Dead Man Talking (Spy Girl) by Carol Hedges

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Dead Man Talking (Spy Girl) by Carol Hedges

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A young wannabe sleuth gets looking into some odd people, just as her secret agent mother has dealings in global, and deadly, artwork theft on her plate. An interesting mix of plots, done quite well, but lacking a final spark.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: March 2008
Publisher: Usborne Publishing Ltd
ISBN: 978-0746078341

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Let's talk about names for a minute. While it might be so easy to rechristen any girl hero of children's teen thriller books Alexa Rider (well, Alexis would be too unrealistic), the actual heroine is Jazmin. She's a girl of unannounced tweenage years, wanting desperately to leave the cakes alone and follow her mother Assia into the world of real-life espionage. In a future England (somewhere around 2020) this book is set in, Assia is the equivalent of an MI6 agent. As for Jazmin, she has a micro and not a mobile, and doesn't go to school, it's called a learning centre.

Finally on names, the lack of description, and the tidily themed covers to this series of books (four and counting) allow us to have a Jazmin and an Assia of whatever racial heritage or colour we desire. Is the book as friendly towards appealing to everyone elsewhere, however?

Well, yes and no. I won't detail all the plot, but it encompasses a lot of different elements, and the pleasure to the mystery was for me in working out just how they all connected. Sure, one major factor of Jazmin's story, as she seeks info regarding the two new children at her school she's been ordered to look after and ease into the learning centre routine, is blindingly obvious, but it surely can't have that much to do with Assia's plot? For she is presented with corpses dangling from the Blackfriar's Bridge region of London, is intrigued by their connection to trafficked Italian antiques, and even with a chubby, untidy Detective Inspector to help her, seems to have no clue, until Jazmin stumbles on recognising key personnel in the story.

It's crucial that Jazmin, who on the whole is a detective only in her daydreams, is realistic in the way she does that stumbling, and I think she is. There is certainly no gadgetry, gimmickry or otherwise unlikely elements to the investigation, it's nice to say.

She crosses over into the world of her mother's mission with a lot more success than the book does, however. Sometimes the jumps from plot to plot, flagged repetitively as they are along the lines of 'meanwhile, elsewhere in London…' worked, and many times they didn't. I didn't feel I was at a cliff-hanging moment when I should have been, more like stood on a stool. Also against the book is the typescript that introduces each story break, which is just ugly. It also meant I continually read DI Barton as Di Barton.

Beyond that the mystery is more than competently handled. It boils down to a bizarre mix of The Stone Tapes with something Dan Brown fans would get moist palms from, with lots more besides. I know, it sounds so odd it could never work, but it does.

The jury is out on the characterisation. It might be so scant it allows the thriller elements to come through even more, but it does also appear light. Jazmin has a male friend and both use the gender divide to excuse their constant misunderstanding of the other. Jaz also likes all things sweet – not in the puppy-dog sense, but certainly in the foodie sense. As for her mother, she comfort-shops far too often for her own health, surely. Nice enough, but it feels lifted from pages and pages of other stereotypes, and doesn't have the same effect as the rest of the story.

So, having scuppered any sense the book is worth buying, by making too much of what only read as minor flaws, I have to redress the balance and assure you it is still a worthy purchase. I can't say anything about the other three books so far in the cycle – they and their contents are hardly ever referenced, and never so that it might matter. The pacing of the story is very good, from the beginning scenes in Venice, where the mystery is practically carried back by the heroines unawares in their luggage. It bears a strong sense of realistic threat to them all, and is not wrapped up in a pat or unlikely way either, but with a continued sense of the assured writing we get when the book is at its best.

The style is slightly at odds with the contents, finally. I liked the sort of word-play that allows people to be avoidy when hard to find, but the Chavvish lingo (full of sing-song, sarcastic Hellooooos when introduced to ill-thought-through comments and so on) does not completely work with the futuristic setting. Still, for the average girl in the target audience (and this book does read as open to the lads as well as the lasses but I expect will remain a sort of guilty Nancy Drew-style pleasure for a few males only), to whom 2020 is a lifetime away, this will not get in the way of their reading.

There indeed is very little that will get in the way of a young reader (I'd reckon on the 10+ age range) liking this book as a nice thriller. While I admired it I did find a couple of flaws, and a lack of some certain something that was required to really lift the book to life and make it fully distinctive. For sure, however, there is merit enough in this book to earn a Bookbag four star rating from myself, and a much higher consideration from its target audience.

I would like to thank Usborne for sending us a review copy.

We think this book is decidedly better than Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz We can also recommend Blade: Playing Dead by Tim Bowler.

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