Some rules of the spying game spelt out in The Bad Spy’s Guide:
1) Spies carry secret ID cards —a compass and a tiny map—in the heel of their right shoe.
2) You can train to be a spy as young as four. You sit an exam in surveillance when you’re 11.
3) Children are recruited to watch people suspected of being enemy agents. They are perfect for this job.
4) When you become a spy you are given headphones which look like iPods, but are secret listening devices called Magic Ear.
5) You are also given what looks like a “chunky pen”, but it really has a telescope fitted inside it, with a range of seven miles (about 11km).
Any 12-year-old would give his—in this case, her—right arm for the chance to play secret agent for his country. And Natasha (or Tasha) is a girl obsessed with spies. She has “studied” all mystery stories that came her way. She lives in the village of Little Farthingwell and believes (following Miss Marple’s famous dictum: “There is a great deal of wickedness in village life.”) that small places such as these buzz with crime. So, despite a few misadventures along the way, Tasha waits for the big moment.
That comes when she spots Henry, a boy from her school, staking out the Baxter (her neighbour) home in a suspicious manner. Caught out, Henry explains that he was watching the goldfinches in the Baxters’ garden. A perfectly acceptable explanation, but for the fact that Henry leaves his diary behind which has entries about the Baxters’ movements and that of their visitors.
An intrigued Tasha accosts Henry and he reluctantly reveals that the Baxters are enemy agents up to no good. Tasha’s room, with its view of the Baxter household, becomes an ideal station for the detective duo. But something about the whole set-up warns Tasha that not everything about Henry is clear. Is she being set up?
Pete Johnson knows how to build atmosphere for children. Invisible-inked messages, rude disguises, slick villains, secret listening devices and the final confrontation come together for a deliciously humorous story as the plot unravels.
“Comedies often have to struggle to gain critical recognition, so this is really exciting,” he is said to have remarked when his book, Help, I’m a Classroom Gambler, was nominated for the Sheffield Children’s Book Award (the winners are voted by children in Britain’s schools) this year. For Johnson, awards are not new (The Ghost Dog won the 1997 Young Telegraph Award, while Avenger won the 2005 Sheffield Children’s Book Award. Both were thrillers).
The young Johnson was “crazy for” Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Miss Marple and Richard Hannay (in The 39 Steps). “I loved the brilliant twists and the smooth villains. I liked James Bond, too, but I preferred Paul Temple,” he has said often. He dedicates The Bad Spy’s Guide to actor Peter Coke, who brought to life the private eye Temple in BBC’s radio serials for 30 years starting 1938.
The writer is the editor of Heek, a children’s magazine.
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