Fresh Meat: Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham

Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham is a Young Adult mystery featuring a 15-year-old girl hot on the trail of a murder (available May 19, 2015).

When I first came across Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham, what really leapt out at me from the description was the comparison to Veronica Mars. I’m not a Veronica Mars superfan by any means (by which I mean that I haven’t the personality to get as obsessive as true Marshmallows, though I really, really enjoyed what I have watched of the series), but that was enough to sell me on this YA novel featuring a sassy, savvy teenage private eye as she accepts a seemingly easy, if emotionally fraught case. A young girl is convinced that her older brother had something to do with the recent suicide of his close friend. Initially sceptical, our titular heroine soon finds herself confronted with hostile peers, mysterious symbols, and suspicious tails who follow her as she travels through the California town of Las Almas, leading to action-packed scenes such as this one, where she tries to shake them on the subway:

By the time the train screeched to a stop, I'd put three cars' worth of space between the pale women and me. The train doors opened. I hopped on. Three cars down, so did they. I hugged the pole just inside the door, fighting the crush of bodies as it tried to push me further inside, ignoring the nasty looks I got for my trouble. The platform cleared. I crouched low and waited for the recorded voice to tell us to stand clear of the closing doors. The voice came. The doors’ hydraulics kicked in. I dove for the platform.

All of me made it through. All of my clothes did not.

One corner of my jacket was pinched tight between the sealed doors, and I’d read enough horror stories in the paper to know that these were old, unforgiving trains with safety features that hadn’t been state of the art since 1960. I dropped my bag, threw my shoulders back, and slipped the jacket off just in time to watch it disappear into the dark mouth of the tunnel ahead.

My eyes shifted to the car windows gliding past. This was supposed to be the fun part — the part where I got to grin a shit-eating grin and wave a smart-assed wave as my tails rolled helplessly by. Trouble was, they weren’t on the train; they were fifteen yards down the platform and closing fast.

Turned out I wasn’t so clever after all.

Scarlett’s wry voice guides us through a complicated, cinematic mystery that we soon discover has a lot to do with the still-unsolved murder of her father from years before. Much like Veronica Mars, her family history is fraught in a way that leaves her emotionally vulnerable, and easy for us to root for.

And while it's not unusual for YA mysteries to draw heavily from history and mythology to add a tinge of the exotic, if not outright supernatural, to the mix, Scarlett Undercover uniquely incorporates Muslim and Arabic traditions to present us with the perspective of someone who lives within that heritage while being at the same time a thoroughly American teenager. The skill with which Jennifer Latham weaves these different features of Scarlett's identity into her narrative is quite deft, as in this passage here:

I drank a glass of water at the sink in the corner and pushed back my hair. It was black, kinky-curled, and stuck out from my head every which way. My hair had a mind of its own, and just then it was asking for a fight.

“Wear the hijab like Ummi did,” Reem would say, “and you’ll never have to worry about bad hair days.”

But headscarves weren’t my thing. Never had been. Not even before cancer swallowed my mother whole.

From the get-go, I knew I was Scarlett Undercover's target audience — okay, maybe a ways older than the envisioned demographic — and the novel did not disappoint. The Muslim experience is presented in a way that is both matter-of-fact and multi-faceted. Coupled with a heroine as likable and resourceful as Scarlett, it makes for a read that is all at once entertaining and enlightening, and marks another welcome step forward in YA fiction diversity.

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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.

Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.

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