Written by on June 24, 2014

Casebook, by Mona Simpson

It’s a coincidence that just after re-reading a childhood favorite of mine, Harriet the Spy, I should pick up an adult novel that also features kids spying on adults. This time around, it’s the main character’s parents who are under surveillance, not his classmates. He starts out selfishly, just wanting to know how strictly his mother plans to ration his tv viewing, but as he says in the first line of the book: “I was a snoop, but a peculiar kind. I only discovered what I most didn’t want to know.” Indeed, some of the dirt young Miles Adler-Hart digs up is disturbing enough to make him want to stop digging altogether.

9780385351416_p0_v2_s260x420But Miles’ friend Hector joins in the spy operation, and he, with less to lose emotionally, eventually insists that they hire a private detective to help them find out what Miles doesn’t want to know: that his parents are splitting up, for one thing, and that she’s falling for another man who’s at best mysterious. The P.I. they hire, Ben Orion, becomes a major character in the drama of Miles’ life. (In the acknowledgments, Simpson credits an LA private detective for inspiring the Ben Orion character with a single line: “Everyone loves the firemen.”)

Here’s a sample of Miles figuring things out as he goes along:

It felt like the first good Christmas since I’d been old enough to understand there could be any other kind. My father bent down to kiss my mother’s forehead when he dropped us back, brushing a piece of her hair behind her ear, the jewel earring he’d given her hanging next to her cheek. That’s how I remember it, anyhow. I realize, it probably couldn’t have been that jolly. These were people going through a divorce. From what I know now, they must have been almost done.

Miles’ bittersweet assessment of his Mom’s (“the Mims'”) actions as he grows up made him a uniquely lovable and, to me, real character. A friend who started the book abandoned it; she said she’d never met a teenager who cared that much about what his parents were doing. But I found it believable that he would, with Hector egging him on, get drawn in.

author photo: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times

Read more on fiction and Mona Simpson.

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