City of Spies

By Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan; art by Pascal Dizin

Think:  ‘Nancy Drew times  Tintin’ to get a sense of this book.   Set in World War Two-era New York City, spunky and imaginative tweenager Evelyn is sent by her father to spend the summer with an artistic and distractable maiden aunt in her Upper East Side apartment.   The father has a new fiancee to squire around the country club set, and Evelyn just may be in the way.

As Aunt Lia has little experience or expertise in parenting,  Evelyn has a great deal of free time to become bored, to mope, then to explore and get herself into trouble.  Some trouble manifests in a new friendship with the working class son of the building superintendent.

As kids do, they fall into a natural conspiracy– or,  it being World War Two:  counter-conspiracy.    Aunt Evelyn’s apartment building stands in the heart of the Germantown neighborhood of 1940’s Manhattan, thus to a ten year old girl  it’s entirely plausible there are Nazi collaborators wherever they look.   Perhaps this is a ‘girl who cried wolf’ situation, but perhaps not…

While the plot is sufficiently twisty to keep the reader’s interest, what works best about the book is the surprising strength of  character development.    Characters are resonant on many levels– Evelyn pining for a closer relationship with her father,  the liberated Aunt Lia’s panache and verve, the earnest young officer Hughes of the 19th precinct who can’t help but be bamboozled and charmed by the convincing young girl and her unconventional aunt.   You understand that the characters are not simply props for the plot nor slapstick humor, and as such it reads almost like memoir more than mystery.

The art is clean clear crisp, and clever.  Pascal Dizin works chiefly in a clear line style reminiscent of Herge’s Tintin series.  However with nifty penwork he also manages to recall the pulp comics style of the golden age (with young artist Evelyn’s imagination animating her own comics) contrasted with less sophisticated work of that same girl as seen in her sketchbooks by the objective viewer.   Flashback sequences of Evelyn’s mother’s death is etched with crosshatching and the ragged lines evoke an anxious feeling.  Period details are not perfect on this clearly well-researched piece.

Tintin sets the mold for this sort of story, and it should be high praise to say that City of Spies reads like Tintin would if those breakneck plots ever paused for a moment for him to wonder why his dad never liked him or his mom was emotionally distant.

We keep this book on our ‘all-ages’ shelf which tends to cater to our youngest set.  We’re always scratching to find comics appropriate for the younger kids.   This book truly deserves the all ages label however,  if we had multiple copies I’d put one on our adult shelf as well to ensure proper readership by all who might enjoy it.

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