Book Review: “The Unusual Suspects” by Michael Buckley

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The Unusual Suspects
by Michael Buckley

First, before I discuss this second book in The Sisters Grimm series, I want to defend myself against any possibility of being charged with plagiarism. My Magic Quill column has a chapter, originally posted in March 2007, titled “The Unusual Suspects.” I didn’t get the idea for that title from this book, which was published at about that time and which I only got around to reading at the tail-end of 2008. I suspect that this book, along with several similarly-titled books and stories by various authors, took its name by a twist on “the usual suspects,” phrase first popularized by Claude Rains’ character in Casablanca. That’s certainly what I was thinking in March ’07. Great minds think alike. Lots of them, evidently.

As for author Buckley, any charge of plagiarism would be futile. He has stolen his characters from a wide range of folklore and fantasy classics, from the fairy tales of Grimm and Andersen to the works of Baum and Carroll. He has cast his net so widely that one could accuse him of nothing worse than what Clive James said of J. K. Rowling: “ransacking a sorcerers’ warehouse stocked with all the magic gear since Grimm’s first fairy tales.”

Most of that gear seems to be stored behind the magic mirror that lives in Granny Relda’s spare bedroom. Also living under her roof are the last descendants of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Sabrina (11) and Daphne (7), who are both trying in their own way to adjust to their new living situation; and let’s not forget Puck, an eternally-boyish fairy prince with an impish sense of humor and, when he chooses to reveal them, a pair of huge pink insect wings.

When Sabrina and Puck lock horns, you can often spot the spectre of puberty hovering nearby: some of it has to do with being at the age when girls and boys start to pay attention to each other. Which makes for a nice distraction, now and then, from the grim urgency of the case they are working on. As fairy-tale detectives, it’s up to the Grimm family to police the Everafter population of Ferryport Landing, New York. And it’s never needed more policing than now, what with a teacher at the local elementary school being eaten by a monster. Somehow this is connected with the way all the kids keep falling asleep in school, the discovery that several Everafter couples sold their babies, and the principal’s peculiar power to control people and animals — he is the Pied Piper of Hamelin, after all.

Throw in appearances by seemingly every fairy-tale character from Baba Yaga to Snow White – don’t worry; I haven’t mentioned the one that really matters – and you’ve got a comedy crossed with a mystery, seasoned with a dash of horror, a pinch of romance, and a generous dollop of subversive irony. I mean, who is ever going to see fairy tales the same way after seeing a pig (a literal pig) in a sheriff’s uniform, a charging swarm of carnivorous rabbits, and a shrewish social worker making cow-eyes at a school guidance counselor? If you find these images provocative, you will find more and more of them as the series continues.

Besides the big case, this story also finds our main heroine dealing with a more personal problem. Since her parents disappeared, Sabrina has compensated for her harsh circumstances by developing a habit of distrust. Now that her world has been turned upside down, now that she knows fairy tales are real and that her parents were involved in them, now that she knows Everafters are behind her parents’ disappearance, and many more despise the Grimm family – well, can you guess where this is going? Sabrina begins to have a little problem spelled H-A-T-E. And dealing with that problem raises this story from frivolous entertainment to the level of well-rounded, human storytelling a child can learn from and love.