The Game Begins
(The Sam Beckett Mysteries, Book 1)
Genre: Crime Fiction, Mystery, Young Adult
Format: Paperback, 284 Pages
Date: 2nd October 2017 (First Published 2016)
Samantha Beckett may appear to be the typical, aimless teenage schoolgirl who doesn’t know what to do with her life, but there is more going on in her life than meets the eye. Not only does she have a troubled home life with her mother and stepfather, she also has to contend with the traumatic baggage―both psychological and physical―of having survived the car crash that claimed the life of her father; a car crash that she knows wasn’t really an accident. This conviction eventually inspires Sam to pursue her true calling in life. After she is persuaded by her best friend to complete a private investigators course, to become a qualified P.I., Sam is roped into taking on a seemingly innocuous case, little suspecting there is a greater conspiracy at play―one that will not only lead her to the truth about her father, but also put her life, and the lives of those around her, in danger.
The Game Begins is not your usual YA novel, so anyone hoping for a tale of “insta-love”, or maybe “Bad Boy” and “Nice Guy” being strung along by Mary Sue in an egregious love triangle, or even an abusive relationship being depicted as an epic romance, will be bitterly disappointed. This book is a crime fiction novel with an impressively constructed, slow-building mystery replete with several surprising twists; qualities made all the more impressive in light of the young age of the author, Rebecca Howie, who was still in her teens when she wrote the story.
While on the surface the idea of a schoolgirl working as a private investigator outside of school hours might seem to require a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief, the author has done a good job of creating a very convincing female protagonist in Sam Beckett. So although she is shown to be someone who is quick-witted and intuitive, her depiction is still recognisably that of a teenager saddled with the inexperience and naivety that inevitably causes her to recklessly get in over her head. Whether it was intentional or not, the character―as well as the story―has much in common with Veronica Mars, the eponymous main character of the US television series. What prevents The Game Begins from simply being a clone of the show is its darker tone and dreary Scottish setting, making it a lot more reminiscent of the long-running UK detective series, Taggart; so while the book certainly has its lighter moments, now and again, it is generally a darker, more grim affair.
For any crime fiction novel to be truly effective it needs to be able to keep readers guessing. In this respect, Howie, was very successful in the endeavour. The slow-building mystery at the heart of the story is unpredictable, and there are a number of clever, unexpected twists. It’s actually hard to believe that such accomplished plotting is the work of a, then, teenage author writing her debut novel―especially as The Game Begins is not a conventional “whodunnit” that starts with a murder that needs to be solved. Instead, the mystery commences with a “random” break-in, with no obvious signs of forced entry, nothing is stolen, and only a worthless ornament is smashed to pieces.
Characterisation is another plus point in favour of The Game Begins, not just in terms of the depiction of the heroine, but even more so in the interactions she has with other characters. The scenes Sam shares with Detective Sergeant Marshall, the police detective who befriends her, are a particular highlight; and it is noteworthy that the author resisted the obvious temptation to have the pair embark upon an inappropriate relationship, even though there does appear to be potential for things to move in that direction, eventually, as the series progresses. But preferably when Sam reaches her twenties, therefore no longer a schoolgirl.
In spite of the occasional typo, the writing is effective, demonstrating the undoubted potential the author has to grow as a writer, and continue to improve her craft. And hopefully, in time, she can add some panache to her prose―though, arguably, it’s not really necessary for YA fiction, but would nonetheless be appreciated and elevate her writing to another level. All in all, The Game Begins is a very promising debut from a young author of whom even better things can be expected in future. It would certainly come as no surprise to see Rebecca Howie become an indie success story in her chosen genre, establishing a name for herself in the YA crime fiction market which is by no means a saturated one.
Keep an eye out for my review of the sequel, A Woman Scorned, later on today.