Title: The Fairy Tale Detectives; The Unusual Suspects; The Problem Child
Author: Michael Buckley
Year of Publication: 2005; 2005; 2006
Series: The Sisters Grimm
#: 1, 2 & 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.98; 4.21; 4.26
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3; 3; 3
Plot Description: A pair of sisters discover they’re descended from the late, great Grimm brothers when they’re sent to live with their grandmother in a town filled with fairy tale creatures. The fairy tale characters can’t leave the town because of an ancient curse, and along with their grandmother, the sisters Grimm go around solving crimes occurring in the little town.
The Fairy Tale Detectives is a book for children in the same way Percy Jackson is a book for children, or Harry Potter. Despite dealing with similar subject matter, it is also the kind of work that is antithetical to the spirit of the late, great, Enid Blyton, queen of saccharine goodness. And never does it go to the lengths that Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events go. (And thank goodness for small mercies).
I may have been impressed by the sisters Grimm if I wasn’t already a die hard Oncer – a fan of the show Once Upon A Time, for the uninitiated. And while they’re hardly the same story, a few themes remain the same, like fairy tale creatures leading normal lives and blending in. It’s always interesting to see how their natures translate into our ordinary occupations and appearances.
The story picks up a year after the disappearance of Henry and Veronica Grimm. The sisters believe (for some reason) that their parents abandoned them, and have since been sent to live in an orphanage kind of right out of a Dickens novel – or Annie. Their social worker, a hard hearted (spinster) sends them off to a slew of foster homes right out of a horror story – like the one where they were chained to the radiator, or that other one where they were forced to play caretakers to a room full of ferrets.
So it’s with a great deal of understandable suspicion and anger that the sisters are on their way to yet another foster home, and this one owned by a grandmother they know for a fact is dead. Sabrina – older and cynical and jaded from trying to protect her sister from the world’s nonsense – is already making up escape plans in her head.
Her suspicions aren’t stemmed even after coming face to face with Granny Grimm – the kindliest old lady a children’s book writer could dream up. Granny Grimm is eccentric as hell – she talks to her house, she cooks food that no one in the world has ever heard of, and she fancies herself a private eye. And not any private eye – the sort of private eye who solves mysteries like ‘The Case of the Farmhouse Squashed Flat by a Giant’s Foot’. Sabrina thinks she’s one lost marble away from the loony bin. Daphne thinks its ALL great fun.
The stories deal with individual mysteries set against the backdrop of a much more sinister long term conspiracy targeting humans. The characters are all realistically drawn, adding quite a bit of dark humour to the storytelling. Sabrina in particular is supposed to be more complex than her sister, as someone harbouring a certain amount of intrinsic bigotry towards the Everafters, and with her natural instincts prompting her towards an addiction to magic (which, if Uncle Jake is anything to go by, runs in the family).
The first book deals with the kidnapping giant, whom I think I have discussed ad nauseam already. While working to figure out who released the giant – and why – the girls run into various residents of Ferryport and begin to figure that the line between good and evil is mucho blurred-o – as Daphne would put it. Characters the fairy tales tell you are good are revealed to be sometimes unpleasant, or downright villainous. Some of the bad guys – like the Big Bad Wolf or the witch from Hansel and Gretel – have either reformed, or were badly misunderstood to begin with. Then there are the Everafters who actively hate the Grimms and are trying to get them killed, and the Everafters who hate them, but opt for gritted teeth and tolerance instead.
The second story, The Unusual Suspects, deals with a couple of murders of human beings at the school Sabrina and Daphne have begun to attend. The Problem Child brings them face to face with previously institutionalized homicidal maniac Red Riding Hood, who, it turns out, has been holding their kidnapped parents and is working for a much greater villain identified only as The Master.
The books engage with gender stereotyping, with the girls calling out various characters on their casual sexism. Puck in particular is a vast treasure trove of idiotic stereotypes:
Puck: “First things first. I want you two to prepare a hearty meal so that I will have plenty of energy to kill the giant.”
Sabrina: “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Puck: “The old lady always makes lunch when a mystery is afoot. I know it’s not the most glamorous work, but I think you two are best suited for domestic tasks.”
Daphne: “What does domestic tasks mean?”
Sabrina: “The way he means it is women’s work.”
Daphne snarled at the boy.
Prince Charming is another guy who, when he’s not spending all of his time trying to protect Snow from things she doesn’t want to be protected from (she’s a self defence teacher, for Christ’s sake), comes up with lines like these:
“Well, haven’t you ever snuck out before? This is the perfect opportunity. Your grandmother is distracted. Take the magic detector and go! If she asks for you, I’ll tell her you’re upstairs fussing with your hair or playing dolls.”
“Is that what you think we do with our free time?” Sabrina said, aghast.
The Sisters Grimm series is nine books long, and the first three cover just enough ground to be considered not boring. If finding the children’s parents had taken any longer, it’s possible that the reader would have begun to lose interest. Typically, a happy ending isn’t at hand yet, even though their parents have been found by the end of Book 3. The children must focus on finding a way to get their parents out of the deep magical sleep they’ve fallen into. They also need to find the baby brother they didn’t ever know existed, and who has also been kidnapped by the mysterious Master.
The Sisters Grimm series doesn’t flinch away from darker topics, but somehow leaves me with the feeling that these topics weren’t dealt with correctly. After all, The Unusual Suspects deal with murders committed by juvenile suspects, but the only scene shown from the aftermath is that those suspects are reunited with their birth parents. No mention is made of their victims, nor of the effects committing murder can have on a child. Perhaps this is not the kind of subliminal message that ought to be sent across in a bunch of children’s books.
And yes, both Percy Jackson and Harry Potter involve children fighting and using violence. They both depict children who fight for good as well as evil. But Percy learns in Tartarus that even the most evil of his enemies was allowed to curse him at their moment of death, and he felt the combined burden of their curses. Harry and Draco Malfoy both see the consequences of their actions, and it changes them. The subconsciously uttered message in those books urges good judgment and that even doing ‘good’ comes with consequences, and yet Michael Buckley’s books show children getting away with murder simply because they’re children.