. (That's what I love so much about the Flavia de Luce novels!) Lesley Kagen's Whistling in the Dark is a perfect example of a good suspense story where the rest of the book is even better -- in fact, it's going to be a few paragraphs before I even bother telling you about the mystery aspects, because they are secondary to the story about two little sisters growing up together.

The book is set in Milwaukee in the late 1950s, and the defining feature of this novel is the beautiful, nostalgic picture Kagen paints of what it was like to grow up there. In fact, the reason I got turned on to this book in the first place was that my mother-in-law lived just a few blocks over from the main characters of Whistling in the Dark (and, consequently, the author in real life!) at exactly the same time -- she said it's uncanny how the details about the park, the streets, and even the way the kids interact are just how she remembers her own childhood in inner-city Milwaukee. Reading it made me long to be able to visit that place and that time -- or at least sit down with my parents and get them to reminisce about their own childhood experiences.

Sally O'Malley, our plucky narrator, and her little sister Troo are unforgettable protagonists. You will wish they were your elementary school friends. Or that you were them, even though their lives are pretty difficult (mother deathly ill in the hospital, left to live with their drunk and cruel stepfather, never quite recovered from the death of their father in a tragic car accident). In a similar narrative style to that other series I keep referencing, the story here is told from Sally's perspective as a child but with just enough hints to let us see what she sees through adult eyes. One part that had me laughing out loud was when Sally recounted the overheard conversation that made her think her uncle was a carpenter, confusing "banging broads" for a phrase that must mean something to do with a hammer...

There are parts, too, where the writing is just too finessed to be the voice of a ten year old child. But it's hard to mind when it is so beautiful to read: "Ethel took off down the sidewalk toward the parking lot, humming 'Don't Get Around Much Anymore.' Her flying saucer hat bobbed in the breeze and her hips were goin' up and down like a teeter-totter. There was just such an importance to her. Like she would never die or get sick or leave anybody ever. Ethel Jenkins was the cool side of my pillow when I had a fever. 'See ya, Ethel,' I called after her. She didn't turn around, just waved, her white-as-a-marshmallow gloved hand atop her cocoa-colored arm against the blue-plate-special sky" (page 165, Nook version).

As you'll learn from the back cover of the book, the story centers on one hot Milwaukee summer when a pedophile serial killer seems to be stalking the O'Malleys' neighborhood. I solved that mystery pretty early on -- it's not hard, if you keep your eyes open. But there are other less "scary" mysteries to the book, too, and I was pretty surprised by some of them, especially the ones involving Sally's father (whom she lovingly calls "the Sky King" after her beloved radio series). I don't like sad books, so I'll tell you upfront that this one has a pretty happy ending. But there are parts that will definitely get you teary-eyed as you unravel some of those mysteries about Sally and Troo's life.

If you've read and liked books like The Lovely Bones and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Whistling in the Dark will be your new favorite novel. It combines the best aspects of the mystery and coming-of-age genres, with a heartwarming ending to boot. Consider your holiday book wish list completed!

Final verdict: ****


  1. i LOVE books that make you want to visit the place that they're written about - i read Middlesex for similar reasons... set in Detroit, home to my parents-in-law - i visited the next summer just to traipse around & take photos.

  2. I'm going to have to reread that book -- it's been a long time and I totally forgot all of the Detroit descriptions in it!