The Big Splash, by Jack D. Ferraiolo (Amulet Books, 2008)
Who put out the hit on Nikki Fingers, former tough-girl hitwoman-gone-legit?
Was it Vinny Biggio, her former employer, who has his hand in every bit of illegal business to go down in The Frank?
Was it Kevin Carling, Vinny's right-hand-man and Nikki's former fling?
Was it Katie Kondo, the tough-as-nails cop with plenty to prove?
Was it Jenny Fingers, Nikki's little sister, the femme fatale?
The suspects are mounting up, as are the casualties, and only one guy's brave, stubborn, and stupid enough to take the case: Matt Stevens, P.I. He's already broken one of his rules: he took money from Vinny to do a job, and now he's right in the middle of one of the biggest, messiest, most dangerous cases of his career. Now he has to discover who took out Nikki Fingers, and more importantly, who was behind it in the first place, and he's got until Friday to figure it out. The clock's ticking, and Matt's going to need every minute if he's to unravel this case. There's one small problem:
He's in seventh grade.
The Frank? Is Franklin Middle School. Vinny? His crime syndicate covers black market candy and forged hall passes. Katie? Head hall monitor. And Nikki Fingers? She's deadly with a squirt gun. In The Frank, they don't kill you, they just kill your reputation for all time with a squirt to the crotch and some creative name-calling. But Matt Stevens? Oh, he's totally a private investigator, when he's not in class. And the case is all too real.
The Big Splash is an absolutely perfect homage to noir detective fiction. Jack Ferraiolo hits every genre beat dead-on, translating them adeptly to a middle school environment. The hard-headed, noble, stalwart, idealistic hero. The manipulative, ruthless crime boss. The good girl with a secret. The bad girl femme fatale. The former best friend gone to the bad side. The quiet neighborhood drinking establishment. The reporter who knows everything. The cop who won't tolerate any misbehaving on her watch. Lies, intrigue, romance, action, and a genuine mystery that plays out bit by bit over time, revealing more curves than a West Virginia highway. If this was done as adult fiction, it would either be perfectly generic, or a spot-on pastiche of the genre, but re-envisioned for a middle grade setting, it proves just how universal some themes really are. Ferraiolo clearly knows his stuff, and the result is a convincing story that's just as good as the classics which inspired it. The pacing is quick, the patter is snappy, the tone is light, and the stakes are real.
The only possible thing I might have to complain about is the relative lack of adult presence in this book. From my viewpoint, it's hard to actually imagine all of this going on with the adults taking as little notice of it as they do ... but then again, how often do adults pay that much attention to the details? Plus, you have to allow for -some- suspension of disbelief, and in this case, it's definitely worth it. I loved this book, and I hope Ferraiolo has more than one story in mind for the indomitable Matt Stevens.