KATHRYN LASKY KNIGHT – Mortal Words.

Pocket, reprint paperback; 1st printing, July 1991. Hardcover edition: Summit Books, 1990.

   It’s a comfort then [after reading and reviewing Ben Sloane’s Hot Zone] to return to the real world, where deaths still occur, but when they do, they’re seriously mourned. The real world, unfortunately, is filled with violence, there’s no denying that, but it’s nice to be able to feel that you’re not the only one who feels that violence is the problem, and very seldom is it the solution.

KATHRYN LASKY KNIGHT

   On the top of the front cover, even before the title, is the heading: “Calista Jacobs is back!” Unfortunately, this is the first I knew about Trace Elements, which was Callista’s first mystery-adventure, along with her precocious son Charley, who is now 13, so I never knew she was away.

   Luckily (in a matter of speaking) enough references to the earlier book are made that I may not even have to go out looking for it. In terms of updating her life, in Mortal Words Calista is now a widow. She is also a world-famous illustrator of children’s books, and she and Charley live in that hotbed of liberalism, Cambridge, Mass.

   This is definitely not a book for readers of a more conservative persuasion. The book opens with Calista and her friends being harassed by a fervent right-wing fundamentalist at a librarian’s literary conference, and the plot grows to include born-again evangelists, evolutionary racists, and Nazi-inspired sperm banks. Moral cripples all, according to Ms. Knight, but nonetheless they embody a powerful anti-science movement, and quite the nasty combination indeed.

   Naturally Calista is opposed to all this with every fiber of her being, and equally naturally it makes her an obvious target. Murder also occurs, but with Charley’s computer-hacking abilities and general intellectual curiosity, along with Calista’s growing friendship with Archie Baldwin, noted archaeologist, the villains stand very little chance.

   As you may have gathered, here is a mystery that is bursting the seams of plain old (and old-fashioned) detective fiction, and in my opinion, it certainly wouldn’t hurt anybody to read it. As a detective story, though, I think it’s seriously flawed by the total lack of attention the Boston police force pay to the murder and to the invaders of Calista’s home.

   They are so severely excluded from the story, as a matter of fact, that you begin to wonder if they could possibly be in on the plot. I hope I’m not saying too much without a [WARNING: Plot Alert] that they are not, but it certainly makes the rest of the story a little harder to swallow.

   This same lack of concern on the part of Calista and Archie as to their safety, and that of Charley, is just as hard to accept. If murder and the invasion of one’s home isn’t warning enough that their opponents are serious, what is?

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 33, Sept 1991 (revised).



[UPDATE] 12-23-08.   The author wrote only four books in the series. As Kathryn Lasky, she’s been much prolific as a writer of children’s books, both fiction and non-fiction, for which she’s been given a list of awards as long as your arm. Expanded from her entry the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, here are her four mysteries, all with Calista Jacobs:

KNIGHT, KATHRYN LASKY. 1944- .
      Trace Elements. Norton, hc, 1986. Pocket, pb, 1987.

KATHRYN LASKY KNIGHT

      Mortal Words. Summit, 1990. Pocket, pb, 1991.
      Mumbo Jumbo. Summit 1991. Pocket, pb, 1992.
      Dark Swan. St. Martinís, 1994. Worldwide, pb, 1996.