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Tom Thomson’s Last Paddle

by Larry McCloskey

In Tom Thomson’s Last Paddle, Ottawa author Larry McCloskey puts an intrepid pair of 12-year-old crime-solving girls, Dani and Caitlin, on the trail of a wilderness mystery that’s rooted in Canadian history.

The girls, on a camping trip with their dads, stumble upon a weird stranger who claims he’s the ghost of legendary painter Tom Thomson: he seeks their help in proving that his unexplained death in 1917, still a mystery to this day, was in fact a murder. Of course, it would be a crime to give away how the whole thing ends, but suffice to say the solution involves a young graduate student, her pompous, patronizing thesis advisor, and an oddball hermit who hangs out in the woods and will say just about anything for a chocolate bar.

This book relies heavily – and, for long stretches at a time, exclusively – on dialogue. But the continual chatter between Caitlin and Dani sounds forced and just plain unrealistic coming from the mouths of even very bright 12-year-olds. The plot moves along quickly but the other components of the narrative don’t work nearly as well. The girls’ banter about how goofy and un-hip dads can be works for a while, but McCloskey repeats that schtick too many times to make it appealing after the first 40 pages.

The elements of a good mystery – misleading clues, a number of plausible suspects – are all there, but the lack of sympathy for the all-too-clever characters makes the denouement, ultimately, fall flat. Developing some sort of bond with crime-solvers, after all, is one of the keys to good mystery writing – the reader has to root for them to solve the case.