The year is 2041. Twelve-year-old Dashiell “Dash” Gibson is one of the first residents of Moon Base Alpha, the first permanent moon settlement. That sounds exciting, but really – it’s not. In fact, six months into his family’s two-year commitment, Dash is bored out of his mind. The food is terrible, the living quarters are spartan and cramped, and he can’t even see outside, much less explore the lunar surface. So when Moon Base Alpha’s grandfatherly physician turns up dead under suspicious circumstances, Dash is intent on solving a murder no one will officially acknowledge. In Space Case, an accessible yet flawed murder mystery, author Stuart Gibbs guides Dash through a maze of clues to find the killer.
Space Case is an entertaining book, and will hold the interest of many tween readers. There’s a real (although not particularly violent) murder to solve, and Gibbs trots out an intriguing group of suspects. Dash and his new friend Kira observe, deduce, and eventually solve the mystery using their intellect. They don’t just “trip over” clues. Tween readers frequently ask for murder mysteries, and there’s really not much to offer in most collections. Space Case would certainly fill that need.
However, several flaws keep this book from earning my endorsement. Our first person narrator Dash doesn’t like his life on Moon Base Alpha, and he rarely passes on an opportunity to let us know. After 20 or 30 pages, we get the idea. As a reader, if I’m going to see the story through the eyes of one character, he needs to be someone I’d enjoy being around. Frankly, I get tired of Dash’s complaining. Additionally, there’s really too much bathroom humor in Space Case to make it enjoyable. At times I feel like Gibbs is playing to the Wimpy Kid/Captain Underpants crowd. Finding a killer is serious business. The crude attempts at humor eliminate this book as a read-aloud or literature circle selection.
In my opinion, there’s a brief section of the book that’s totally inappropriate. As Dash begins to solve the mystery, he recognizes the importance of the moon base’s security cameras. His tween friend Roddy – an expert computer geek – helps him hack into the video surveillance archive. Here’s the section; I’ll let you judge for yourself.
(Roddy speaking to Dash) “It’s not as hard to crack the base security code as NASA thinks. If you ever want to watch Lilly Sjoberg getting ready for the shower, let me know.”
Lilly Sjoberg is an older teenage girl living on the moon base. We’ve already established Roddy as a computer expert. Does he really need to be a pervert too? Necessary? No. Funny? No. There are people in prison for less, and I would suspect that any self-respecting girl reading the book is completely offended. My guess is that most of your readers will skim over that brief exchange, and you might be able to overlook it yourself. And while I don’t consider myself a particularly prudish reader, it’s a deal-breaker for me.
Perhaps authors and publishers feel a need to “punch up” manuscripts to make them more appealing to a wider (less sophisticated) audience. Space Case is a classic case of great concept – sloppy execution. With a likable protagonist, a little less potty humor, and an editor with common sense, Space Case would be a welcomed addition to any upper-elementary/middle school library or classroom collection. As it stands, I can’t recommend it.