Winter is supposed to be the quiet season at the Greenglass House — even the smugglers who tend to frequent the old inn don’t work over the holiday. But this year is different: Guest after guest turns up at the inn’s front desk, each with an improbable, complicated story, and Milo and his innkeeper parents find themselves rushing around trying to take care of their unexpected guests. Now things are going missing, and Milo teams up with the cook’s daughter Meddy to figure out what’s really going on — and what secrets his adopted family’s old hotel is hiding.
It’s surprisingly hard (The Westing Game excepted) to find really good middle grades mysteries — you know, the kind with actual clues that you can piece together to figure out what’s going — and The Greenglass House really delivers on the count. It feels like a really charming mash-up of classic detective tropes (smugglers, ships, and blackouts!) and more nuanced ideas about family, friendship, and identity. Milo is a genuinely likable 12-year-old — he pretends to be his Dungeons and Dragons-ish alter ego when he needs to feel brave, and he’s totally confident in his parents’ love for him even as he wonders about the parents who gave him up. Milo and Meddy collect information along with the reader, piecing together the mysteries of the Greenglass House as they put together the clues. Whether you guess the twist at the end or you’re totally surprised by it, the solution to the book’s layered mysteries comes together in a satisfying, Agatha Christie-ish way. All the clues really are there for you to put together, if you can.
You could read this any time of year, but it’s murky, chilly, timelessness feels especially appropriate in the lead-up to the winter holidays. Kate Milford does a really lovely job of setting the story just outside of chronological time — Milo watches television, but the story lacks other trappings of modern life, and its old-fashioned keys, smugglers, and plot points give it an almost steampunk, fantasy-ish vibe. And it’s hard to imagine a more atmospheric winter story — this is a perfect book to read snuggled up by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate. Reading The Greenglass House feels like winter in all the best ways.
There are some places where the story gets a little complicated to follow — there are a lot of backstories to keep up with, and Milo and Meddy confuse things a little by referring to themselves by their role-playing identities as well as their real names. But mysteries are supposed to be complicated, aren’t they? And I think the little bumps along the way really do a nice job of making you feel like you’re part of the mystery, too.
Quotable: “It is not merely our adversaries we must investigate. We must always work to know ourselves better, too.”