Tuesday, September 24, 2002

The Night the Penningtons Vanished by Marianna Heusler

Larcom Press, 0971437009, $13.00

Money is a difficult thing to come by in the tiny western Massachusetts town of Floral Manor. Young Isabella Ripa yearns to be able to buy sweets and other things her impossible older sister Anna won't take away, yet her job at Aunt Tallulah's antique gift shop yields an almost nonexistent salary. Tallulah, herself strapped for cash, hopes a few smart purchases from an upcoming estate sale will yield profitable sales, and in turn save the business.

Salvation, by Isabella's perception, seems to come in the form of a young woman looking to sell a birdcage and a pair of lovebirds named Mr. and Mrs. Pennington through the shop. A sale would bring in some money, Isabella concedes, but before she can tell her aunt the cage is stolen from the shop, Penningtons and all. What's more, the original owner of the birds is soon found murdered in her hotel.

Sparred on by friends, Isabella reluctantly launches her own investigation, leading her to collect clues through encounters with the homeless and a nightmarish retreat weekend in an allegedly haunted abbey. It isn't long, however, before Isabella's worries switch from building a bank account to preserving her life.

Reading The Night the Penningtons Vanished brought back memories for me, of how much I looked forward to getting my next Nancy Drew mystery and plowing through the pages. Heusler's debut mystery for young adults is a delight to read, a story that doesn't talk down to its intended audience. In teenager Isabella there is a real person with whom young girls can identify, she is a girl dealing with typical pressures - money woes, weight issues, sibling problems - on top of a mystery.

She is not the perfect titian-haired Nancy Drew and she does not have to be. We root for her when she counters sister Anna's abuse by charging her money to borrow things, and we applaud her reasoning when friend Vicki suggests a get rich quick scheme. More than that, we want to turn the pages of Heusler's novel to see what happens next. Heusler would be wise to continue this setting as a series.

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