An E. L. Konigsburg book about an art museum, an irascible old woman, a kid who wants to discover a secret and a mysterious piece of art? You’d be right if your first guess was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but Mixed-Up Files has a lesser-known twin, written 39 years later: The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World (no one can beat Konigsburg when it comes to titles).
If I had to reduce Mysterious Edge to one sentence, I’d call it Mixed-Up Files with opera and Nazi art history. The art museum in question is the Sheboygan Art Center in Wisconsin, home to a historical exhibit of Degenerate art–artwork that was banned by the Nazi government and deemed too terrible for public consumption. As the museum curator, Peter Vanderwaal, works feverishly on the exhibit, his godson Amadeo Kaplan is contemplating his own art mystery in Florida, where Amadeo has just moved with his mother. Like the Mixed-Up Files’ Claudia, Amadeo wants to discover something: a fossil, a secret, buried treasure. He gets a good shot at his dream when he joins his classmate William in clearing out the estate of Mrs. Zender, who in her opera-singing days was known as Aida Lily Tull. Mrs. Zender hovers over their work with an imperial air, and her old-fashioned manners grate on Amadeo’s nerves, yet he can’t help but feel she’s testing him somehow. When he discovers a mysterious sketch tucked away on a bookshelf, and Mrs. Zender manipulates him into keeping it away from antique dealers–nearly costing him William’s friendship in the process–Amadeo begins to wonder what he’s gotten himself into.
The book is expertly set up as a mystery, with casual clues tossed in among the seemingly mundane task of cataloging antiques. Why did Mrs. Zender stop singing? Why does William keep bringing up awkward issues of money and class? And what secrets lie in the box of papers left by Peter’s later father, who grew up in Nazi-occupied Holland?
For a middle grade book, it’s the adults that steal the show. Mrs. Zender commands your attention like a Broadway diva while clinging to a lost era. She would fit right in at Downton Abbey (upstairs, of course). William’s mother, with her ability to “turn away” anger, shows her life story without saying a word. Peter, for all his excitement at exploring history through art, ignores his own family history by shoving it (literally) into a closet. Amadeo’s discovery forces them to confront their past, to dredge up the history that’s been suppressed, twisted, forgotten. Unfortunately, the solution to the mystery is where the story falters. The answers are revealed all at once, in one overly-long scene of exposition. The clumsy ending overshadowed what was actually a complex, touching story. I just wish Konigsburg had parceled it out as carefully as she’d laid out the clues.