The blurb promised a terrifying romp through the dank streets of Victorian London with a madman prepared to unleash horror. Despite the fact that I was perusing the stacks of a middle school library and knew I’d be dealing with a Young Adult title, I decided to take a spin with Scholastic’s The Death Collector. The cover sports the skeleton of a tyrannosaurus rex appearing to chomp Big Ben, so I was expecting a sort of steampunk Godzilla story. Think about it…what could be better than a period piece with an anachronistic lizard terrorizing unsuspecting Londoners before settling down to a spot of tea and cakes?
There were more clichés in this story than top hats in 19th century Picadilly. Let’s see, we have the clever, but down-on-his-luck pickpocket. We have the clever young woman dutifully seeing to her aging father despite her penchant for the (say it isn’t so) theatre. We have the clever young bachelor making ends meet at the museum as he conveniently tinkers with Victorian technology. We have the clever, old know-it-all museum expert with a gentleman’s club membership and connections to a secret society. And, naturally, we have the clever impeccably dressed foundry owner who is…you’ll never guess this…a megalomaniac. With all these clever folks running around London, a mystery is most assuredly afoot.
I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading YA (or perhaps an “advanced” middle grades reader) and that the setups weren’t so glaringly obvious to the intended audience of the book. Romance, of course, was merely flirted with, and the love triangle possibility evaporated in the London fog, which was prolific in this book. I guess it needed to be to enhance the plausibility of an automaton dinosaur/Frankenstein/zombie mashup beast rampaging undetected and largely ignored through the streets and sewers as it pursues our clever heroes.
The Victorian setting of the story was painted rather loosely, but there were redeeming details of manufacturing practices and artifact cataloguing that rang true. Overall, though, the book felt a whole lot like a Scooby-Doo episode replete with menacing thugs and occasional one-liners. There were plenty of twists and turns, but Richards laid a clear path for young readers to follow. It was action-packed if not a bit circuitous. I think it had a good enough combination of mystery and horror to keep young readers’ attention as well as give them some confidence in navigating narrative convention.
As I read (and got over myself), I realized that The Death Collector would be highly entertaining for its intended audience. Therefore, if you have young readers with an interest in either the mystery or horror genres, this is a pretty good Halloween seasonal pick.
Rocky Rates It 3/5 ★★★
Scare-O-Meter 4/5 ★★★★ …the sewer scene gets intense
Note: This would make a great read aloud for the month of October for grades 5-7.