cover image The Dark Stairs: 3

The Dark Stairs: 3

Betsy Cromer Byars. Viking Children's Books, $14.99 (144pp) ISBN 978-0-670-85487-5

Given a policeman for a father and a private investigator for a mother, could 13-year-old Herculeah Jones be anything but a sleuth? Drafting her neighbor and sometimes reluctant sidekick, Meat, she sets out to uncover the mystery of the decaying mansion known as Dead Oaks, eventually finding the body from a long-ago murder and correctly concluding that a particularly disconcerting client of her mother's is to blame. With her eye for telling detail and her penchant for strong, quirky characters, the Newbery Medalist spices her narrative with equal measures of suspense and humor (for example, Herculeah's father, with his chronically rumpled jacket and loose tie, looks ``not like a detective, but like a man who was lost''). Herculeah, as strong and dauntless as her name suggests, emerges as a distinctive and engaging heroine. The conclusion may not be altogether satisfying--Herculeah literally stumbles across the body, instead of reasoning out its location, and the pivotal figure of the murderer remains shadowy. These quibbles notwithstanding, Herculeah's adventures are sure to entertain, and hints of a sequel are heartening. Ages 8-12. (Sept.)