“Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?” This advertisement begins the action in The Mysterious Benedict Society.
Reynie Muldoon, an orphan clever enough to have learned all that’s in the schoolbooks available to the school associated with the orphanage in which he lives, answers this ad on the prompt of his tutor, Miss Perumal. Over the course of a perplexing day, he takes a series of perplexing tests–some are obvious, being identified as such whether written or physical, while others are only revealed to have been part of the test day after Reynie has passed them all. At the end of the day, only four children pass of the throngs who applied: Reynie Muldoon, Sticky Washington, Kate Weatherall and Constance Contraire. They’re gathered in the home of Mr. Benedict, who has been searching for a team of children to perform a very dangerous task: infiltrate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, a school on Nomansan Island, which Mr. Benedict believes is the source of the Emergency threatening the general society. To this end, he has assembled a team of kids who are (taken together) intelligent, clever, knowledgeable, resourceful, determined, honest, sympathetic and perhaps most importantly, able to work together as a team.
The Evil Plot revolves around television and radio broadcasts from the island which cause panic among the population on the mainland. The children must work undercover to discover what is causing these broadcasts of panic and report back to Mr. Benedict, Rhonda and “Number Two” via flashlight blinks at night. Given that there are now two sequels, it should come as no surprise to anyone reading this book that the kids do not only survive but unravel (most of) the mysterious radio/television broadcasts using their combined skills and individual talents.
Just a hint: the names mean something.
There are, as so often happens, some possible flaws depending on how you regard such things. Yes, it’s a completely implausible premise…but then most fantasies are. A sub-culture of magic practitioners living undetected amidst the non-magical majority1? Nah. Talking bugs, magical candy, cars that can fly, folding the universe as a method of space travel, humans giving birth to mice, dyslexic children of the Greek Gods1? Couldn’t possibly be popular enough to be published! On the whole, though, this is a delight for those of us who like over-the-top flamboyant works of fantasy for children and a disappointment for the many people who can’t muster a sufficient suspension of disbelief: how does a child not yet three speak so fluently? why are none of the kids challenged/taken into custody by adults prior to being discovered by Mr. Benedict?
What to read next? Roald Dahl’s fantasies for children would be a good start, but The Mysterious Benedict Society reminds me as being much closer to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events on several points. There are differences. For one, the kids in the Benedict Society aren’t on their own, although they are orphans; Reynie has Miss Perumal, Sticky and Kate turn out to have living parents who want them by the end of the book and Constance is adopted by one of the other characters. The language is quite different: there’s no Mysterious Omniscient Narrator stopping the storyline at various junctures to explain crucial plot points.
1Yes, you do know all these books.