1026 A bevy of Beethovens
The Fifth Beethoven
by Melanie Jackson
Vancouver: Crwth Press, 2020
$10.95 / 9781989724057
Reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy
Scottish-born Vancouverite Melanie Jackson is a veteran writer of mysteries for young people, and it shows: she hits the right notes with this mystery for tweens and early teens. Not only does the mystery thread keep you coming back; the plot also explores all-too-relevant inequities and injustices, while educating young readers about the coolness of classical music and musicians — all at a quick tempo and in a light hearted tone.
Narrator and protagonist Nate Crocker, a winning combination of persistent, wise-cracking, and good hearted, becomes a sleuth out of necessity. Amidst a crowd (including four people dressed as Beethoven) admiring the latest architecture wonder of Coal Harbour, The Keynote, brainchild of controversial local super developer Mike Dante, Nate is robbed of the $200.00 he has diligently saved from his Charlie’s Chicken job. The used headphones to cancel out the incessant noise in the apartment he and his mother share are now beyond his budget.
Certain a Beethoven impersonator is responsible, Nate trespasses, seeking out the culprit in the building’s tony restaurant, Andante, where he encounters Dante, who admires his determination, reimburses him, and offers the young pianist a lunch-hour gig. When Constable Barker questions Nate about the robbery Nate points him to a knuckle-cracking Beethoven impersonator and learns more about the other two victims — Susan Volker, whose heirloom ruby earrings were stolen, and Zandi Singh, one of a group protesting the displacement inherent in development, whose cell phone was stolen.
Despite his mother’s reservations about Dante, Nate goes full-speed ahead. He quickly settles in at Andante, where he gets to know three of the four Beethovens, including Dante’s lethargic son, Bo, and Trish Laharne, Dante’s shrewd assistant, and rules them all out as suspects. Both practising (inside) and performing (outside) a repertoire that runs to a rocked-up Beethoven and Sweet Georgia Brown, Nate is in his glory. As much showman as artist, he laps up the praise and tips from his audience, which includes the attractive Mallory, who hires him to play at the birthday party of her son Randall, an autistic primary schooler whom Nate stirs in a way no one else can.
He also gets to know Zandi, who missed an appointment with Dante to discuss her family’s renoviction the day of the robbery. All she has to show for it are a very sore ankle and an unstylish substitute pink phone. Although Zandi and Nate are diametrically opposed in their assessment of Dante, they have in common an economically precarious family life and a thirst for solving the crime. What was the motive? Were the victims random? Was Sladen, the tower’s hulking security guard who sports a Rolex, the fourth Beethoven and the culprit?
Their initial attempts to incriminate Sladen prove calamitous. After investigating Sladen’s connection to Susan and her ruby earrings leads to both an excruciatingly long walk for Zandi and a dead end, Nate determines the partners-in-crime-solving must visit the costume shop that rented the Beethoven garb to find out if they provided Dante Enterprises with a very large size, which would then, he ascertains, incriminate Sladen. This misadventure ends with Nate locked in the shop and unable to communicate with Zandi, who is waiting for him at her house. When he eventually escapes (with, accidentally, the very large costume) he does meet up with her, thanks to info from Laharne. Nate then witnesses first-hand the reasons for her anti-Dante actions: three families are squashed into a townhouse designed for one family while Dante Enterprises searches for more suitable accommodation for them.
Nate still believes in Dante’s essential goodness, putting Zandi’s situation down to lack of knowledge of the details on his boss’s part, and he tries to set up a meeting to enlighten him. Before he is able to do that, though, Zandi reveals that an important file was on her phone the day their paths first crossed: her recording of Dante’s informal conversation with the first three Beethovens, in which he spoke derisively of the “nobodies, losers” his company renovicts (p. 152). This information causes Nate to rethink both Dante’s essential nature and his take on the robbery.
Things move to a crescendo on a hot British Columbia Day, when, after a particularly rousing and well-received performance, Nate leads Zandi inside the Keynote. Checking out the reception desk in Sladen’s absence, they find Zandi’s slashed phone. Nate concludes that Sladen was doing Laharne’s bidding: Laharne had found out about the taping, so the target of the robberies was the phone, with its incriminating evidence against Dante.
Before they report to Constable Barker, Zandi (in disguise as Bo in disguise as Beethoven) and Nate have that meeting with Dante, who convinces Nate he has misinterpreted the evidence and that he, Dante, is aware of and working on improving the renoviction situation. What seals the deal for Nate, though, is when Dante looks at a video of the BC Day performance and discourages him from paying attention to Randall in future performances, using disparaging words to convey his attitude towards those who don’t conform to his ideas of normality. Dante has revealed his narrow-mindedness, and the fifth Beethoven has recorded the conversation!
In the finale, the partners-in-crime-solving discover the identity of the fourth Beethoven — and thief — and Nate’s final Keynote performance turns out to be not playing the piano but playing the recording that reveals Mike’s true colours to the crowd and, soon, the media. Nate has had to face the toppling of his idol — not to mention a job loss — but, thanks to his connection to Randall and Mallory, both more kids’ birthday parties and proper piano lessons are on his horizon.
Pitched perfectly for young readers, The Fifth Beethoven doesn’t take itself too seriously. While some plot twists may seem implausible, they inject a light tone that is likely to resonate with the novel’s audience. And, to this reader, that tone may well enhance the effectiveness of the serious messages about inequality and prejudice. Jackson doesn’t slight these themes, but she isn’t didactic about them, either.
With all the hallmarks of a good mystery — a quirky David and Goliath plot with contemporary relevance, a complex web of clues, an array of suspects, and a satisfying solution built up to, but not fully revealed, until the final pages — The Fifth Beethoven succeeds on the suspense level. It also gives a satisfying performance on both the social critique and music education levels.
Ginny Ratsoy writes, reads, and teaches in Kamloops. Ratsoy’s latest academic publication is about a wonderful third-age learning organization, The Kamloops Adult Learners Society, (KALS) in No Straight Lines: Local Leadership and the Path from Government to Government in Small Cities, edited by Terry Kading (University of Calgary Press, 2018), reviewed by Michael Lait in The Ormsby Review. She is delighted to add that her recent retirement from academia has made it possible for her to join the board of directors of KALS, for whom she has instructed since 2007. Editor’s note: Ginny Ratsoy’s recent reviews include books by Estella Kuchta, Madeline Sonik, Mary MacDonald, Lauren Soloy, Nick Tooke, Alix Ohlin, Natelle Fitzgerald, Steven Price, and Sarah Louise Butler.
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