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This may look like a mystery novel, but as several characters in this handsomely produced book might say, things are not always what they seem. Chasing Vermeer is about thinking, about looking and seeing, about art history (there’s a colour print of a Vermeer tipped in as a frontispiece); it’s also about mathematical puzzles, especially pentominoes (no problem – there’s a page of diagrams and a nifty bookmark to help you out); and yes, it is indeed a mystery about hunting for a stolen masterpiece, packed with clues and coded messages. Then there are the frogs – dozens on the endpapers, one hiding beneath that frontispiece and several hopping up in the text. For good measure, Helquist – in similar mode to his Lemony Snicket illustrations – has included a further puzzle within his pictures.
The plot? Well, someone’s stolen Vermeer’s ‘A Lady Writing’, apparently to wake the art world up to the possibility that a fair number of works attributed to the painter were not in fact his; when the art world agrees, ‘Lady’ will be returned. Though it turns out things are not what they seem in that regard either. Meanwhile, three people are sent letters threatening death if they don’t help in the search – it’s not clear how. Two exceptionally smart kids get involved – they’re students of a school lucky enough to have a very lively teacher who encourages children to ask their own questions and research, research, research to see where the trail leads (no National Curriculum constraints here). As you might expect, it takes the two smart kids, Petra and Calder, on a hunt for the Vermeer.
There’s another strand – coincidence. To say it abounds would be to understate. So when the author comments towards the end, ‘It was almost too good to be true’, I could only agree. GF