Spy is a game we have been playing since we were young. It is simple. Basically it involves each of us looking out the window with our binoculars and seeing what we can see. That’s in, sounds lame, I know, maybe even creepy. But it isn’t. Nothing much ever goes on, so the point of the game is to take very regular, boring things and make them sound funny or ridiculous.
Anyway, we kept it up for a while. My binoculars swung left to right, house to house, back and forth.
Tom was calling out something about the new guy who lived down the way smoking in his backyard. But I wasn’t listening.
Because I had just seen something that made me pause. The house two doors down from the one behind us was totally dark. But there was a little flitting, flickering light upstairs. I could only see it once in a while. It danced along the windows at the back of the house, sometimes stopping, sometimes moving on.
I opened my mouth to play-by-play to Tom. Then I closed it.
That was a flashlight. A little one, but it was definitely a flashlight. Who uses a flashlight in their own home? Nobody. Nobody unless there is a power outage. I flicked Mom’s bedside lamp on and off. No outage.
I ran to our bedroom.
“Tom, Tom, I think the thief is in there. In that house.”
Alison Hughes’ Watch Out, part of the” Orca Soundings” series of short, high-interest novels, follows Charlie Swift, a teen out of school for a few weeks helping his injured brother, as he decides to investigate a string of burglaries in his neighbourhood. As with all mysteries, there is a mixture of red herrings mixed in with legitimate clues, and Hughes does an excellent job of balancing enough mystery to keep readers engaged without bogging down the book with too many characters and clues.
The story begins with Charlie, a 15-year-old, staying home to help out his older brother, Tom, who is off school with a spectacularly broken leg. Charlie, who feels like he doesn’t fit in as well as Tom (who is a star on the football team), has lied to his mom, a hardworking single mother, saying the school has granted him permission to miss class to help his brother out (of course, the school hasn’t as the messages from the school secretary on the answering machine inform readers before their swift deletion).
Charlie’s staying home, unfortunately, also means dealing with Gary, the brothers’ weird mail carrier. Gary is insistent on delivering packages into the hands of their recipients (no leaving them on the front step to be found later, or leaving a slip to pick them up at the post office), and Gary always wants to chat once someone answers the door. This time he explains, after his persistent doorbell ringing, that there has been a string of break-ins in the neighbourhood. There were two new burglaries in the neighbourhood, according to Gary, who has also decided to do some amateur surveillance and detective work to keep the neighbourhood safe and catch the thief in the act.
Deciding to do some sleuthing himself to fill his days out of school, Charlie soon develops some theories and a profile of the criminal – probably a young man, probably someone familiar with the neighbourhood, and someone who must not have any chronic injuries – and some new neighbours fit the bill. He calls them “the car guys”, two men who constantly have half a dozen cars outside their house and a garage packed to the brim with boxes of stuff. Seeing a guy he doesn’t know leave the house, his hood pulled up and carrying bags of stuff, Charlie decides to tail him. After all, he fits the profile.
As he walks, Charlie realizes that he does know this suspect – it’s Uncle Dave, his mom’s brother who has hit some hard times and is living in their basement while looking for work. Uncle Dave says he spends every day at the library applying for jobs, but Charlie starts to wonder if that is just a lie to cover for his other activities, namely being in a break-and-enter ring with “the car guys”. After investigating Dave’s boxes in the basement and finding a full jewelry box that Charlie is certain doesn’t belong to Dave, as well as duffle bags full of keyboards, cords, and other music equipment. Charlie, having found evidence his uncle must be the burglar. steels himself for a confrontation with Dave. It turns out, however, that Dave actually has great luck finding items at garage sales, items to sell online for a tidy profit, but he was too embarrassed to tell his family because it isn’t really a “job”. Those bags he was taking away from “the car guys” house? He’s in a band with them, and he is sure that Kyle and Josh have no part in the robberies.
Charlie later interrupts the burglar in his home alone late at night. He scares the would-be thief off before he manages to take anything, but bags of Tom’s music equipment were packed up and ready to be taken when the crime was interrupted. Charlie, with the help of Dave, is now determined to figure out who it is. Could it be Josh and Kyle? Gary, the nosy creepy mailman? Maybe Uncle Dave after all? Charlie doesn’t have to look much longer as the burglar, so proud of his successes, decides to give Charlie an unsolicited confession. But, now that Charlie knows who the burglar is, will anyone believe him? After all, he’s just a kid. But, just maybe, there’s something up his sleeve that will make sure the criminal gets the punishment he deserves.
Watch Out is a solid mystery for young readers. The topic matter is age-appropriate (if one could even classify crimes by appropriate age level), and Hughes balances the need for misdirection and dead ends with a plot that keeps moving at a steady clip. Charlie, in the end, doesn’t have to go to outlandish extremes to catch the burglar who is simply undone by his need to brag and share just how clever he has been in his crime spree. These choices keep the plot believable and the characters relatable – teenagers don’t just turn into genius detectives out of nowhere, and Hughes allows Charlie to solve a crime while still just being a kid. Overall, Watch Out is a solid book with an engaging plot.
Susie Wilson is the Data Services Librarian at the University of Northern British Columbia. When she isn’t at work, you’ll find her curled up with a cup of coffee and a good book.