Down the Rabbit Hole: An Echo Falls Mystery by Peter Abrahams
The Plot: Ingrid Levin-Hill is 13, loves soccer and acting, and is impatiently waiting for one of her busy parents to pick her up at the orthodontist. She decides to start off for the soccer field on her own, gets lost, is helped out by an eccentric woman, and accidentally finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation.
The Good: Ingrid is a great teenager. She has friends, she's smart, she's got courage. But she isn't perfect; she isn't annoying; she isn't always right. She makes mistakes. She learns. And the whole time, she's guided by what's right, what's wrong, and what's necessary as she tries to discover who murdered Kate.
Ingrid realizes that things don't just happen -- you have to work for it, whether its studying for the math test or memorizing the streets of her hometown so she knows her way around.
This can easily turn into a great series: it's well written and perfect for middle school. The middle school, like Ingrid herself, is normal and typical.... tho, like Veronica Mars, I think that she may find mysteries aplenty to investigate in quaint-sounding Echo Falls.
Some other cool things: instead of the usual "kill Mom" to allow Ingrid the freedom to investigate, Abrahams has given Ingrid two working parents. At times they may be a little overworked, which is why Ingrid can become the teen sleuth, but they clearly like and love their daughter.
Older brother Tyler and Ingrid have a contentious sibling relationship (and I suspect a mystery with her brother to be solved down the road.) Grandpa is a trip -- part of the reason Ingrid likes spending time with him is he's teaching her to shoot. He's independent. He's cranky. He's smart. (And I think there's a secret involving his World War II activities.)
Ingrid's involved in local theatre; the title of the book comes from the play Ingrid is in, Alice in Wonderland. This is another clever point for the author: Ingrid's involvement in community theatre, rather than a school production, means she knows people outside the school/family circles.
Abrahams usually writes for adults; I haven't read any of those books. What I like is that DTRH is tightly plotted, has well-rounded characters, and is respectful of the audience. Unlike other adult authors who suddenly discover the teen market, Abrahams does not write down for his audience. He also does not indulge in heavy-handed moralizing. Instead, he gives us a fun, involving, scary mystery.
Rumor has it the next book is Behind the Curtain: with a new mystery for Ingrid to solve and a new play about the Wizard of Oz.