Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett, was published in 2004 by Scholastic.
“When a book of unexplainable occurrences brings Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay together, strange things start to happen: Seemingly unrelated events connect, an eccentric old woman seeks their company, and an invaluable Vermeer painting disappears. Before they know it, the two find themselves at the center of an international art scandal, where no one—neighbors, parents, teachers—is spared from suspicion. As Petra and Calder are drawn clue by clue into a mysterious labyrinth, they must draw on their powers of intuition, their problem-solving skills, and their knowledge of Vermeer. Can they decipher a crime that has left even the FBI baffled?”
Another fond memory of my childhood reading, Chasing Vermeer is part mystery, part clue quest, with fabulous illustrations by Brett Helquist and a rich depth of history. It’s also probably the most well-known of Balliett’s work, and for a debut novel (for children) it’s a good one.
Unfortunately, as I was rereading it, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I remember enjoying it as a child. That’s only to be expected—I’ve read so many books that my tastes have expanded and I’ve gotten much more familiar with what I like and what I don’t like. And I don’t like the way Chasing Vermeer solves its mystery.
See, I do like my clue hunts to be more, well, clue hunts rather than “random thoughts and feelings and impressions” hunts. It bothered me to no end that Petra and Calder solved most of this mystery through random thoughts that popped into their head or feelings that they got as they passed through a room. I simply didn’t buy it.
Another thing that bothered me was that Balliett hides some important information inside of coded letters, and I know that it’s all the rage to include the key and have the reader decipher it for themselves, but decoding it takes up valuable reading time, and I can see many readers skipping it because they don’t want to take up the time to decode it—and then they miss out on important information (Balliett does include a summary of the contents, but it doesn’t really suffice). So the ending becomes even more abrupt and strange than it already is.
So, yes, I’m not as impressed with Chasing Vermeer as I was as a kid. In fact, I’m not impressed at all. Helquist has fantastic illustrations and I did like the history into Vermeer and the speculation behind him and his paintings, but I didn’t like the quality of the mystery nor the way it was solved. Too much “ooo, strange things happening” and not enough good solid clues.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Warnings: The last part of the novel may be scary for younger readers.
Genre: Mystery, Realistic, Middle Grade
“I was going to ask you—you see, my grandma gave me a box with that guy, I mean that painting, on the over, and I was going to try to find out who did it—and I just did some homework that describes it—that’s so strange, isn’t it?”
Mrs. Sharpe sniffed and handed Calder the check. “Well, not really. That’s a print of a Vermeer painting called The Geographer. There must be thousands of them around.”
“Oh! Who was Vermeer? I know I’ve heard his name, but—you know.” Calder, still surprised, was warming up to the situation.
“He was Dutch, and painted in the seventeenth century.” She paused, looking thoughtfully at Calder’s enthusiastic grin. “I’m sure you could find a book in your school library that told you something about him.”