Secret of Devil Lake

by Robert Sutherland,
158 pages,
ISBN: 0006481000

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Children`s Books
by Allison Sutherland

Librarians, heaven help us, would probably point a child to this book when asked for a mystery story, or an adventure story, or a story about treasure. We'd be especially vulnerable should teachers instruct their students, "Ask the librarian for a novel set in Ontario. In the Rideau Canal area. In the late 1830s or early 1840s."

First the good news. The Secret of Devil Lake is more or less historically accurate. Although the main protagonist is male, it has a young female who is full of gumption and courage even though she is clothed with the persona of a typical Victorian maiden. It tries valiantly to communicate a sense of place and landscape. It has a typical mystery story's plot, with various red herrings and adequate reasons why the protagonist doesn't just hand the matter over to the police. Sutherland looks like an awfully nice person; his picture is a dead-ringer for my favourite uncle when he decided to grow some old-fashioned whiskers. Yet the book is resoundingly bad, as was Sutherland's last one, When Two are Dead.

Wherein lies its dreadfulness? It's hard to put a finger on it. Perhaps it's something to do with the fact that Sutherland uses phrases like "He had a mischievous twinkle in his eye" without any sense of shame. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that during dialogue people rarely just say something. They sneer it, laugh it, mutter it, promise it, explain it, admit it, growl it, suggest it, snap it, remark it, continue it, agree it, sigh it, beam it, grumble it, interrupt it, object it, remember it, manage it, sputter it, or challenge it.

Maybe it's because the surface plausibility gives way so easily: you suspend your disbelief and accept that a fourteen-year-old boy would be allowed to go off on his own to find his father's killer. He's so nonchalant when travelling alone. Just the mere fact of solitude ought to scare him, at least a bit. The same applies to the girl, who slips away to help with the search. No real sense of what an issue this would be for the period-even a modern lass would find this a little daunting. And would she really strip off to swim across a lake while toting her clothes in a bag? What kind of bags did they have back then that would keep her clothes dry when she came ashore?

Perhaps it is kinder simply to ignore books like this; if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. Because this one fits so well into the needs of schools' Canadian history curricula, because its title is splendidly alluring, and because kids are always looking for mystery and adventure books, a warning is in order. They really won't enjoy this one very much. 

A. S.


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