Fresh Meat: Sammy Keyes and The Power of Justice Jack by Wendelin Van Draanen

Sammy Keyes and the Power of Justice Jack  by  Wendelin Van DraanenSammy Keyes and the Power of Justice Jack  by Wendelin Van Draanen is the fifteenth middle grade mystery in the Sammy Keyes series (available July 17, 2012).

Sammy thought she’d seen all the weirdness her town had to offer—and then she met Justice Jack, Santa Martina’s very own superhero. Well, really he’s just a guy in spandex and a mask who rides around town on a dirt bike, hoping to find some crime to fight.

The old folks in town think he’s wonderful. So wonderful that they’ve asked him to track down Sammy’s neighbor Mrs. Wedgewood, who seems to have disappeared—along with a lot of other people’s cash. Sammy’s friends think Justice Jack is funny and cool. But Sammy thinks he’s kind of . . . lame. He’s more of a showstopper than a crime stopper. And when a real mystery comes along, Sammy finds herself right in the middle of it. . . .

Sammy Keyes & The Power of Justice Jack is fifteenth in a series, but was my first Wendelin Van Draanen book. Aside from the mystery, there’s focus on the daily lives of a large cast of seventh- and eighth-grade characters and their social relationships, and how the mystery affects their lives. Teenagers as well as middle grade readers might enjoy the book. As an adult reader, I still found it quite a fun read, and a lovely change from serial-killer-focused suspense novels and darker mysteries. This story has two main puzzles:  what happened to Mrs. Wedgewood, and what is up with Justice Jack?  Who is he, and what is he hiding?

What I loved most about the story is how atypical the characters are.  They reminded me a little of those in Carl Hiaasen’s young adult novels, but less over-the-top in both style and characterization. There’s a hint of seriousness throughout that gives the humor an extra edge, and kept me emotionally engaged in the story. I enjoyed how the adult characters, some of them elderly, interacted with the young characters throughout, as you don’t see that as much in young adult and middle grade fiction.

The city of Santa Martina has some odd ducks swimming in its waters. There’s Madame Nashira, the fortune teller who lives in the Heavenly Hotel. There’s the Elvis impersonator, who works nights at Maynard’s Market. There’s the Psycho Kitty Queen, who used to be a beauty queen but now has a gazillion cats and looks like a ninety-year-old Barbie. We’ve also got a cockeyed taxidermist, a whole school of pro-wrestling maniacs, Dusty Mike who hangs out at the graveyard, and a hunched old lady who likes to walk her two-hundred-pound pet pig.

. . . I live with my grandmother in a seniors-only building—which is top-secret because it’s illegal since I’m only thirteen. Holly lives in an apartment with two women—Vera and Meg—who rescued her from being homeless. Billy covers up his home life with jokes and stuff, but there’s not a whole lot funny about how afraid he is of his dad. And Casey, well, his family’s a mess, and Marissa’s is, too. Which boils down to the fact that all of us except Dot are either trying to patch a family together, or in the middle of watching one fall apart.

Justice Jack is the wackiest character of all, and given the rest of the cast, that’s saying something.

“There’s no escaping the Golden Gloves of Justice!” Jack says, holding up both hands and totally not answering the question. “And if the Gloves aren’t enough”—he unholsters the hammer from his utility belt—“there’s always the Jackhammer of Justice! Or”—he whips out the flashlight—“we’ll teach them to see the light with the Justice Jack-o’-lantern!” He slips the tools back on his belt and whips out a slingshot. “And if they refuse to see the light, they can say hello to the Pellets of Pain . . . t.”

“Pellets of Pain? Or Paint?” Marissa asks.

“Both!” he cries.

Jack is a central figure both to the young characters and to the older people who live in the building with Sammy’s grandmother. He’s also a concern for the local police force, who wonder at his motives, and how his acts of heroism will affect the public’s opinion of the police force. 

Despite his ludicrous manner and costume, Jack’s sudden appearance in Santa Martina has some serious results. Some of the kids and some of the elderly people idolize him, ignoring his shabby trappings and zeroing in on the idea of a real life superhero. But are Justice Jack’s motives actually selfish ones? And why is he so interested in Samantha “Sammy” Keyes?

Read it and find out!

Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War I-set Spice Brief is titled “Under Her Uniform” and is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress.  Follow her on Twitter:  @victoriajanssen or find out more at

Read all posts by Victoria Janssen for Criminal Element.

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