Friday, January 23, 2015

Jewel Of Denial

Jude Watson, Loot: How To Steal a Fortune

Young March McQuin doesn’t have friends. He has his dad, world-class cat burglar Alfie McQuin, and the next job. When Alfie tumbles off an Amsterdam rooftop, his dying words to March leave ask more questions than they answer: “Wait a month. Find jewels. Follow the falls to day.” Suddenly March finds himself an orphan with a quest. He doesn’t know, initially, he’s also the quarry in a decade-old diamond heist.

Jude Watson has written wildly successful young adult novels in corporate-owned franchises, particularly The 39 Clues and Star Wars, plus some freestanding dramas under her real name, Judy Blundell. Watson now channels the energy and panache of her franchise fiction into a stand-alone youth mystery. Her story channels the energy of postwar Ealing Studios dramedies into a modern setting aimed at mid-grade readers, and their parents.

March was his father’s apprentice, but even masters make mistakes. Captured by Dutch police, twelve-year-old March, an American citizen, finds himself shipped to an American group home, and forcibly reunited with the sister he’s never met, Julia. Jules. Seems Alfie stole a cursed moonstone necklace ten years ago, which prophesied his twin children’s deaths on their thirteenth birthday. Now they have one month to repay their late father’s debts.

Watson’s preteen target audience will enjoy her spirited, muscular storytelling of industrious kids determined to outwit malicious, predatory adults. Parents will appreciate Watson’s weaving of sly cultural references, little winks to the kind of antihero movie Cold War studios produced staring Michael Caine or David Niven. Kids won’t get the allusions, certainly. But like all good young adult writers, Watson tells a ripping yarn that only grown-ups will truly understand.

Escaping the group home, the McQuins find themselves the brains of a preteen James-Younger Gang. They have until next full moon to reunite the seven cursed moonstones, separated by Alfie’s hippie fence. Aided by an undersized hacker and a streetwise thug, March and Jude begin a trek spanning from Manhattan to Frisco to Barcelona. Success means independence and wealth. Failure means death by falling from a great height.

Whatever action our heroes take, something awful turns up. The McQuins occupy a world of David Mamet-ish intricate deceit. Jules and March occupy a world driven by honor and retribution, not honesty and justice. Every adult they meet works some angle, usually unsavory, and slaps dollar values on everything, even kids. The McQuins must outthink, outmaneuver, and outlast opponents who’ve had ten years to plan every move.

I’ll concede, my middle-aged, dad-like side initially reared its ugly head. Building a story around children who steal remorselessly, and pitting them against adults of uniform villainy, seemed to convey a questionable moral. Child psychologists debate whether youth can really understand dramatic irony. Grown-ups have savvied antiheroes, from Bogey to Jason Bourne, but we know how to admire without emulating. Are such characters really age-appropriate?

But I realized, kids are more sophisticated than adults admit. I admired Han Solo, but never mimicked him. The heist movies Watson references arose from a time of remarkable economic inequality, when unscrupulous people had so thoroughly stolen wealth, dignity, and power from the commonweal, that übermenschen could only restore balance by stealing everything back. In a cynical, individualistic age, the McQuin Gang represents restorative justice and resistance to power.

They also represent family. Alfie McQuin, whose disembodied presence persists with March posthumously, was certainly a scoundrel and thief. He also prepared for his children’s future, taught March a lucrative skill, and showed unconditional love. (Combining elements of The Lavender Hill Mob and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Alfie begs a performance by the late Alec Guinness.) In a world of ambiguous loyalties and moral compromise, the McQuin Gang becomes a counter-cultural family.

Thus, I realized late, the McQuin Gang isn’t about its crimes. It’s about unity. When life becomes so unavoidably hostile that guile becomes the only worthwhile weapon, and when distrust becomes so rife that what trust you purchase incrementally becomes precious, you need to have faith in somebody. Confronted by Machiavellian adults who no longer believe the system they’ve created, our youthful heroes discover the power of unbridled unity.

Watson’s McQuin Twins discover society isn’t about laws, as family isn’t about blood. When failing decency reduces everybody, even children, to dollar signs, four youths, abandoned by “polite” society, collaborate to reclaim their common humanity. If that means skirting the law, humiliating corrupt adults, and besting thieves at their own game, well, why not? We make life from opportunities we’re given. And the McQuin Gang wins.

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