Image © Blue Balliett & Brett Helquist.
There have been novels and stories revolving around mysteries and puzzles at least since Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. Ones for younger readers in which puzzles take a large role have been around a long time too, from series books like “The Hardy Boys” to standalone gems like “Spiderweb for Two” by Elizabeth Enright and “Sinbad and Me” by Kin Platt. In kids’ mysteries, there usually are more puzzles and less blood and gore, which is fine with me. In 1979, “The Westing Game” by Ellen Raskin won the prestigious Newbery Medal, and since then the puzzle story has become even more popular, I think. “Chasing Vermeer” has that puzzle story idea down. The puzzles are there, and are clever, but the characters are fully developed and believable, making a story that we care about more the puzzles. I liked it.
Petra and Calder are classmates but not friends in Chicago. Strange events keep drawing them together, many of them somehow involving the Dutch painter Vermeer (1632-1675) and collector of odd, mystifying and unexplained facts, Charles Fort. One of the rare and famous paintings by Vermeer, “A Lady Writing,” is being transported to the art museum in Chicago when it’s stolen. Some people that the children know seem to have had advance warning of this through mysterious letters, and after the theft is announced, the thief begins writing letters to newspapers around the world. He is holding the painting hostage until his demands are met.
Petra and Calder know or suspect the missing painting may not be far from where they live, and they begin to search for it. Before long they’re sneaking into buildings, having encounters with threatening strangers, and suspenseful adventures. The fate of the painting is not only important to the art world, it seems to be tied to people they know and care about: Petra’s father, their friend Mrs. Sharpe, and their teacher Ms. Hussey. All three seem to be in a lot of trouble, and perhaps only finding that missing painting will get them out of it.
Well done, and recommended.