Constable & Toop
By Gareth P. Jones
Published 2013 by Harry N. Abrams
Sam can see Them - the ghosts of Victorian England. Usually, he helps them when he can, though sometimes he wishes he was just a normal kid. Mr. Lapsewood hasn't left his ghostly paper-pushing job for a long time, so he is overwhelmed when he returns to London (as a spirit) for the first time in decades. Their paths are about to collide as both end up investigating the mysterious disappearances of ghosts across London and the ominous Black Rot.
Yet another e-galley I requested in my quest for more middle-grade reading, I liked the sound of this one. I'm always looking for a spooky read and this one is getting pushed for fans of Neil Gaiman (of which I am one), so it was mighty hard to resist. I really, really enjoyed the way this book is told - Jones bounces back and forth among quite a collection of characters, including Sam and Mr. Lapsewood, but also a number of other personalities, human and ghost. In my opinion, it helped move the story along and keep me interested - whenever I started a new chapter, I was eager to see which bit of the story I'd be getting to read next and what was happening with each character while I had been busy reading about a different one. I never lost track of any of the threads and I think it made the story more interesting, as I slowly got to see how Jones would tie all the pieces together.
I really enjoyed all the characters that Jones has created and I think he did a wonderful job of making them all quite distinctive. While at first glance it seems quite obvious who is the hero and who is the villain, Jones does a nice job of adding some moral ambiguity around several of the characters throughout the story. I do wish that there had been perhaps a few more female perspectives in the mix - I enjoyed the bits with Clara quite a lot and wish they had been expanded upon, and I also believe that Alice had more of a story to tell.
I thought Jones did a nice job with his version of the afterlife and the spirits and how they live in our world and what it all means. I found it unique and plausible; if I believed in those sorts of things, this might actually be how I imagine it. I really enjoyed the mystery of the Black Rot and, as I said before, I think Jones did a wonderful job tying all the threads together in a believable and satisfying way.
A small word of caution: I was a bit surprised at how gruesome some parts of this story were. Nothing actually bothered me terribly much, but I actually did find myself thinking it might be a bit dark and gory for a 10-year-old. Kids are pretty good at figuring out what they're comfortable with, but something to keep in mind when recommending the book.
Another small note: are kids even familiar with Victorian England in a historical context? It seems to be a pretty hot setting for middle-grade/YA novels lately, and the more I see it, the more I wonder about it. I don't think I heard that phrase until high school and I'm not sure I would have sought out books set during that time period. So far, I think it's worked fantastically well in the books I've read - here it helps highlight people's desire to believe in the afterlife and brings class differences more to light than perhaps a contemporary setting would. I'm not complaining; I just find this little trend interesting.
Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via NetGalley.