The Mystery Thief by Paul Hutchens is #10 in the 36-book series of the Sugar Creek Gang. This book, according to the copyright page, was first published in 1946 and times have definitely changed.

Bill Collins, the narrator, makes references to giving “lickin’s” to other boys in the past (perhaps in earlier books). In the first pages of The Mystery Thief he says that he and his father had spent some time in the woodshed. (I don’t think they were re-stacking the wood.) Later in The Mystery Thief, the boys get into a scuffle with an adult they believe is poaching and still later in the story their new teacher threatens the boys with a switching. These behaviors could—and should—disturb a contemporary reader. But they also make it a worthwhile read. As the story unfolds, you experience Bill’s unvarnished feelings and attitudes, then watch them change under the influence of his father, a wiser boy from the gang, and a godly older man.

Bill takes steps toward becoming a wise and godly man in the course of the story. He reconsiders the merits of fighting and giving vent to his emotions. He watches others show respect even when they don’t like the person and learns the value of it. He experiences the consequences of jumping to conclusions and begins to question that behavior. I want to underscore that Bill’s learning does not feel like the author preaching. The learning comes honestly. It feels like a real kid growing up and growing wise. OK, enough about why young readers should read it. Here’s why I think they will want to read it and keep reading.

The book starts fast. Bill Collins sees a mysterious man sneak out of the woods and shove a letter into his family’s mailbox. The unsigned letter is addressed to Bill’s father. The writer threatens Bill and calls him the worst “ruffneck” in a gang of “ruffnecks.”

On the way up the lane to Poetry’s, another member of the gang, Bill is attacked—shoved into a snowdrift—and his suitcase and the letter are stolen. The gang shows up and, because the snow is falling, they all quickly set off to follow the tracks of the assailant and to discover who he is. As they walk, they also try to figure out who may have written the letter.

A chance encounter with their new teacher adds drama to the search, but seems to twist the plot away from the mysterious stranger as the boys consider their previous behavior toward their new teacher and vow to behave better. Suspense mounts as the boys continue tracking the assailant. They spot a suspicious man and are certain he is the thief, but they are mistaken. The plot continues to twist and turn until, in a surprising way involving their new teacher, the boys solve the mystery.

I think boys in particular will find this book absorbing. There is a lot of action and some danger. But I also think the lives of the Sugar Creek Gang will intrigue boys. The Mystery Thief gives a glimpse of life in rural America of the mid-twentieth century. It is in some ways a harsh life. The boys in the novel are familiar with poverty and they have seen the effects of drunkenness in adults. Material wealth, even for the boys whose families are not just scraping by, is so much less than what children generally have today.

Yet these boys are not unhappy. They seem at home in their lives. They have each other and they accept each other and all the oddities that go with each individual personality. As a group, they are courageous and resourceful. They have an independence and freedom to move about that twenty-first century boys and girls will envy.

The novel is short and will appeal especially to boys ages 10 to 12 years old.

Nancy Ellen Hird is a mom, a writer and a credentialed teacher. (She taught seventh grade and preschool.)  Her latest works for children are I Get a Clue and We All Get a Clue, mystery novels for girls 10-13. For several years she was a freelance reviewer of children’s and teen’s literature for the Focus on the Family website.