I wanted to like this book. God knows I wanted to like this book. I panned Louise Munro Foley’s last three books, and as this is the last of hers in my collection (possibly her last ever CYOA), I was hoping to be able to give her a good review for a change. Plus, I lived in New Orleans for three years, and, being quite familiar with Mardi Gras and its possibilities for a good mystery book, I really went in with a positive attitude. In retrospect I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.
The Mardi Gras Mystery by Louise Munro Foley (illustrated by Ron Wing)
Published: February 1987
Number in the CYOA Series: 65
Let me start with what’s good about this book. The location of New Orleans is sometimes used to good effect. An ending on page 21 has you wandering around in one of the city’s famous above-ground cemeteries. The spooky antique shops of the French Quarter are also a nice touch. Ms. Foley’s writing is very clean and evocative. And at least it’s better than Forest of Fear or Danger at Anchor Mine.
That said, though, The Mardi Gras Mystery is a scorching disappointment. “You” are a kid who winds up working at your uncle’s antique store in New Orleans during Mardi Gras season. There are some spooky artifacts in the shop, like a mirror that everybody, especially mysterious Madame Bonvillier, seems to want. You’re working in the shop one day, when suddenly…well, actually, nothing happens. You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. Literally nothing happens. The first choice in the book, which you don’t even get to until you’ve been directed to pages 2, 8, 40 and 41, is whether you want to hang around and work with your co-worker Francine, or go out exploring the city for the afternoon. That’s it. This could be the most low-stakes first choice in the entire series.
Not only does Café du Monde–one of New Orleans’s most famous locations–never make an appearance in this book, but the word “beignet” is never mentioned once, so far as I could tell.
Unfortunately it doesn’t get better. The title is misleading. There’s no real mystery to solve, except why Madame Bonvillier wants the mirror. (It’s not a very interesting reason, once you finally do find out). There’s no clear objective to the plot. Even when you get invited to a Mardi Gras costume ball, it’s just a series of random events that you react to, mostly while dressed as a cat. Madame Bonvillier is not a menacing villain. There’s some stuff about voodoo but it’s not very interesting either. It’s just dull. Everything about this book is dull. A surprising amount of pages of this book involve you just hanging around the antique store doing your job.
Given how effectively she used location in her much-better book The Lost Tribe, I expected Ms. Foley to make good use of the New Orleans locale. Except for the examples I put in the second paragraph, by and large she doesn’t. In real life the streets of the French Quarter exude romance and menace, splendor and squalor, happiness and horror in about equal measure. The Mardi Gras Mystery not only doesn’t capture that, it doesn’t even really try very hard. In real life Mardi Gras is a bizarre and surreal experience. None of that comes through these pages. I didn’t read anything that communicated what the atmosphere of Mardi Gras is really like. In this book New Orleans might as well be Cleveland with wrought-iron balconies. There’s no flavor to it.
This is what Mardi Gras looks like in real life–utter chaos. This atmosphere is totally missing from The Mardi Gras Mystery.
I might also add that for a book aimed at children, which takes place at Mardi Gras, tangentially involving parades, the fact that not a single person shouts the words “Throw me something, mista!” is an omission bordering on criminal. For many kids who grow up in New Orleans, these are their first words.
I did not like this book. I really did not like this book. I don’t like writing this article because I don’t like giving negative reviews to books in my favorite series. I’m going to give The Mardi Gras Mystery a slightly higher grade than Forest of Fear or Danger at Anchor Mine because of the redeeming qualities I mentioned in the second paragraph–qualities that those other books don’t have–but to be honest on the whole I liked it even less than those others. This book simply oozes disappointment from every page. I wish Ms. Foley well, but even if there were other books in my collection written by her, after four misfires in a row I would choose not to review them because I’m obviously missing something fundamental about her approach. I’m done.
Grade: D plus
Next up: Some martial arts action with Jay Leibold’s Secret of the Ninja.