Review: Scarlett Undercover

Teenage girl in red hooded sweatshirt.
She’s more Veronica Mars than Nancy Drew…

Title: Latham, Jennifer. (2015). Scarlett Undercover. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books.

Keywords: Mystery, young adult, Muslim-American, thriller, suicide

Scarlett Undercover features a Muslim-American Veronica Mars who does not wear a hijab, or observe all haraam practices, in the fictional city of Las Almas. Jennifer Latham’s debut work adopts the gumshoe patter of the mystery genre, and sprinkles the novel with literary or historical allusions, such as the Baker Street Bridge (Sherlock Holmes) or the librarian named Melvin (likely a reference to the founder of the Dewey Decimal System, Melvil Dewey). Hired by a young child to investigate her brother’s strange behavior after his friend’s suicide, amateur detective Scarlett (a teenaged orphan who graduated high school early and lives with her medical resident sister Reem) probes the suicide and the brother’s behavior, and of course, discovers more than she bargained for.

Scarlett is tough, confident, smart, knows the martial art of Muy Thai, and is surrounded by a truly diverse cast of supporting characters. In addition to having a parental older sister and a detective friend on the local police force, she also has a (somewhat forced) romance with a hot Jewish love interest

Oy yeah.

At different moments throughout the novel, I discovered instances of “…too much______.” For example: Some of the dialogue was too pat; Scarlett was rendered too tough; and the surrounding environs too gentle for their purported level of scary. These instances broke my suspension of disbelief long enough to register the disruption. That being said, the story was engaging and sheer fun. I sped through it.

While this novel undoubtedly belongs in the YA genre, I wasn’t sure if the novel was a young adult mystery novel – or a young adult fantasy novel. I’d be fine with either, or both at the same time. But the introduction of jinn and demons halfway through the novel felt like a potential turn aside from what was promised to the reader at the outset. The fantastical elements were voided, in the end, by rational skepticism: “I remain unconvinced.” Furthermore, the novel (with its very rich backstory) felt like a second novel within a series rather than a debut. The pacing came across as though all of these characters had been established in a prior novel. While I do understand the purpose of in medias res, I would have appreciated exploring Scarlett’s origin story in more detail.

Scarlett Undercover, which features a Muslim-American teenager of Sudanese descent in a contemporary setting, is written by a white, middle-aged woman. Rather than get into the nuanced and complicated debate about whether white people should write characters of color (for which I do not have a satisfactory answer), I do want acknowledge that Latham obviously did her research on Islam and on the contemporary Muslim-American experience. Furthermore, in the afterword, Latham writes that she reached out to a friend and colleague with more knowledge than she to assess the novel for misrepresentations or inaccuracies. Whether it’s “right” or “wrong” for white authors to write characters of color, I appreciate the effort and the thoughtfulness she employed in ensuring that she wrote a nuanced and accurate character.

Excitement Level: Half a Maltese Falcon. Or, three solid stars.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own impetus.