On the positive side, the characterizations of Miss Eells, the elderly town librarian, and Anthony Monday, the boy at the center of this novel, were quite interesting. The relationship between the two, the lonely spinster and the not particularly popular child is heartwarming. They complement each other well, she providing Anthony with gainful employment and friendship, he providing her in turn with loyalty, companionship and later, some crucial help when she is injured.
The characterization of Anthony's parents is considerably weaker, although to Bellairs' credit he handles Anthony's anxieties over money, which are a direct result of his mother's obsessive worry about financial matters, rather well. Anthony's rival in the treasure hunt, Mr. Philpotts, the bank vice-president and nephew of Alpheus Winterborn, is unfortunately a complete caricature, merely a stock character like the villain in a silent film melodrama who ties helpless maidens to railroad tracks and laughs while foreclosing on an old widow's shack.
The mystery at the heart of this novel shows early promise. Is there really a treasure? If so, is it really anything valuable? Where is it and how can Anthony get to it? However, some extremely unlikely plot contrivances conspired to jar me out of any reasonable suspension of disbelief. In particular, the scene in which all the main characters just happen to attend an auction where a key artifact is found, and later the untimely crossing of telephone wires during a flood in order to set up the climax were just too big a stretch to accept and could have been handled in a more clever way.
I did like the use of red herrings and reasonable fair play in providing clues. I also liked the fact that it takes a mixture of determination, teamwork, sleuthing and adventurous exploits for Anthony and Miss Eells to unravel the mystery. The black-and-white artwork by Judith Gwyn Brown is another good feature, as the pictures are well-placed throughout the book and present a thoughtful interpretation of events in the story. The cover illustration by Edward Gorey (of PBS Mystery! Fame) is also a treat.
The prose is descriptive, well-paced and accessible for elementary-age readers. I can see why Bellairs is a must read for young adults with a taste for mystery and suspense, but I think with a less melodramatic treatment of the villain and more skillful handling of a few of the plot twists this would have been a much better read.
© 1997 - SF.com