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Pieces and Players by Blue Balliett What is fact and what is fiction,
especially in the world of art?

Start with the biggest unsolved art theft in U.S. history, one that really did happen in Boston on March 18, 1990. A Vermeer was stolen, three Rembrandts, a Manet, five Degas drawings.… In order to tackle this heartbreaking crime, I borrowed and moved the museum itself. Presto! The Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum is now the Farmer Museum, in Chicago. The building and its collection remain the same. The theft has just occurred.

Now watch five familiar characters – Calder, Petra, Tommy, Zoomy and Early -- jump from the pages of my earlier mysteries and meet as an awkward team. Can they tackle this heist?

Here comes a cat by the name of Rat-a-tat; Mother Goose rhymes with a life of their own; a flying Ouija Board; a neighborhood rapidly filling with black jackets; a ghostly boot; a sudden sting felt by a dying man.


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Excerpt: Stung

The man startled awake, stung by a jolt of pain in his neck. “Serves you right, you old fool,” he muttered to himself.

Lumbering to his feet, he glanced at the monitors that recorded each floor of the building. Dawn slid smoothly along the terra-cotta tiles, past carved stone and wood, the glow of old paintings, the shimmer of gold leaf, lacquer, and glass.

A draft ruffled the giant ferns in the courtyard. Air moving. It was too early for the relief guard to be arriving. And besides, he’d never leave the door ajar.

Something is wrong, the man thought.

Skree-ka-ka-thunk! His scalp tingled and the hair rose on both arms. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Or rather, what he wasn’t seeing.

Trembling, he sank to his knees, realizing that his life, as he knew it, was over.

Behind the Scenes:

I would never have dared to take on this messy, real-world heist when I was first writing mysteries – the theft was so big, it happened a long time ago and nothing, tragically, has been recovered.   And then one day I had a wild idea.  Could ALL of my detectives get together on this one?  Five players and thirteen stolen pieces!

Kids are natural problem-solvers and their brains are in much better shape than ours.  We need young thinkers, for real, to figure out where this art is hidden.  Over the past twenty-five years, many adults have tried and failed.  

I’m sure of one thing:  Mrs. Gardner’s ghost and I would both do somersaults if a kid who reads this mystery then points out clues that lead to the recovery of these priceless treasures.  And by the way, in the real world there’s a five million dollar reward for information leading to the return of this art. 

No kidding.

I visited the Gardner Museum in Boston many times over a number of years. Swept away by the excitement of stepping inside on one of my first visits, I hadn’t noticed the visitors’ rules, which include NO PICTURE TAKING and NO PENS. I pulled out my cell phone and snapped this image while looking down into the courtyard. A guard rushed over. Minutes later, I was happily writing in my notebook with my purple pen when another guard ordered me again to stop and then kindly offered a blunt pencil stub from his pocket. A word to the wise: Bring your own pencil.

But hey – that’s a cool picture of the giant ferns and a magical statue, don’t you think? The Gardner doesn’t sell a lot of postcards, so this is valuable. I’m kind of glad I didn’t see the rules.