The Rambling Mann

Book reviews and occasional other thoughts from writer Richard Mann.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Mr. Samuel's Penny by Treva Hall Melvin

Mr. Samuel’s Penny
An Elizabeth Parrot Landers Mystery (#1)
Reviewed by Richard Mann of

AUTHOR: Treva Hall Melvin
PUBLISHER: The Poisoned Pencil, an imprint of Poisoned Pen Press
ISBN: 978-1-9293-4504-5 Trade Paperback

The main character in this young-adult mystery novel is Elizabeth Parrot Landers, known as Lizbeth.  She’s a 14-year-old girl sent from New York with her little sister to spend the summer in a small North Carolina town under the care of a wise aunt and uncle.  Lizbeth is related to at least half the town.  She finds the experience to be joyful, interesting, and pleasant—until Mr. Samuel, the owner of the local lumber yard and pillar of the community, drives his car off a bridge, drowning himself and his baby daughter.  Lizbeth is passing by just after the event and sees the bodies, the grieving widow, and a bit more.

Mr. Samuel was found to be clutching a rare 1909 wheat penny when his body is recovered.  Shortly afterwards, the penny disappears from the sheriff’s office.  Lizbeth determines that she will search the town until she finds that penny.

The story of Lizbeth’s summer takes off from there.  Along the way, she experiences terror, immensely satisfying happiness, grief, discovery, and lots of good, strong family love.  She learns to treasure her irritating little sister.  She learns not to judge people and that things are rarely as they appear on the surface.  She realizes how special her talents are.  She learns how to survive and prosper in the 1960s South.

Have you gone to sleep yet?  I’m sorry to subject you to such a string of platitudes, but they are all accurate, truthful, and describe this story perfectly.  Let me see if I can now move us beyond the dull but accurate descriptions and give you the flavor of the story.

MILD SPOILER ALERT:  I’m sorry to take away the gradual revelation over the first 20 or so pages, but Lizbeth is African-American, so coming from middle-class New York City to small-town North Carolina in the 60s presents challenges to Lizbeth.  Much of the drama and humor arises from racial dynamics, but it is not the overpowering center of the story.  It’s just part of the situation, which is probably why the author chose to reveal the racial element slowly.  The author is a Northern big-city African-American woman who spent her summers with relatives in North Carolina, so she knows exactly what she’s talking about.  I was surprised by the mildness of racial situations.  I liked that.

So far I haven’t told you why it’s a mystery.  They discover that Mr. Samuel was shot at before swerving off the bridge, which makes it a murder.  The missing penny might well be the key to identifying the murderer.  Lizbeth certainly thinks so.

The beauty and charm of this story lie in the characters and the language.  I loved the colorful southern colloquialisms and metaphors.  Almost lyrical descriptions of things such as a summer morning after the rain add charm. 

Lizbeth befriends the forbiddingly grumpy Mr. Jake, the grocer, almost by accident.  She shares grief with Miss Violet, the widow of Mr. Samuel and becomes her close friend.  She suffers from the vicious tongue of the resentful Melanie Neely, known to all as Mrs. McMeanie.  She stands off a group of white bullies who want to take her new bicycle.  She learns why all in her family love her impressive aunts and eccentric grandmother.

It’s fun to be immersed in a young teenager’s mostly carefree summer in a small town.  It’s relaxing to be enfolded in the love and care of the extended family. In fact, if I had any problem with this book, it would be that I was tempted to think things were moving too slowly (like this sentence) at about the two-thirds mark, with the mystery itself having been seemingly shelved for a time.  As I began to notice this thought, the pace picked up.  I made at least three cries of “Oh, no!” as I anticipated terrible things about to happen.  I also cried in alarm when lightning literally struck in the middle of a page.  There is no shortage of excitement.

I enjoyed this book.  While it is a young-adult story, it is perfectly enjoyable for adults, even Really Old Guys like me.   Oh, yes, one more thing:  she finds the penny.

This review was originally written for


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