Howard Wallace, P.I. by Casey Lyall

“Ow! What was that for?”

“I can’t believe you made me be good cop.” (p. 71)

Casey Lyall’s Red Cedar fiction nominee (2017/2018) Howard Wallace, P.I. is —

— am I allowed to say this?–

probably my favourite of this year’s nominees (sorry to the others! I like you, too!), and one of my all-time favourite Canadian middle grade books.

Howard Wallace and Ivy Mason — Howard’s reluctantly taken-on junior partner — made me laugh.

So. Howard Wallace. Picture the hard-boiled detective from the classic noir. Sam Spade, say, or Philip Marlowe. Subtract the misogyny, and substitute a serious Juicy Smash gum habit for the alcoholism and tobacco. That’s Howard. Or who he aspires to be. He even has a silent if temperamental friend, Big Blue,

a two-wheeled Franken-bike held together by duct tape, twine, and baseball cards. Big Blue wouldn’t win any pageants, but she was mine. The fact that she broke down like clockwork merely helped me keep track of time. (p. 2)

Howard has an office set up at school, but business isn’t busy enough to make him consider taking on a partner. Enter Ivy Mason.

“I think I can make up my own mind, thanks,” Ivy said. “C’mon, hear me out.”

The bell rang, and I tossed my lunch garbage into the can. I’d already learned the hard way that partnerships were made to be broken. A wide-eyed tagalong wasn’t going to change my mind about that.

“I know you’re new, so you don’t get it,” I said. “I’m the last person you want to be friends with at this school. Now quit doggin’ me.”

Ivy stood rooted in place, blocking the only exit. Shouldering my way past, I heard her shout as I stalked out the door:

“Who said anything about friends?” (p. 26-27)

Very, very bored with her new home, Ivy is determined to be a partner in Howard’s detective agency. Ivy immediately proves herself persistent, creative, and boldly clever.

Howard can’t say no.

I’d had more fun arguing with Ivy in the past five minutes than I’d had in the last five months.

[…]

Telling her to buzz off was the most sensible thing to do, but I couldn’t bring my self to say the words. A tiny knot travelled up from my stomach, unleashing whispers of doubt in my brain. My friendship-starved neurons were at war with my better business sense. (p. 33)

The newly-minted and sometimes antagonistic partners have a big case ahead of them, one that involves missing money, blackmail, student politics, and possibly the Grantleys, the clan that runs more than half the town.

I warned you once. I don’t like repeating myself. Quit the Reddy case,” she read. “Or else.” She handed it back to me. “Again, very vague.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “But it means we’re doing something right.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yup,” I said. “I’ve never been threatened and vandalized before.” I grinned at Ivy. “I must be getting good.” (p. 118)

And then it starts getting personal. The stakes rise, and so do the immediate consequences of investigating.

Howard and Ivy are wonderfully matched partners, despite obvious differences in personality. Neither is comfortable talking about personal stuff, and their different natures dovetail in the investigative arena. They’re good at detecting. More, the incremental and wholly natural progression from reluctant acceptance to partnership to friendship is a joy to read, as is the sensitive look at bullying from the victim’s perspective, and at the ways people deal internally with bullies and friendlessness. Howard’s reactions and internal mechanisms struck a chord with this reader. The plot itself and the narrative conventions follow the detective noir novel beautifully, and the side characters as well as Howard and Ivy always manage to surprise.

Ivy squinted at me from her side of the couch. “What’s happening?” she said. “What’s going on in there? Are you monologuing? I’ve learned to recognize the signs.” (p. 193)