Max Starling is the son of William and Mary Starling, owners of the Starling Theater where their popular theater company performs in the Old City part of Queensbridge. One day an extraordinary offer appears by mail, accompanied by lavish gifts. The offer is to perform exclusively, and at excellent pay, in a distant country. The Starlings have a fine life, but William and Mary find the adventure tempting, and agree. Max is told he will go with them, but on the day they are to leave by steamship, Max arrives at the harbor to find his parents have disappeared, leaving only a cryptic note. Max’s only remaining family is his grandmother, who fortunately lives in the house next to his, and Max concocts a plan to continue living at home in secret. The theater is closed, and all Max’s friends believe he’s gone with his parents, except for Max’s art teacher.
Meanwhile, Max and his grandmother begin investigating the disappearance of Max’s parents, and Max finds other opportunities coming his way to be a sort of private detective. He discovers he’s pretty good at it (except for the case of his parents), and with the help of a few new friends, Max becomes what he calls a “solutioneer,” a solver of problems and finder of lost things. This gives him enough income to survive, and the hope that he will eventually be able to find out what happened to his parents.
This book is charming and well written, the characters are believable and entertaining. The setting is sort of English Victorian, but kept vague, and the town of Queensbridge is nicely mapped so we can follow Max’s exploits from one end of it to the other, and beyond. Max’s new “assistant” Pia is a very talkative girl who can be quite annoying, but also resourceful and helpful. Max’s cases run from small ones like a lost dog to large ones like an extremely valuable silver serving spoon carved by a master silversmith. Hovering over Max at all times is the danger of being discovered as a parentless child living alone in his home, not going to school, and not under the care of anyone official. That makes the many disguises Max has borrowed from his parents’ theater props all the more important.
Great fun, and the first of a trilogy. I’ve already read the second book, and am looking forward to the third, which is out this fall. Cynthia Voigt has had a long career as a writer of children’s novels, and a Newbery award for her book “Dicey’s Song.” This series is lighter than some of her other books, but even more to my liking.