Booked Up

The Mystery of Our Parents’ Divorce

In Mona Simpson’s novel, Casebook, teen boys do a Hardy Boys style investigation of parental problems.

By - Jun 20th, 2014 11:20 am
Mona Simpson

Mona Simpson

Imagine if the Hardy Boys, those inimitable teen sleuths of yore, had been children of divorce. Instead of solving crimes in their little burgh, imagine them using their detective skills to understand the conundrum of their parents’ divorce. If you can make this leap, then perhaps you’ll get a small taste of Mona Simpson’s engaging new novel, Casebook.

Using the conventions of detective fiction, Ms. Simpson creates not only an engrossing puzzle, but delineates the trauma and irrationality of breaking up a whole family through divorce. While the hardcore mystery fan may not find the plot significantly criminal enough, the real treat here is the remarkable insight into adolescent male thought.

Miles Adler and his best friend, Hector, are the teen protagonists who take the desire to understand the reasons for separation and betrayal to remarkable lengths. They are brilliant nerds who make normal seem like a faraway country, charming and diverting in ways that make the reader chuckle and cringe simultaneously. You may shudder at the embarrassing things that love and loyalty make teens do, but you will also smile with recognition.

The years-long central mystery unravels in the the Los Angeles of 2000 to 2007 and is told in retrospect as a “casebook” the adult Miles and Hector turn in to their publisher. Now famous for their graphic novels, they delve into their own past for this material. The short, piquant chapters read like little short stories narrated by troubled (and very funny) teens. Although Miles tells the story, Hector interrupts the text with footnotes that clarify and often function as one-liners.

The struggles of the divorced middle class in California’s suburban jungle may seem like a rarified subject, but Ms. Simpson succeeds in making the stories of love and dissolution appear universal. Although Miles and Hector attend a progressive private school, their trials and tricks will certainly be familiar to all high school graduates. One particularly delicious touch is the boys’ masquerade as members of the gay student group in order to sell illegal soup cups.

While the puzzle they solve may seem extraneous at times, their methods are right out of every teen detective’s handbook. They even consult a real private investigator, who not only adopts them as a pet cause, but gives them realistic insights into the craft of deduction. We are also treated to several of his “cases” that mine the absurdities of “La-La Land.”



Miles and Hector both have sets of troubled and mismatched parents, who in turn get involved with other troubled and mismatched rebounds. Hector’s mother dates “Old Surfer Dude” and Miles’ mother, a brilliant mathematician, gets involved with a man from the National Science Foundation. This dazzling array of weirdoes provides fun and fear in equal parts.

When innocent dates by divorcees begin to get serious, we are given sharp insights into the ambivalence of the children. Should our parents get married again? How will it affect us? What if they’re worse than the last ones? All of these unresolved questions spur our inquisitive duo into more and more outlandish behavior, until real damage is done. “Why shouldn’t the victims act out?” they think. Give the parental units a taste of their own medicine!

Eventually, reality intervenes and the amateur criminologists learn lessons that change the course of their lives. The art of this fictional account comes in its veracity and insights. We are drawn into the tortured thinking of adolescents and forced to confront the apparent selfishness of adults. Teens may find this very appealing, especially if they have experienced divorce recently. Casebook is at once an adult cautionary tale and a celebration of the often unrecognized rationality of youth. You will leave this novel with a new awareness of the sadness of divorce — and the necessity for a good background check!

Upcoming Book Events:

Saturday, June 21 (2:00 PM): Fierce Reads Tour! at the North Shore Library with Jennifer Mathieu, author of The Truth about Alice, Emmy Layborne, author of Monument 14: Savage Drift, Ava Dellaira, author of Love Letters to the Dead, and Leigh Bardugo, author of Ruin and Rising. Great for ages 12 and up. The North Shore Library is located at 6800 N. Port Washington Road in Glendale. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Saturday, June 21 (7:00 PM): Reading by Amaranth Borsuk, Stephanie Strickland, and Ian Hatcher at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. (414) 263-5001$5-$8.

Sunday, June 22 (3:00 PM): Reading by Fantasy writers, Mary Robinette Kowal, author of Valour and Vanity and Katherine Addison (also known as Sarah Monette), author of The Goblin Emperor, in conversation with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jim Higgins at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Monday, June 23 (7:00 PM): Ann Garvin, author of The Dog Yearat Boswell Book Company.

Tuesday, June 24 (7:00 PM): Local Artist Susan Simensky Bietila, contributor to World War 3 Illustrated: 1979-2014 at Boswell Book Company.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at And good reading!

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