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Mr. Chickee’s Messy Mission

by Christopher Paul Curtis

Christopher Paul Curtis’s first novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, won the Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King Honor, and others, and his next book, Bucking the Sarge, received similar acclaim. Most recently, Curtis has veered off into lighter territory with Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money, a popular comic detective story. Now he’s brought back his young Flint, Michigan, detectives – Russell, Steven, and Richelle – in a second title called Mr. Chickee’s Messy Mission.

In this adventure, the actual case – a missing dog – is secondary to the goofy sense of possibility Curtis creates for his characters. While adult readers might find the book’s fast pace, rampant invention, and back-talking dialogue a bit too much, the Flint-born author (who now lives in Windsor, Ontario) has perfectly nailed the breathless pace of a pre-teen with a story to tell.

The story is rich with details of middle-class black life in Flint and facts about everything from American history to R&B music and world literature. And what seem like set pieces or digressions just for the sake of comedy turn out to be important plot set-ups in disguise.

This book’s humour is American in the best sense: broad, generous, juicy. It’s also very current and just slightly scatological (words like booger, diarrhea, and slobber are tossed around with Shakespearean glee). Curtis’s good-humoured silliness and willingness to let anything happen are infectious.

Although it’s billed as a mystery, Mr. Chickee’s Messy Mission veers off into an alternate-universe fantasy complete with a gnome, a sage-like talking dictionary, and an author whose creations come alive. There are also generous, enjoyable doses of trash-talking where insults are honed to the level of a sport, and rapping that isn’t the best example of the form as poetry, but that nevertheless revels in the wild possibilities of language. It’s a riotous, enjoyable return for the Flint Future Detectives.