Summer seems like a great time for a mystery…especially if you’re far from home on vacation in some exotic setting. Add to that all those long, hot days with no school or scheduled activities to interfere with an investigation. This week’s Old Favorite, Catch as Catch Can by Josephine Poole has all that and more.
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Piers and his cousin Virginia are taking the train from London to their vacation spot in Lancashire, where Piers mother runs a small summer theatre. The trip is the first time they’ve traveled on their own. Full of excitement and a little mischief, they slip into the first class compartment and try to stay unnoticed. A conductor sees them though, and tells them to return to their ticketed seats. On the way back, a man pushes between them, forces open a door, and jumps off the moving train.
He’s obviously hurt, but the train rushes away from the scene. Both Virginia and Piers are obviously upset, and a woman from the first-class compartment rushes out to hug Virginia and comfort her. Piers notices though, that her comfort is strangely cold. She hustles Virginia away for lunch, and seems annoyed when Piers follows. Over the luncheon, the woman questions them about the experience, her curiosity becoming uncomfortable. Piers and Virginia are unsettled and leave. The woman never tells them her name, but manages to find out who they are and where they’re going.
When Piers is getting ready for bed, he discovers a slip of paper in his jacket pocket which hadn’t been there that morning. On it is written several numbers, surrounded by an octagon. Piers realizes that the man on the train must have slipped it into his pocket before he jumped, but what does it mean?
The mystery of the paper turns more sinister when they read the paper the next morning and discover that the man on the train has died. Piers is convinced that the numbers have something to do with the man’s death, but when he goes to the police, they don’t seem to believe him. But in a bizarre coincidence, the woman from the train shows up at their home, her burly and menacing chauffeur in tow. Piers and Virginia suddenly find themselves in danger from everything and everyone around them. Can they solve this mystery before they become the next victims?
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Catch as Catch Can is a suspenseful, edge-of-your seat mystery that stands the test of time. Piers and Virginia waver between knowing they are in danger and thinking that they’re imagining things…but they’re not. The air of danger grows as the story goes on, right up to a terrifying conclusion. Readers have some of the clues, but not everything, so we’re trying to figure out what’s going on right along with Piers.
I read this book when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and it has stayed with me all these years. Whenever I want to rate a suspense story for children, Catch as Catch Can is the book I compare it to. (I also realize that suspenseful mysteries were much more credible when back when everyone didn’t have a cellphone at hand.)
Josephine Poole published Catch as Catch Can in 1969, and received critical acclaim. She followed it up with several more successful suspense stories, including The Visitor and Touch and Go (neither of which are still in the Minuteman network). Many of her suspense novels were made into television serials in England. Her recent writing has been more biographies and fairy tales. She is an excellent writer, and I would highly recommend all of her books.
So if you want a well-written, suspenseful mystery, pick up Catch as Catch Can. This would be an great summer read for kids in fifth through seventh grades. Read it, and let me know what you think!