Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Hardboiled Hits Middle School With a Splash

Those with uniformly positive memories of childhood suffer either from selective amnesia or managed to get an education without ever attending middle school. The junior-high years are primed for strife. Replace elementary subjects with an increasingly difficult academic load, add the combustible hormones of emerging adolescence, and you've got a social explosion on your hands. No wonder, then, that middle-grade author Jack D. Ferraiolo chose them as the setting for his debut hardboiled mash-up The Big Splash.

Vinny Biggio rules the halls of Franklin Middle. Oh, he may just look like a seventh grader who hasn't quite managed to shake off his baby weight, but appearances can deceive. You better learn that fast if you want to stand a chance here. Vinny has consolidated the bullying industry, the filched-test industry, the banned-sweets industry. You don't operate in Franklin without his blessing. And if you forgo it? Well, Vinny has an entire stable of squirt-gun assassins with eagle eyes and twitchy trigger fingers. The best of the bunch was Nicole Finnegan, aka Nikki Fingers. In a trice, Nikki could send a surreptitious spray of cat urine across your crotch, and -- pow! -- you make a swift transition from the Ins to the Outs. But note the past tense: Nikki no longer serves as Vinny's trigger girl. That's where Matt Stevens comes into the picture. Matt's a detective for hire, nice work for a kid trying to bolster the family budget after his dad walked out. Vinny wants Matt to retrieve a certain souvenir from Nikki all nice and peaceful like. But when Matt goes to make the trade, someone's waiting with a squirt gun at the ready, and Nikki goes down. Now Matt has to suss out the truth before he becomes a target.

It's tempting to compare The Big Splash to Rian Johnson's 2005 high-school-meets-hardboiled movie Brick, but the two are different animals. Sure, Johnson built a tough and tidy mystery, but he also undermined it by highlighting the absurdity of the setup, mining for laughs with the incongruity of having hardened criminals who still live at mom's house. Not so Ferraiolo. He plays it deadly serious. There are police officers in the form of hall monitors, drug addiction with sugar fiends, a love triangle, a femme fatale, and hardened thugs who think nothing of blasting the innocent. Actually, the way Ferraiolo incorporates the idea of a gangland hit deserves a mention, because it initially seems an awkward fit. After all, damp pants hardly compare to hot lead punching through one's flesh. But Ferraiolo understands the arbitrary cruelty of junior high. Everyone knows that the kids on the receiving end of Vinny's wrath haven't actually peed themselves, but as long as someone else is the target of ridicule, you aren't. The plot proves equally satisfying, an amalgamation of the genre's greatest hits. The only real downside is the decision to roughen the characters' diction in an effort to make the proceedings sound more mature. A steady stream of mild profanities is exactly the sort of thing that might make parents keep children away from an otherwise excellent book.

(Picture: CC 2010 by Brian Dewey; Hat Tip: B. Nagel)

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