Every generation or so, a Canadian children’s publisher or writer comes up with the notion of a mystery series set in various locations across the country. In the early 1960s there was the Secret Circle mystery series, featuring Nancy Drew–type plots in recognizable Canadian settings. Radical! In the late 1970s Eric Wilson sent his child detectives off to Terror in Winnipeg and Vancouver Nightmare, not to forget Vampires of Ottawa, providing librarians with some more CanCon to offer young mystery readers.
With Death by Dinosaur, prolific Alberta writer Jacqueline Guest, known for historical, adventure, and sports stories, steps into this tradition. Fourteen-year-old Samantha Stellar and her cousin, Paige, are spending the summer at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta. Sam has been reading about a string of dinosaur fossil thefts, and from the moment she arrives in town she’s dogged by hunches and suspicions. Sure enough, a shipment of dinosaur bones arrives from Colombia and one of the artifacts immediately goes missing. Sam is on the case. Mystery readers will be familiar with the tropes. There are clues and red herrings, deduction and derring-do, false leads, and one homicidal attack involving a knife and a bottle of acid. As tension rises, we’re invited to look back over the clues. “I have a weird feeling, as though we’re missing something, something right out in the open.” When somebody suggests that Sam turn over her evidence to adult authority, she answers, “I’ve got to have an airtight case before going to the police.” It’s a dandy plot with an unpredictable 11th-hour reveal.
This isn’t sophisticated writing. Dialogue and action come liberally signposted with adverbs – mischievously, gruffly, officiously, demurely, even coquettishly. Nobody just talks; they gulp, blurt, or bubble. Characters are defined by their hair colour and quirks. Paige has “killer cheekbones.” A Spanish-speaking suspect is “swarthy.” And our young heroine has skills and knowledge that strain credibility. In a particularly tense moment she knows how to disable a car by pulling out the spark plugs. Brushing up briefly against a fellow bus passenger she immediately realizes that he’s packing a semi-automatic in a shoulder holster.
Guest makes the most of the conventions of the autonomous protagonist. The girls live in a boarding house without adult supervision, barely reporting to their families. They tool around on their bikes and are so invincible that they bounce back with a perky bon mot after narrowly escaping a vicious attack. They regularly outsmart the adults.
Yet, in all that freewheeling, the budding detectives – and the reader – take in a good chunk of science facts, including current theories of proto-feathers on a wide variety of dinosaurs, how the hoodoos came to be, and how fossils are freed from the surrounding rock using an airscribe. What might be gratuitous info dumps in other fiction are fair game in mysteries. Back matter includes illustrated information on the Tyrrell Museum and a history of the emerald. Why information on the emerald? That would be giving the game away.