The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill
Megan Frazer Blakemore
Bloomsbury, 2014 306 pgs
Historical Fiction, Mystery
Amateur spy and Nancy Drew lover, Hazel, lives by the cemetery that her parents care-take in their small town in 1953. Life is predictable, boring and lonely. Enter new boy, Samuel, who is just as smart as Hazel, also lonely and likes to hang out in cemeteries. Communist spy fever has reached their little town, as a union leader is being accused of being a communist and "anti-American", losing his livelihood if he doesn't reveal the communists within the local plant. Townsfolk are suspecting communists around every corner. Hazel is convinced the new handyman is a communist spy based on his sullen manner and suspicious activity. She draws Samuel into her search and they begin an investigation involving library research, stakeouts, and interviews from townspeople. The mystery surrounding the handyman is solved, though not in the way Hazel suspected. The real mystery is that of Samuel's history, which is also revealed by the end. The Communists don't pan out to be the threat to the town that Hazel initially thought, discovering the real threat to be ignorance and intolerance. Throughout the story we suffer with Hazel friendship troubles and the frustration of being misunderstood. At books end, Hazel didn't solve the hard-boiled mystery she longed to, but she gained a new friend and grew as a person.
The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill is the third book about the Cold War for middle grades that I've read this year. Is this a trend? Hmmmm. Personally I think that adults who lived through the Cold War are interested in it, but kid's don't really get it. Spies are cool and the Cold War is a period known for its spies, so maybe that's the motivation. At any rate, the setting and the threat of Communist spies among us are driving force behind this book. The mystery that Hazel and Samuel is investigating is a red herring for the real mystery for the reader: the story behind Samuel. The reader will figure out pretty early on that the handyman is just a sad and lonely man. As we read on we become increasingly curious about Samuel's history. Luckily, Blakemore reveals all and the book ends with a feeling of closure with all the plot lines neatly sewn up. Although they are both mysteries, Spy Catchers is much different from the author's popular offering from last year, The Water Castle and may disappoint fans of the first book. Spy Catchers is well written, has an interesting and developed main character, delivers several plot threads, and leaves the reader with moral lessons. The 1950's setting may put off some readers, however and the book felt too long to me. I wouldn't recommend it to reluctant readers, but devoted readers who like to fall into a book and live someone else's life for a while. Hazel may not be the best detective, but she is a genuine person and a true friend.