The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse
by Bruce Hale
Published by Harcourt
97 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Reviewed by Lincoln Cho
It was a hot day in September. The kind of day when kindergartners wake up cranky from their naps. The kind of day when teachers pull their hair and dream of moving to Antarctica.
If The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse: A Chet Gecko Mystery were to simply begin this way and then slip back into more traditional prose, this opening would be a charming nod to the crime fiction oeuvre: shades of Sam Spade and the voice-over in Bladerunner. This is, after all, a book aimed squarely at people aged eight to 12. People, realistically, who probably lack the life experience to even get the joke.
Bruce Hale, however, doesn't seem overly concerned with whether or not kids "get" where his gecko sleuth's aloof attitude and stylish patter might have developed. Told in the first person by Chet himself, The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse never misses a gumshoe beat. When he first meets his client, Shirley Chameleon, Chet is eyeing up a fly.
So I shot out my tongue and zapped him. Bull's-eye. Midmorning snack.
Chet and Shirley and quite a lot of other interesting characters attend Emerson Hickey Elementary. Chet is in the fourth grade and has -- through circumstance and natural inclination -- gained a reputation for solving the type of crimes you might expect in a normal grade school. And everything about Emerson Hickey is normal. Except the students. And the teachers. Natalie is a magnificent magpie and one of Chet's best friends and most able assistants. Natalie is to Chet what Hermione is to Harry Potter: Natalie is solid, dependable and at least as smart as our erstwhile detective. In The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse, at any rate, not a lot would get solved without Natalie. The football coach is a groundhog named Coach "Beef" Stroganoff, the Principal is a huge cat named Mr. Zero and the Rat sisters -- Nadine and Rizzo -- are the bane of Chet's existence: they make "the Wicked Witch of the West look like a Girl Scout."
The mystery in The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse involves Shirley's little brother Billy and a Gila monster named Herman:
If you've never met a Gila monster, let me tell you: They are tough customers. They're big, strong, and dumb, and they have really bad breath. Seriously. You wouldn't want to kiss one.
The mystery, however, is the icing on this deliciously cheery book. The pace is fast, the humor is authentic and the characters are fun to spend time with. The only other thing one might ask is more of the same: and those already exist. Three Chet Gecko Mystery novels are presently available: this one, as well as The Mystery of Mr. Nice and Farewell, My Lunch Bag. Coming soon, The Big Nap, The Hamster of the Baskervilles and This Gum for Hire. Crime fiction aficionados will note that all of the titles of the Chet Gecko Mysteries pay a bit of wacky homage to well known and loved detective stories.
If The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse is any indication, the Chet Gecko series is headed for success. It's a happy read, well paced and told with very little nutritional value. I'll give it as many thumbs up as I'm allowed. | May 2001
Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Blue Coupe magazine.