This was absolutely the cozy middle-grade mystery I needed to read right now, and there are so many things I like about this book.
It’s set in a small town called Martinville, where the library mysteriously burned down twenty years before the start of the novel. At the start of the book we meet some characters who were there the night of the fire: a cat named Mortimer, an assistant librarian who just goes by Al, the town librarian (Ms. Scoggin), and a library patron (Mr. Brock). And then we meet Evan, who’s about to graduate from fifth grade and wasn’t even born when the fire happened. Evan knows about the fire—everyone in town does—but he hasn’t really thought about it a lot. Until now.
As Evan is en route to school one day, he sees a new Little Free Library that someone has put up in town. There are books in it, most of which are from the old library. He takes two home, and then realizes his dad’s name is in the back of one of them – not just once, but “again and again.” Evan and his best friend, Rafe, decide to look at the contents of the Little Free Library in more detail. There are 44 books when they check it, 40 of which are from the old library, and Evan’s dad had checked out ten of them. And the books were all returned the same day—which turns out to have been the day of the fire.
The other book Evan grabs from the Little Free Library, which doesn’t have his dad’s name in it, is interesting for other reasons. There’s just one name on the checkout slip, H.G. Higgins—which Rafe and Evan both recognize as the name of a famous author of mystery novels. And the book is CALLED How to Write a Mystery Novel. Rafe initially thinks the name is a joke, but then they learn that the first book by H.G. Higgins came out in 2009—so in 1999, no one knew who that was. So did H.G. Higgins live in their town? Or visit it? And is it suspicious that H.G. Higgins was at the library the day the fire started?
As Evan and Rafe try to figure out these various mysteries, they’re also just regular kids dealing with regular kid issues: Evan is a little nervous about leaving elementary school and starting middle school; Rafe is patiently putting up with all the rules his overprotective parents have made for him.
I don’t want to say too much about the rest of the plot (although some aspects of the mysteries were somewhat obvious to an adult reader), but just, aw, this book is really sweet. I love Al (who is the one who builds the Little Free Library) and her memories of her days working at the library that burned down. I love Mortimer and how he tries not to scare the mice he encounters. I love Evan and Rafe and Evan’s parents and the small-town setting. I love Evan’s fifth-grade teacher, and how his personality is contrasted with the personality of the other fifth-grade teacher at the elementary school. I love this, from Al, about there being different books for different readers: “I am not upset when others don’t love the books I love. We each have our own book spaces inside us, and they do not match up perfectly, nor should they.” And I love the way that different people in town keep adding books to the Little Free Library, which maybe makes them realize that there’s been a library-shaped hole in the town for decades.