Take the plot and characters of a hard-boiled detective novel--mob boss and hitmen, pretty females who might not be so innocent, bad-ass cops, and honest but hapless newspaper reporter--and plunk it all down in a middle school. Vinny Biggs runs a nice little racket in forged hall passes and stolen exams. Anyone who gets in Vinny's way is targeted by his squirt gun assassins, and the most feared hit kid is Nikky Fingers. Matt Stevens has his own side business as a private eye. Last year he brought down Peter Kuhn, who was stealing cameras to support his Pixy Stix habit. Now Vinny has a case for Matt: who took out Nikky Fingers? The money is too good to turn down. "I sat there cursing myself for breaking one of my longest-standing rules: Don't ever work for Vinny Biggs, especially on deals that were too good to be true. Nothing that paid well was ever easy."
I think the best way to convince you to read this book is to quote from it. Ferraiolo nails the tone: just over-the-top enough, but not so much that it gets tired. The absurdity stays at a low simmer all the way through.
His name was Joey Renoni, a.k.a. "The Hyena," and I knew who he worked for. [. . .] Joey wasn't a big kid, but he was crazy, and crazy trumped size. Size could be negotiated with. Nobody knows what to do with crazy.
"Let me clue you into something, kid . . . Justice is a snack," I said. "You get justice, and five minutes later you realize you're still hungry. Revenge, on the other hand, is a full meal."
He was off of the sofa and in my face. "And you don't know me very well. I'll get to him regardless, with or without you. My way, you'll have a little money to show for it."
"Go home, Kev. Vengeance isn't good for your complexion."
Mac was honest, and at the Frank, that was as rare as a decent lunch from the cafeteria.
Katie Kondo was the first seventh grader in the history of Franklin Middle School to ever make hall monitor chief, and she didn't get there by being sweet.
"No thanks, Jimmy. I've got to do this alone." He looked relieved, as if his brain was angry with his mouth for making the suggestion. I started walking away. "See you around, guys."
"Hey Matt," Kevin said. I stopped. "Be careful."
"I always am. It hasn't made a difference yet."
I love the combination of noir talk with middle-school setting. It's almost parody, but it's seasoned with real feeling. Matt's interactions with his mother are both funny and poignant. The squirt-gun assassination is a brilliant analogy for social ostracism. This tale of kid mafia intimidation may do a better job of addressing issues of bullying, friendship, and staying true to yourself than most problem novels that take them seriously.
Not everything is tied up neatly in a bow at the end; there is definitely room for more Matt Stevens, Private Eye.* (Ferraiolo's next book is about a superhero's sidekick who has a significant issue with his tights. I'm quite anxious to read it!)
The Big Splash is sweet corn basil soup, the one they serve on the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale: sweet corn, spicy, savoury basil, all blended together in creamy goodness. I could eat it all day.
Shannon Messenger's blog, where all the other MMGM-ers hang out with all their marvelous middle-grade selections.
*Oh, according to Goodreads, The Quick Fix will be out in October. Yay!