Saturday, May 14, 2011


SMILING JACK by Ken Catran (HarperCollins, 2010)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

There's something wrong with this picture. Robert lives in a small, prosperous rural town where his father is a respected and trusted pillar of the local community and financial advisor to the eccentric but essentially harmless community of Atenists who live nearby. 

When Robert's father and uncle are killed in road accident his comfortable world rapidly begins to unravel. With so much to deal with, he barely thinks about the evil grin on the playing card Jack found at the site of the accident. Until the second death, and the third, when once again Jack's leering malicious grin is found nearby. As Robert realises he never knew his father, those people his father betrayed turn against him, and he is forced to look deep into the shadows that are closing in if he is to get out alive. 

This is an intriguing young adult murder mystery that would be a terrific read for teenagers interested in crime/thriller tales, and can still be thoroughly enjoyed by adult readers too. Although it is of course a bit more 'basic' in terms of the storytelling than the adult crime novels I'm used to reading (being targeted at school-age readers), I was still caught up in Robert's predicament and small-town world. Catran has crafted a compelling page-turner, and creates a good narrative drive.

The story centres on Robert, a down-to-earth 18-year-old who suffers huge tragedy, which is then compounded by how he's treated by the townsfolk. Robert is likable and an easy character to follow and 'root for' in the story, especially given some of what he has to put up with.

Catran evokes a nice sense of place, bringing the rural area to life. Tucker is the type of small town where the locals all know each other, and each other's business - which isn't always a good thing.

I also enjoyed how Catran sprinkled some mythological, historical, and literary references throughout SMILING JACK, from Kipling's poetry to Beowulf. This added extra layers to the basic story.

Without giving too much away, there are plenty of twists along the way too. Overall SMILING JACK is an interesting read from a talented storyteller (who has written more than 50 books for children and young adults, won numerous awards, and had an Emmy nomination for his TV work).

Recommended for teenage readers looking to add some mystery and thrills to their reading.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. 

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