Pepper Penwell and the Land Creature of Monster LakeWritten and Illustrated by Steph CherrywellSLG; $14.95
I hope it came through in my review of The Incredible Change-Bots that what I liked most about it was its ability to lovingly kid the things that Transformers fans like most about that cartoon while at exactly the same time successfully reproduce those qualities. That’s so difficult to do, which is why most of the time we see skewering, Mad Magazine-style parodies of things instead. As rare as it is though, lightning struck my reading pile again when I got to Pepper Penwell.
I wasn’t much into the kid-sleuth genre as a youngster, other than Hanna-Barbera’s Legion of Meddling Kids. I had one Hardy Boys book and a Tom Swift, but my childhood heroes were mostly grown-ups: James Bond, Sherlock Holmes; Hercule Poirot. It hasn’t been until my adult years that I’ve experienced much interest in stories about child detectives. Maybe it’s an attempt to re-experience childhood; maybe it’s just a search for great literature for my son; maybe my wife – a big Nancy Drew fan – is starting to influence me. Whatever the reasons, I’m finding myself drawn to stories about tween or teenaged detectives and titles like The Clue in the Crumbling Wall or The Case of the Mysterious Handprints.
These stories are the inspiration for Steph Cherrywell’s Pepper Penwell and the Land Creature of Monster Lake, a book about a genius girl detective who’s kicked out of her posh boarding school for uncovering so much crime at the institution that parents are beginning to pull their kids out. Having nowhere else to go, she visits her police inspector father in Monster Lake, a quiet village in the English countryside where he’s investigating the disappearance of a young girl. Pepper’s looking over the case files before she even arrives.
The Land Creature of Monster Lake isn’t a straight homage to these kinds of books. Like Incredible Change-Bots, it pokes a lot of good-natured fun at its genre. Almost all of Pepper’s old cases seem to involve weapons and tools made of ice for instance. “We simply can’t figure out how the thief did it. The only thing out of the ordinary at the crime scene is this mysterious puddle of water!” There’s also the cute, but unhelpful boy; the plucky friend; the smart-but-not-quite-as-smart-as-his-daughter father; and more suspicious villagers than you can wag a finger at.
Cherrywell doesn’t stop there either. As she says just after Pepper’s expelled, “The story of Pepper Penwell, Girl Detective was at an end. The story of Pepper Penwell, Girl Spunky Adventurer with Detective Elements, on the other hand – that one was just beginning.” And so The Land Creature of Monster Lake includes mysterious druids, an ancient vampire-hunting priest, a mad scientist, a spooky castle, and of course a weird creature that drools acid. All of this is blended together into a bona fide mystery that holds together as a story and makes sense at the end.
And it’s hilarious. The crotchety old priest for example spends his spare time writing strongly worded, illuminated letters to Stakes and Crosses Magazine protesting their selection of the Celtic as the Cross of the Decade. I laughed a lot at that guy.
Something else impressive about Pepper Penwell and the Land Creature of Monster Lake is that – like its title – it’s really long, but you don’t care. There are two-hundred pages, which might have been a chore had the book been less entertaining. But the laughs, the mystery, and the adventure are so consistently fun and funny that turning pages becomes a joy and each is as rewarding as the last. It could have gone for another two-hundred pages and I wouldn’t have minded. In fact, I hope the forty-something fake names of other books in the Pepper Penwell “series” that Cherrywell includes on the copyright page – The Dreadful Drapes, To Catch a Yorkshireman, etc. – are an indication that she’s got a lot more of this up her sleeve. I'm in the mood for more and while I could read some Nancy Drew, I'd much rather read more of this.