Chasing Vermeer


I’m doing my best. When I hear the word pentominoes (like over coffee with Little Flower’s Granny the other day), my mind can’t help but think through things like pentagons and pentameter and pentagrams and all manner of other pentas. Whereas the Resident IT Consultant thinks other – cleverer – thoughts, and after the coffee he disappeared off and came back looking all wistful over the series of three books by the fantastically named Blue Balliett, which feature crimes solved through pentominoes.

Seven years on from publication I wasn’t hopeful, but amazingly Chicken House unearthed a copy of Chasing Vermeer for me(us). And it appears the book is just as interesting and fun and mathsy as had been expected. Inside the cover Barry Cunningham asks if we are smart enough. I suspect I’m not, but the Resident IT Consultant kindly said I could probably read it without trying to solve the pentomino puzzles.

Best to just hand you over to an intelligent reviewer right now.

‘An interest in pentominoes led me to Blue Balliett’s children’s mystery story Chasing Vermeer. Set in Chicago, it appears to be a much more gentile Chicago than the one that features in most American crime fiction. Petra and Calder live in Hyde Park, close to the University of Chicago campus, and attend a middle school originally founded by John Dewey and still clearly loyal to his ideas. Certainly their teacher, Ms Hussey, enjoys a freedom in deciding what her pupils should do that would be the envy of any British Year 7 teacher.

Girl Writing

A series of apparently unconnected events lead Petra and Calder to develop an interest in A Lady Writing, a 17th century painting by Vermeer. Then, while the painting is being transported from New York for a temporary exhibition in Chicago, it suddenly disappears. Petra and Calder are convinced that the strange events they have observed contain clues to what has happened and decide to search for it. Meanwhile, the unknown thief issues a series of letters and adverts provoking a public debate on the attribution of Vermeer’s paintings. After a long succession of confusions and false trails Petra and Calder eventually discover the stolen painting and we realise how everything they have observed has been connected.

Blue Balliett, Chasing Vermeer

This book reminds me of Emil and the Detectives. The children are resourceful and intelligent, they are free to move through their own urban environment and the adults they encounter are generally friendly and helpful. Its pace never slackens, it challenges readers with new ideas and it creates a vivid impression of this part of Chicago, enriched by by Brett Helquist’s map and illustrations. And it’s not afraid to include passing references to mathematics. I particularly enjoyed Petra’s calculation that trains passing her house, do so taking a second to pass each house in the street, and her impressionistic memories of the colours glimpsed so briefly.

And where do the pentominoes fit in? Calder has a set he was given for his twelfth birthday. He uses them as a puzzle, to help him take decisions and as the basis of the code he uses when writing to his friend Tommy. As the mystery unfolds the pentominoes become a metaphor for the way in which the clues Petra and Calder uncover fit together to find the solution. Eventually all the clues, like all the pentominoes, fit together.’

Now I want to read it too, pentominoes and maths notwithstanding. And I’ll bet I’m not the only one.

3 responses to “Chasing Vermeer

  1. Nice review. Wish Chicken House would pick up The Wright 3 and The Calder Game. Check out Balliett’s website at Lots of background info on the real world locations where her books are set, not to mention an image of President Obama thumbing through The Danger Box.

  2. I’m guessing the book didn’t do well enough on the British market. Which is sad. I’m reading it now, and it’s lovely, but it has that very American feel to it, which you often get with books for this age group, and that I love, but maybe not everyone does. I was saving the background checking until last, because I’m really curious now.

  3. Loved the book, and now that I’ve checked out the photos of Hyde Park, I can see myself living there. It’s the kind of place you see in some films, but I tend not to believe they are real. It’s a different kind of Chicago to the one I’m used to thinking of.

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