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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Titles similar to The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid
There’s a lot to be said for a good old-fashioned caper, especially one that pads out its excitement with substance, of all things. Meloy, who made a splash with his Wildwood Chronicles, accomplishes this rare feat with panache, turning out an infectious—and at times cinematic—adventure suffused with personal growth, secrecy, slight of hand, and higher stakes than the story’s protagonist ever imagined.
Set in Marseille, France, 1961, the narrative zooms in on Charlie Fisher, a 12-year-old suffering from a touch of ennui. The son of an American consul, Charlie lives a privileged life, to be sure, but also a lonely one. That changes one afternoon when he observes a group of kids expertly pick a man’s pocket, and discovers one of his own belongings has been nicked at the same time. Circumstances lead to Charlie’s induction into this group of thieves, dubbed a whiz mob, who take Charlie under their wing and start teaching him the ropes—getting him on the whiz, as it were. Charlie has never been happier. Having never related to the prestigious progeny—princes, princesses, and the like—thrust upon him by his father, Charlie is elated by the genuine connection he feels with this diverse, criminally inclined group, particularly his new friend Amir.
This isn’t Fagin’s ragtag pickpocket crew, however; the whiz mob is a highly trained outfit (they attended a secret school!), with members ranging from nine years old to their early teens, that knows how to pull off a long con as easily as it can lift a wallet from your “britch kick.” (That’s right, britch kick.) Another joy of this novel exists in its use of language. Drawing from David W. Maurer’s Whiz Mob: A Correlation of the Technical Argot of Pickpockets with Their Behavior Pattern (1955), Meloy equips the whiz mob with authentic pickpocket slang that effectually functions as coded speech—a detail sure to delight kids enamored by the clandestine. For instance, declaring a tie pin without a diamond worthless goes something like this: “A stickpin prop ain’t nothing but shag if it’s not got ice in it.” Clearly the reader, as well as Charlie, will need an assist when it comes to deciphering such statements, and what isn’t translated in the text can handily be found in the book’s glossary. Meloy also raises the bar in terms of standard vocabulary, which will no doubt lead to a pinched dictionary or two, but this enhances rather than impedes the reading experience.
Before you start thinking that this is a book exclusively for readers with a capital R, it’s important to stress how much fun it is. The narration becomes conspiratorial at times, speaking directly to readers and transporting them to different places or times in order to fill in plot details. So, too, the action and spirit of camaraderie will sweep them along, especially once Charlie’s actions produce suspense-riddled consequences. Ellis, meanwhile, adds her own charm to the tale, adorning it with clean-lined graphite-pencil illustrations. These range from detailed scenes to cheeky portraits of whiz mob members that could almost serve as posters for their organization, if it weren’t a secret one. Though not all interior art was seen at the time of this review, the available illustrations perfectly convey the gang’s moxie.
Underlying the racket—that’s the pickpocket life, to you—is Charlie’s desire to belong and be valued as himself. His experiences with the whiz mob allow him to explore his identity and take stock of what he has, though it means putting his relationships with his father and Amir through the wringer. If only personal journeys could be as simple as drifting through the streets of Marseille, though they can be just as profitable. Charlie emerges a more confident and daring young man than he began, and this is easily the biggest score of all.
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