Charlie, the shy son of an American diplomat in France, discovers a thrilling, dangerous underworld whose young denizens prey on the unsuspecting elite of 1961 Marseille.
Watching Amir, a gifted young pickpocket, in action, the 12-year-old white boy is impressed and, after helping him avoid arrest, asks Amir to teach him his trade. With Amir’s support, Charlie is admitted to his gang, the multiracial Whiz Mob of Marseille: kids who hail from Lebanon, the U.S., Europe, Japan, and Africa. In their lair under a derelict bar, the mob plots elaborate heists, targeting the wealthy where they congregate. Neglected by his estranged parents (German heiress mother, remote Anglo dad), Charlie’s thrilled to belong. But the deeper he’s drawn in, the higher the stakes become, culminating in a perilous journey to the remote School of Seven Bells in Colombia. Meloy takes his time moving pieces on his elaborate chessboard, describing the vivid scenery, human and otherwise, and introducing characters whose dialogue is adorned with colorful pickpocket argot (glossary provided). Patient readers are rewarded as Charlie is pulled into the whiz mob and suspense mounts. Even then the omniscient narrator will interrupt with comments on authorial choices: Charlie refuses a glass of champagne, readers are told, to meet the expectations of librarians and booksellers. Ellis’ charming illustrations (finished art not seen) adeptly capture the playful tone and decidedly period setting.
A gleefully metafictional caper and middle-grade picaresque bound to appeal to discerning young readers. (Adventure. 8-12)