The Mystery of Ellen Raskin (Part 2)

Rumors abound that we may someday get a new, posthumous Ellen Raskin mystery! ( In the meantime:

The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) (1971)

The Mysterious Disappearence of Leon (I Mean Noel)

The lightest of her novels, Leon begins with arranged marriage of Caroline Fish and Leon Carillon. The children grow up to be heirs of the vast Carillon Pomato Soup Fortune, although kept separate until age 19. Their first meeting as husband and wife goes horribly awry, and Ms. Carillon is left searching for her missing husband Leon (or Noel).  This rather simple premise doesn’t do justice to the ferocious energy with which Raskin powers the book. Ms. Carillon’s search takes decades, involves adopting a family, starting a riot in Bloomingdale’s, the confusion between sea lions and seals, characters with names like “Ambrose Ambergis” and, of course, Raskin’s trademark puzzles. “It is a game about names” claims the jacket and yes, it is that, but so much more.  One of the joys of the book is Raskin’s authorial asides; sometimes teasing clues, sometimes commenting on the story. Even though it’s a funny fast read, there are traces of dark humor that will keep readers on their toes. It ends happily, but Raskin sneaks in perhaps one of my favorite quotes:

Most of the people in our story lived to be a ripe old age. . .One was hit by a truck and another one disappeared: but when all is tallied and compared to real life, this is truly a happy ending

Figgs & Phantoms(1974)

Figgs  &  Phantoms

Critics have called it her masterpiece, yet there are reasons why it is less fondly remembered. Much less accessible than her other mysteries, Figgs and Phantoms is a dark book that examines a lonely girls searching for a reason to live.  A curious protagonist, Mona Figg is the youngest member of the extended Figg family, an eccentric group of former circus performers, book collectors, car salesmen, tap dancers, sign painters, and tour guides; all seen as “failures” by the town. Already desperately unhappy, tragedy strikes when her beloved uncle Florence Figg health begins to fail and he threatens to leave her for Capri. “What is Capri?” you ask? Well naturally that’s where the Figg Family believes they go after death. The question for much of the book is “what will Mona do if she believes he Uncle has left her?” Dark and mysterious, the book is propelled along in Raskin’s tight prose; it’s amazing how much she is able to put just 150 pages. Life, death, Joseph Conrad, Figgs (the fruit), along with Raskins signature word play. Recommended for sophisticated readers 10 and up. Although it may be a less straightforward “mystery,” it is perhaps her most ambitious work. And she wasn’t done yet. . .

The Tattooed Potato Chip(1975).

The Tattooed Potato (Paperback)

The book announces itself as a Raskin novel from the first page when we meet the protagonist, Dickory Dock. Yes, that’s really her name, and her brother has an even crazier name. I think only Roald Dahl came close to Raskin for sheer lunacy of names, and this book is chock full of them: Julius Panzpresser, Shrimps Marinara, Manny Mallomar, and four detectives named Finkel, Dinkel, Winkle & Hinkle.  Beyond Raskin’s trademark wordplay she sets up several interlocked mysteries, ala Encyclopedia Brown. Dickory is a young woman who becomes the assistant to Garson, a slick portrait painter. During the course of her apprenticeship, they are contacted by the police to use their artistic and observational skills to solve several mysteries. However unlike the Encyclopedia Brown or the popular Two-minute Mysteries, there is an overarching plot tying it all together.  Who is the mysterious artist Garson, and what is he hiding? Who is Issac Bickerstaff, and what great tragedy did he survive? Blackmail, Murder, Stolen Identities, all make their appearance as Dickory races to unravel the mysteries of the past before it is too late. The real fun though is not solving the mysteries but Raskin’s writing; she zings along here throwing out clues, false clues, funny names, art history, puzzles, wordplay, nursery rhymes, all while keeping the plot moving along. Recommended for mystery and art lovers 10 and up.

And of course The Westing Game (1978). If you are not familiar with it, go RIGHT NOW and find a copy. In fact find all of Raskins novels. Perhaps that is the best answer to confront the mystery of who Ellen Raskin is; her work. When someone asks you who they can read that’s just like The Westing Game, simply give them the rest of Raskin’s novel’s. Because no one tells a mystery like Ellen Raskin.

I try to say one thing with my work: A book is a wonderful place to be. A book is a package, a gift package, a surprise package – and within the wrapping is a whole new world and beyond.


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