REVIEW: Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham
I like a good YA mystery now and again. Your debut novel being compared to Veronica Mars piqued my interest. And when I saw it featured a Muslim-American heroine – and the cover prominently featured a POC – I made sure to pick it up.
Scarlett is a Muslim-American teenager who lives in the fictional city of Las Almas. It’s just her and her older sister, Reem, because their parents are dead: their father was murdered and their mother died of cancer. Scarlett is also a genius; she graduated from high school two years early. So instead of going to class, she runs a detective agency. Most of her clients are kids and teens since she leaves her business cards in the bathrooms of various schools around the city.
Scarlett’s latest client is a girl who hired her to investigate the supposed suicide of her older brother’s best friend. Even though it seems clear cut since he jumped off a bridge, the surrounding circumstances don’t make a lot of sense. Not to mention the fact that the client’s brother has had a personality transplant in recent weeks. It’s the kind of thing official authorities would ignore but that’s right up Scarlett’s alley. As it turns out, however, the case is more than investigating a mysterious suicide. It’s one about gangs, ancient lineages, djinn…and the murder of Scarlett’s father.
So I wasn’t 100% sure why Scarlett was named Scarlett, when her older sister was named Reem. Since their parents are dead and the wounds left behind clearly show on the sisters, we don’t really get a sense of the reasoning behind those choices. Reem is more traditional and observes their faith whereas Scarlett does not. It’s not that she’s lapsed; it’s just that her practice is not as faithful as it could be, which is something I personally empathize with. But the names did stand out to me because the sister with the Arabic name is the one who follows the traditional customs of their culture and religion whereas the one named Scarlett doesn’t. It just seemed too much of an obvious authorial choice, if that makes sense.
The djinn subplot was a little jarring. Yes, it’s in the cover copy, but even so, it doesn’t get integrated into the story in the way I expected. I still can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad one. This is not an urban fantasy or even a paranormal. It is firmly a mystery, and what I liked about it is that it’s left up to the reader to decide whether the djinn are real or not. Since the book is told from Scarlett’s POV, the narrative is funneled through her beliefs and Scarlett does not believe. But I liked that this didn’t matter. What’s important is not whether djinn are real or whether the artifacts truly have mystical properties. What’s crucial is that people believe they are and that belief can be a powerful force that can drive people to action for both good and evil.
Like most YA, there is a romantic subplot of sorts in Scarlett Undercover. I didn’t particularly think it was that interesting or even a major aspect, but I did want to mention it. I know readers want to know that sort of thing. This is very much a story about Scarlett. It’s also a plot-driven story with lots of action, so don’t expect too much of the introspection we often see in other YA novels.
There are lots of things to like about this book. I loved that the heroine was POC and I loved that her culture and background permeated her worldview. It wasn’t just for spice. I’m not Muslim, so I can’t say whether the portrayal was accurate, so I’d love to hear input on those aspects. I liked that Scarlett was a clever, streetwise girl who was competent and could take care of herself. That said, this is a book that you read for the plot and for the action. It’s not really a read to sink into if you want an emotional-wrenching journey. B- for me.