In three previous mysteries, Blue Balliett has explored the realms of art and architectural history, surrounded by the rich, diverse neighborhood of Chicago's Hyde Park. Now in her fourth novel, THE DANGER BOX, Balliett embarks on a new kind of mystery in a new setting, but without losing any of her curiosity, playfulness, or thirst for adventure.
Three Oaks, Michigan, might not be far geographically from Chicago's urban neighborhoods, but it's worlds apart culturally. "Three Oaks has one main street," writes 12-year-old Zoomy Chamberlain of his home town. "The train between Chicago and Detroit runs through the middle of the town but doesn't stop. It hasn't since 1959."
Zoomy is the kind of kid who notices details like that, who writes them down on one of the endless lists he's always keeping in one notebook or another. Zoomy might be legally blind, but he notices plenty, and he thinks all the time. In fact, sometimes his head gets so filled up with thoughts that he starts getting a little "jittery-splat," as he puts it --- so full of thoughts and feelings and worries that he just can't help tapping and twitching for a while. "My grandpa and grandma aren't like me," Zoomy says. "They're more like sheets drying outside on a breezy day --- they change directions without any fuss. But me, if I was a sheet and the wind blew me, I'd never stop flapping."
Zoomy loves his grandma and grandpa more than anything. They're the only family he's ever known, ever since his no-good father Buckeye abandoned him on his parents' doorstep when he was just a baby. But when Buckeye shows up in Three Oaks driving a stolen truck and looking to hide a stolen box, Zoomy is worried that this unknown, unfamiliar man might ruin the comfortable, safe, predictable world his grandparents have built for him.
Buckeye's secret does change things for Zoomy, but maybe not in the way anyone guesses. What's inside is a mystery, a book of clues that leads Zoomy to the library and to his very first friend, Lorrol, a girl with whom he has a lot in common. Lorrol loves solving problems, too, and together they try to get to the bottom of a bunch of mysteries in Three Oaks that have to do with history, science, and secrets that can change the world.
With THE DANGER BOX, Blue Balliett once again constructs an effective, engaging, fast-paced mystery that's grounded in real fact (the object that Zoomy discovers is one that's actually missing in real life) and in actual place (Three Oaks, Michigan, is a real location, its quirky sensibilities and friendly small-town feeling genuinely portrayed here). Through codes, cryptic "newspaper" stories and guessing games, Balliett invites readers to play along with Zoomy just as Zoomy and Lorrol urge people in their town --- and far beyond it --- to play along, too.
In her art-related mysteries, Balliett at times relied too heavily on odd coincidences and forced patterns to create suspense. Although THE DANGER BOX is still not a traditional, straightforward mystery, its emphasis on reader participation and its genuine air of suspense make it seem more traditional, while its thought-provoking questions and unforgettable hero make this a book that will live on in readers' imaginations long after the mystery has been solved.
--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl