The Whispering Skull
Lockwood & Co. (#2)
by Jonathan Stroud
Middle Grade (8-12 and up)
We rejoin Lucy, George, and Anthony Lockwood with a few more notches in their belt since the Combe Carey Hall incident. They dealt with Mrs. Barrett’s Tomb, a dark specter at the Epping Forest, and a shining boy in a rectory, and they’ve gotten shiny new epees, though an official uniform seems anathema to the only small ghost-hunting agency run by a youth without adult supervisors.
Today the cemeteries were overgrown, the bowers wild and laced with thorns. Few adults ventured there by daylight; at night they were places of terror to be avoided at all costs. While it was true that the vast majority of the dead still slept quietly in their graves, even agents were reluctant to spend much time among them. It was like entering enemy territory. We were not welcome there.
We are finally treated to the story of the Type Three manifestation in Lockwood’s possession, the skull-in-a-jar stolen by George back when he worked for Fittes… before he was asked to leave for insubordination (for asking too many questions, he says). This also gives us a bit of background on George; we already know about Lucy and her mentor Jacobs, and are soon to learn more of Lockwood’s trainer, Gravedigger Sykes. The story reveals that apparently Fittes doesn’t send all their cursed relics and sources directly to the furnaces as they say they do. DEPRAC itself, for that matter, does extensive research on its relics hidden deep within Scotland Yard, yet reveals nothing to the public. And again we encounter that mysterious lyre symbol.
While George’s torturous experiments with the skull are unproductive, Lucy starts talking to it like an old friend. A real type three. No one’s done that since the original ghost hunter Marissa Fittes herself. The skull of course, begins to manipulate Lucy to wonder about the room Lockwood doesn’t ever want opened. The trickster implies that there is a greater danger within than he.
The curtain goes up as the team is hired by a grave clearing company to seal the recently discovered Edmund Bickerstaff grave. Seems easy, but within is discovered a cursed magic mirror. It is in an iron casket buried in a makeshift grave from long before The Problem began. Odd that iron would be used back then. The mirror, of course, is soon stolen and one of the culprits is discovered dead… of fright.
Enter Quill Kipps from the Fittes Agency and his team: The poker-faced Kat Godwin, a psychic Listener like Lucy; their researcher is small-statured Bobby Vernon; and bully-boy Ned Shaw, who are always there like Malfoy to Potter, to rub The Lockwood Agency’s shortcomings in their faces. But they couldn’t beat Lockwood’s team in a fair fight. Not without the resources of the wealthy and influential Fittes juggernaut to overpower the situation. At the height of the tension between them, a wager is made, the dice are cast… the first to solve the riddle of the missing Bone Glass wins, and the loser eats crow in a full-page ad in the newspaper.
She was flintily ambitious and cool-natured and had less capacity for humor than a tortoise… Her gray Fittes jacket, skirt, and leggings always seemed spotless, which made me doubt she’s ever had to climb up inside a chimney to escape a Specter, or battle a Poltergeist in the Bridwell sewers (officially the Worst Job Ever,) as I had. Annoyingly, I always seemed to meet her after precisely that kind of incident.
We are introduced to a charismatic new character, Flo Bones, who sweeps the strand for treasures washed up by the tide, and we learn of the difference between agents and “relic men,” hunters of supernatural trophies not to be burned incinerated at Fittes, but to be sold on the black market to private collectors, a danger to society. But are they really that different from the large agencies that conspicuously display Sources in their banquet halls?
Flo gives them a lead to the mirror thief, but before they can track down one Jack Carver, he appears on their doorstep in classic whodunnit fashion: with a Mogul blade embedded in his back.
The skull begins to talk to Lucy again, and tells her of Bickerstaff’s notes, kept under the floorboards of his mansion. It is a setup? You never can trust an apparition, according to Fittes’ manuals. And just who did that skull belong to, anyway?
Swaying like a drunken man, head lolling, body shifting, writhing with a horrid fluid grace, the figure rose, silhouetted against the moon, Little spreading nets of ice grew and fused on the windowpanes behind it. Still the head was bowed. The body’s contortions –minute but somehow frenzied– redoubled, as if it sought to tear itself to pieces…
After the mirror is discovered at a fence’s secret and well-guarded auction, George disappears! Does the thinking tablecloth leave a clue? Can the help the whispering skull offers be trusted? Melee in the catacombs ensues as underworld enforcers fight against the best of multiple agencies for possession of a mirror that allows its looker to see into the Other Side in the barnstormer of a climax!