Thursday, November 15, 2018

Series Review: Herculeah Jones Mysteries by Betsy Byars

Between February and October 2018, I read all seven of the Herculeah Jones books by Betsy Byars. Published from 1994 to 2006, this series follows Herculeah, who was named for the Hercules film her  mother was watching during labor, and her best friend, Meat, as they solve crimes loosely based on some of the 12 labors of Hercules. The series ends abruptly with the seventh book; though the ending of that last mystery does hint at further sequels, none have been published to date.

In addition to the mysteries, which are usually murders, and can be a bit scary, there are also a variety of other themes woven into these books. One of these is the problems of Herculeah's and Meat's parents. Herculeah's mother and father are a private investigator and a police officer, respectively, and sometimes the people and issues they are dealing with at work have an impact (for better or for worse) on Herculeah's crime-solving. The Joneses are also divorced, so Herculeah goes back and forth between them. Meat's mother is a single mom, and for much of the series, Meat doesn't know his dad. Meat's desire to do what would make his absent dad proud of him often factors into his involvement in Herculeah's cases. The strong friendship between Herculeah and Meat also comes into play quite a bit, and their dynamic is really the backbone of the series.

In terms of style, these books are written very tightly, with few words spared for unnecessary description. Dialogue is the main means by which Byars furthers the plot, and when she describes physical actions, the text is always clear and to the point. Byars also shows a more humorous side in this series than she does in many of her middle grade novels that I have read this year. Herculeah has a really optimistic outlook on life, and her perseverance in the face of danger and fear often also leads to a good laugh or two.

Though these books are on the older side now, I think they hold up pretty well, mostly because friendship stories are timeless, and that is what is most central to the plot of each book. Herculeah would be a good character to meet in fourth or fifth grade in preparation for meeting Ruby Redfort or Daisy Wells from the Wells and Wong series in  middle school.

The books of the Herculeah Jones series are:
  • The Dark Stairs (1994)
  • Tarot Says Beware (1995)
  • Dead Letter (1996)
  • Death's Door (1997)
  • Disappearing Acts (1998)
  • King of Murder (2006)
  • The Black Tower (2006) 

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