06 November 2011

A Pocket Full of Eyes, by Lili Wilkinson

Taxidermy, gamers, lust and romance, a suspicious death - I don't know how Australian author Lili Wilkinson weaves these all into a coherent story, but she does. Published by Allen & Unwin in 2011, the tale has humour, lovely geeky moments, clever clues and tricky red herrings, suspense, and wonderful characters.

I would guess the title is a deliberate reference to Agatha Christie's A Pocketful of Rye, not just the words from the nursery rhyme 'Sing A Song of Sixpence'. The heroine, Beatrice May Ross, is much the same age as teenage private eye Veronica Mars, but her style of sleuthing is more like Miss Marple's - at least to start with. A fan of girl detectives Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, Bee is determined to solve the mysterious death at the museum where she's doing work experience in the summer before her final year of high school.

From just a description the characters might sound caricatured, but in the context of the story they are totally believable, multi-layered, and engaging. Bee's mother Angela is a Dungeons & Dragons gamer, who has a gaming buddy turned boyfriend known as the Celestial Badger. The romantic interest is Toby - an annoying, cute, mysterious medical student who spouts random facts about animals and insects, and is an excellent kisser. Gus, the senior taxidermist at the museum and Bee's mentor, is laconic, habit-bound, and dour - at least until shortly before his death.

In between sleuthing, discovering what Toby's motives really are, dealing with a duplicitous best friend, and becoming expert in various techniques of taxidermy, Bee realises why she is so addicted to reading classic crime fiction, with its logical plots and neat conclusions. Her precision, list-making and attention to detail help her find clues, but she needs a different approach to deal with the changes in her life.

Some useful information: Flesh-eating beetles are used to clean the more fragile skeletons of birds and small animals before the rest of the taxidermy process. Bee tells Toby that sometimes the beetles aren't keen on what they're offered, but spraying the corpse with a mixture of Vegemite and beer will whet their appetites because "They're good Australian beetles." :-P

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