book review

The Viking Claw

Though I am not familiar with a lot of juvenile mysteries, I imagine they focus on scenes of adventure rather than detection. After all, a few thrills help the medicine go down and tweens need action to go with their plots. It’s nice though when an adventure story includes clues and false solutions while trekking the Sahara or sailing the Atlantic or…yes…rock climbing in Iceland.

Michael Dahl’s The Viking Claw takes place on an expedition in search of the haunted city of Tquuli. Our main characters are Finn Zwake and his Uncle Stoppard. For Finn, the expedition is incredibly personal as his parents vanished while making the same journey eight years prior. Their footprints came to a stop in the middle of a field of snow. It was as if something had come from above and taken them. He’s a versatile character, able to participate in a swordfight but not so certain what to do after discovering a corpse. Stoppard is a man after my own heart, a mystery writer who loves bad jokes.

One of the book’s strengths is its humor, most of which comes from colloquialisms and jokes both Minnesotan and Icelandic. As a Mid-Westerner, I could identify with a lot of the Minnesotan part. I called all soda “pop” for most of my life. (After living in Europe for ten years, I now call all soda “cola”.) One of the characters is Ruben Roobick, owner of Roobick’s Cubes, a brand of flavored ice cubes. Ruben seems like a character purely there for comic relief but is soon fitted into the mystery proper. That said, his monologues about flavoring ice are quite funny.

The early mystery rides not only on the question of what happened to Finn’s parents but also on Viking lore involving ancient ships dragged up the mountain Fitzcarraldo style. For a little while, it seems like the novel will only keep asking these same questions. Lucky for us, there is an impossibility and/or a murder.

One of the characters vanishes from his/her tent…perched on an icy cliff…a hundred feet in the air. It’s a great problem and once it arrives, the book takes off, compounding the crime while offering the scenes of avalanches and treasure-seeking required by the subgenre.

Just as it is the impossible-crime fanatic’s job to spread the word to peers, it is his/her responsibility to plant the seeds of mystery into the heads of innocent babes. Michael Dahl has written over 200 (!) mysteries for children. If TVC is anything to go by, you would do well to introduce the tweens and teens in your life to his novels.

1 thought on “The Viking Claw”

  1. If you liked this one, you really have to track down a copy of The Worm Tunnel. It’s even better with an original take on a murder in a sealed tent. You’ll love it.

    Though I am not familiar with a lot of juvenile mysteries, I imagine they focus on scenes of adventure rather than detection.

    Yes. Kinda. The juvenile mystery has its own set of tropes and cliches like treasure hunts, sinister gangs of bumbling criminals, haunted houses, puzzling pets and codes messages. Very rarely did someone actually die (especially in the vintage ones). But just like their adult counterparts, the quality depended on who’s writing them. The Three Investigators is a good example of a series working really well within these tropes, while the Ken Holt series by Bruce Campbell gave those tropes a much more serious/mature treatment (The Clue of the Phantom Car is one for your wishlist). It apparently became acceptable to include murder during the early 1990s. A trend that seems to have started with Nicholas Wilde’s JDC inspired locked room mystery, Death Knell.

    My reading of juvenile mysteries has only scratched the surface, but my impression (so far) is that the juvenile mystery got stronger on detection over the decades. So the further you go back, the more adventurous they become. There, of course, some exception. I’m still amazed at the strength of clueing and misdirection in Enid Blyton’s The Mystery of the Invisible Thief.


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