Sunday, November 9, 2014

Book Review: The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues by Ellen Raskin (1975)

The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues is one of the odd mystery novels Ellen Raskin wrote prior to The Westing Game. The main character is 17-year-old art student Dickory Dock, who lives in Greenwich Village with her brother and sister-in-law. At the start of the story, she takes a job as a painter's assistant to an artist named Garson, who works from his home at 12 Cobble Lane. Other residents of the building include such odd characters as Manny Mallomar, Shrimps Marinara, and a deaf, mentally disabled man known as Isaac Bickerstaff. The chief of detectives, Joseph Quinn, is a regular visitor as well, calling upon Garson's talent as a sketch artist to solve various cases, each of which is represented by a chapter in the book. As Dickory helps solve each case, she also learns more and more about the strange histories of and connections between all the people connected with Garson.

This book was not as enjoyable for me as The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), mostly because I had a hard time figuring out where it was going. I was constantly distracted by the ridiculous names and by the running gag of characters misremembering the nursery rhyme from which Dickory's name is taken. The individual cases were fun to read and reminiscent of Encyclopedia Brown, but the larger overarching mystery was slow to develop and didn't really grab my interest until the book's climax. 

It was hard to imagine an audience for such an out there story. Kids with a strong interest in art should be drawn to it, especially if it is presented as a read-alike for The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Chasing Vermeer. Honestly, though, aside from subject matter it doesn't really even have much in common with those titles. It's definitely in a class by itself.

For me, the most interesting part of reading this book was seeing all the echoes of ideas that appear again in The Westing Game, especially when it comes to setting (primarily one building), disguises,  and a diverse, weird cast of characters of varying ages. The Westing Game is decidedly the stronger of the two books, but I enjoyed seeing how those same ideas first work themselves out in this earlier work. Keep The Tattooed Potato on hand for readers looking for a challenge and for die-hard fans of the author. If your copy needs to be replaced, there is, thankfully, an updated cover.  

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