The A&A Detective Agency: The Fairfleet Affair
At the outset of K.H. Saxton’s The A&A Detective Agency: The Fairfleet Affair, “the biggest scandal . . . in decades” initiates in the small New England town of Northbrook: Dr. Alistair Fairfleet, the elderly chairman of the renowned Fairfleet Institute, fails to appear for a meeting with his organization’s board and seems to have gone missing.
Three weeks later, clue-laden letters from the absent Fairfleet himself are delivered to four members of the institute’s staff, alerting them that the old man knows more about their secrets than they might like. A fifth letter is provided to Alex Foster and Asha Singh, 12-year-old co-proprietors of the A&A Detective Agency, seemingly encouraging them to unravel the mystery of Fairfleet’s disappearance. At this point, as the book’s prologue concludes, even the young readers for whom Saxton’s pleasant middle-grade debut is intended will most likely understand we are comfortably in cozy-mystery territory: puzzle solving, snappy patter, and even an actual red herring await.
Of the two young detectives, Alex—with his “rebellious intelligence,” precocious self-awareness, and a fascination with codes and tech—is the more overtly hard-boiled of the two. “We might have more questions for you soon,” he informs a suspect early on. “So don’t try to skip town.” And later, in his typical I’ll-have-the-last-word fashion: “We didn’t come to be useful. We came to find the truth. And if that requires a little disturbance, so be it.” Asha—bookish, decorous, resolute, the rule-follower of the two—is occasionally annoyed by Alex’s brash style, and the interplay between the two friends often nudges the story past some of its more improbable interludes.
In fact, as Alex and Asha engage the four suspects (trusted institute employees all), the widening world the kids discover pushes the tale beyond the pedestrian. A&A’s investigations lead them deeper into the history of the Fairfleet Institute, dredging up various complexities around some of the institute’s acquisitions. Questions of provenance arise, a possible forgery surfaces, and the legitimacy of a founding charter is disputed.
It turns out, somewhat to the surprise of Alex and Asha, that the adult world tends more gray than black and white, and that the grownups who navigate and order that world struggle with at least as many complications as the A&A duo discover in their own partnership.
Disillusionment hovers; so does a type of maturation. “Asha had a very reliable moral compass (and) Alex was used to exploring and pushing boundaries, safe in the knowledge that he could always count on his best friend’s sense of true north. But they were growing up; the moral questions were becoming harder.”
The bulk of the story, of course, finds the two detectives tracing the elaborate and self-referencing clues Alistair Fairfleet has arranged. A few deadends are reached, a hidden room becomes unhidden, and several interlocking pieces begin to fit as the kids steadily follow Fairfleet’s trail.
There is occasional outwitting of adults along the way, as well as some ethically dubious deeds that seem to be quickly excused or overlooked (pulling a fire alarm to create a distraction, anyone?). The actual danger is scant, but the mostly fictional references to historical excavations and acquisitions is good fun. Intriguing, too, is Alistair Fairfleet’s evident fascination with Shakespeare’s King Lear. Clues shake out steadily from this preoccupation, as do brief considerations of succession, betrayal, loyalty, and aging; Saxton eventually resolves this subplot in clever fashion.
The heart of the novel remains the dynamic between the two young sleuths. Alex, we discover, occasionally wishes to be as tactful as Asha; while Asha sometimes hopes to be as direct and provocative as her partner. The mystery wraps up pretty much as we guess it will—though with some nice misdirection delivered—and Alex and Asha appear queued up for future adventures.
Young readers will find The Fairfleet Affair a solid introduction to the genre and will, most likely, look forward to forthcoming Northbrook crimes the A&A duo can solve. As we learn during an interlude in the A&A headquarters (a tree house in Alex’s backyard): “For a true detective . . . the call of an unsolved mystery cannot be ignored for long.”