Thursday, December 8, 2016

Framed! A T.O.A.S.T. Mystery, by James Ponti (2016)

For anyone actively engaged with children’s literature and Young Adult fiction like Your Correspondent, the challenge isn’t in finding the good, but in keeping up with all that is good (and great).  I am constantly amazed at the high quality of the books that come across my desk, and marvel at what a Golden Age this is for the medium.

Case in point – Framed! A T.O.A.S.T. Mystery by James Ponti.  I approached this book with trepidation, expecting just another juvenile mystery in the Hardy Boys vein.  What I found instead was a novel that is smart, beautifully constructed, and often screamingly funny.  Framed! ranks as one of the best books I’ve read this year – either for adults or young readers. 

Framed! is all about Florian Bates, a 12 year old who recently moved to Washington, DC, with his art conservator mother and museum-security specialist father.  Bates is an extraordinary boy in that he has an uncanny knack for noticing things, and making educated suppositions based on tiny facts.  He calls his method TOAST, or the Theory Of All Small Things.

He meets his neighbor, Margaret, and promises to teach her the TOAST technique.  She is a more than adept pupil, and is quickly matching Florian deduction-for-deduction.  While providing her with TOAST training at DC’s National Gallery, their observations lead them to believe that something shifty is afoot.  When key Impressionist paintings are stolen from the museum, his deductions bring him to the attention of the FBI, who, realizing themselves how outlandish it all is, bring Florian onto the case.

Framed! often reads like a Young Adult version of the popular series Sherlock; and it shares with that series an almost beatific regard for the lead’s deductive powers, and the comedic interplay between the lead characters.  Author Ponti really makes the entire notion of TOAST come alive.  It is essentially a riff on Sherlock Holmes’ famed powers of observation and deduction, but Ponti makes a point of walking us through Florian’s mental gymnastics as they occur, rather than explaining afterwards.  It is an effective twist.

The novel begins with Florian kidnapped by the Romanian mafia, and then trying to remember the lessons of his hostage survival course provided by the FBI.  When he comes face to face with the criminal kingpin, Florian makes another key deduction, which then leads to a book-long flashback explaining how he got into this fix.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about the book is Ponti’s regard for Florian’s intellectual prowess.  There are many (many!) books where young protagonists rely upon magic or science fictional ideas to succeed; Florian is a creature of the mind and exults in his intelligence.  More, please!

One minor quibble, not that any of the younger readers would make note, is that in Ponti’s world, the FBI is a benevolent entity filled with agents of real integrity who are focused on justice, rather than a highly politicized entity spying on innocent Americans.  Given a tracking chip by the bureau (with a promise never to spy on him), I feared that young Florian would grow up to spend his adulthood in hiding with Edward Snowden

But real-life disappointments have little to do with this marvelously realized book.  It is fabulously addictive from the very opening.  For example, here is Florian talking to his Romanian kidnapper (with a very uncertain grasp of English) while trying to ply his hostage training:

Survival Step 2 – Disrupt Your Captor’s Train of Thought

“Do you mean ‘not wrong’ as in I’m not wrong in what I’m saying?  Or ‘not wrong’ as in you’re not wrong in whom you kidnapped?”

I waited for a response, but all I heard was a low, frustrated growl.  I assumed this was his deep-thinking noise.

“If you don’t use pronouns, it really makes the conversation hard to follow.  You need to say ‘You’re not wrong’ or ‘I’m not wrong.’  Especially in a situation like this with threats and demands.  The wrong pronoun could have someone else ending up with your ransom money, and that wouldn’t be good for either one of us.”

“Not wrong!” he barked again as if saying it louder suddenly solved the grammar issues.  Just then he swerved to avoid another car, blasted his horn, and yelled what I assumed were choice Romanian curse words.  I figured he was distracted enough for me to start inching toward my backpack.

“Don’t feel bad,” I continued.  “I understand how hard it is to learn a new language.  My family moves all the time.  I’ve had to learn French and Italian.  It’s molto difficile.  That’s Italian for ‘very difficult.’”

“Stop talk!”

“That’s a perfect example of what I mean.  You said ‘stop talk’ but it should be ‘stop talking.’  English is so complicated.  But let’s forget about grammar and get back to you kidnapping the wrong person.  Like I said, it’s an easy mistake and easy to fix.  If you let me go, I promise not to tell anyone.  Just drop me off at the nearest Metro station.”

“Shut mouth or else!”

The “or else” was ominous, and combined with the continued lack of pronouns it reminded me of the third step from my training.

Survival Step 3 – Do Not Antagonize Your Captor

(When I told Margaret about the steps, she couldn’t believe this wasn’t first.)

This is a delightful book and comes highly recommended.

No comments: