“Miss Vesper Holly leads an active life. In the half-dozen years since my wife, Mary, and I, Professor Brinton Garrett, have been her guardians, I have seen her deal calmly and efficiently with erupting volcanoes, floods, earthquakes, exploding sausages, and other stressful events. The dear girl likes to keep busy.”
Here we are, folks, at the final installment of the Vesper Holly series, and much like The Philadelphia Adventure, this book takes a significant departure from the formula established in the first four books. Once again, Vesper’s adventures take place in a real country (this time, it’s Turkey) and the plot revolves entirely around Dr. Helvitius – this is unfortunate, but it at least means that Vesper doesn’t have to avert civil war in a fictional country for what would have been the fifth time. This book picks up very soon after The Philadelphia Adventure left off, with Vesper going off to Turkey with the entire cast of Vesper Holly Players: where the series began with just Vesper and Brinnie jetting off to Illyria, the final book has Vesper, Brinnie, Smiler, Slider, the Weed, and Aunt Mary all heading off on an adventure together. I’ve said over and over that Aunt Mary is the best character in the series, and any adventure is better when she comes along, but all of these additional sidekicks do make the story a little crowded.
Anyway, the gang is going to Turkey because the Weed (I guess I should start calling him Tobias, but Brinnie’s narration always calls him by his nickname, so it’s a hard habit to break) has been researching ancient history and thinks he’s located the ruins of Troy. But before we can start having an Indiana Jones-style adventure, the gang is waylaid by Dr. Helvitius. Again. Even Helvitius seems to be getting tired of this song-and-dance, because he doesn’t even try to kill Vesper and her friends, choosing instead to imprison them in a wing of his palace and then ignore them. The group escapes through an air vent, which Helvitius didn’t bother to secure or patrol, and the final confrontation occurs when Vesper & Co. run into him by accident at the end of the book. Pro tip, Mr. Alexander: when even your antagonist is tired of being the villain, it might be time to admit that he never really worked as well as you wanted him to.
But luckily Helvitius doesn’t dominate the story, and we get lots of fun digressions where the group stays with some local villagers who might actually be descended from the original Trojans, and everyone gets a good moment (or, in the case of Mary, several good moments, because Mary Garrett is the greatest – did I mention she steals a knife from Helvitius’s table and hides it up her sleeve?). The story feels almost like an extended epilogue, a final bow for Vesper and her friends – it even ends with Vesper preparing to make a tour of all the countries she visited on her previous adventures. It’s not the most compelling or exciting book in the series, but it’s a nice goodbye to a heroine that Alexander clearly cares deeply about.
Having now finished the entire series, I think that I should have read these books when I was a kid, and I’m sorry I didn’t. Too many of my criticisms of the series come from an adult perspective, and I’m sure they wouldn’t have bothered me as a kid – although I think that, even in elementary school, I would have noticed that the plots of the first four books are almost identical. My two biggest complaints about the series probably wouldn’t have even occurred to me when I was little: first, as I’ve said in almost every Vesper Holly review I’ve written, Dr. Helvitius is a tiresome villain. It’s not that he’s an ineffective antagonist; he just wears out his welcome. I think the series would have been improved if there had been other, minor villains appearing in some of the books while Helvitius sat them out. At the very least, each book could have Vesper dealing with a different villain who turned out to be working for Helvitius, so he remained a presence in the story without becoming repetitive. A different kind of villain would have improved the series, or at least made it less frustrating when Helvitius somehow fails to murder a teenager for the fifth goddamn time in row. I love Vesper with all my heart, but even I started muttering, “Oh my god, just shoot her in the head already” the third time she fell into Helvitius’s clutches.
My other big issue, of course, is the issue of the narration. As other reviewers have pointed out, the choice to have Vesper’s adventures narrated by a man takes a lot away from the heroine. This, of course, is an obvious homage to Dr. Watson narrating the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and I would argue that a lot of the fun of the Vesper books, like Holmes’s adventures, lies in not being inside the main character’s head, and being surprised when they make a discovery or implement a plan. But if Vesper Holly is a female version of Sherlock Holmes, shouldn’t it follow that her Dr. Watson should be gender-reversed as well? I’m talking, of course, about Aunt Mary. By the time I got to the sixth book (and had seen what Mary was capable of when she was allowed to join the adventure in The Drackenberg Adventure), I couldn’t stop imagining what the series would have been like with Aunt Mary as our narrator instead of Brinnie. Mary is tough, resourceful, and intelligent, and she also shares Brinnie’s exaggerated sense of propriety and politeness that’s such a source of humor in the narration. Think about what these books would have been if they had been about a teenage girl and her female guardian traveling the globe in the 1800’s, exploring ruins and foiling villains? It would have been goddamn revolutionary, and I’m sorry that Lloyd Alexander didn’t take this opportunity.
I think ten-year-old me would have loved Vesper, and I wish her series was more well-known. Little girls need this kind of heroine, a girl who is preternaturally intelligent and capable, who is treated with respect by everyone she meets despite her age and gender, who is capable and kind, who never judges a person based on appearances, who takes charge in situations but allows herself to be helped when she’s in trouble. The Vesper Holly books were not as good as they could have been, but I’m happy I read them, even if I read them much too late.