In the third installment in this series, the brainy and variantly gifted Reynie, Kate, Sticky and Constance tackle a new threat from their benefactor Mr. Benedict's evil twin, Ledroptha Curtain, and his memory-altering machine called the Whisperer. Having just returned from the second adventure (TMBS and the Perilous Journey) in which they had to rescue Mr. Benedict and his adopted daughter known only by the name Number Two (whose physical description is almost identical to a #2 pencil, though that is left for the reader to figure out), all four children are sequestered for their own security at the Benedict mansion because the bad guys are still on the loose. No longer orphans, all are staying at the mansion with loving parents or guardians (Sticky's birth parents, Reynie's former teacher and her mother, Kate's long-lost father, and, for four-year-old cranky genius Constance Contraire, Mr. Benedict himself) and each other, and the whole arrangement is rather cozy. To me, anyway. But not to these kids, who thrive on adventure, have the unique gifts to handle it, and are getting mighty tired of confinement. When evidence arises that Mr. Curtain is plotting to regain control of the Whisperer, they go to work puzzling out his plan only to fall right into his kidnapping scheme. Both the mental and physical feats are original and daring, but as they battle, the kids never lose sight of the personal element: If they defeat Mr. Curtain and his evil minions once and for all, will they have to move back to their separate lives and never see each other again?
Perhaps my favorite aspect of this series is that, though we'd expect it to be plot-driven, the characterization is just as strong. The foursome keep learning more about themselves and each other, exploring strengths, weaknesses, and figuring out how to get along now that they spend at least as much time together as siblings do. For example, someone notices that one of Sticky's nervous habits is to polish his glasses. When the remark gets back to him, Sticky spends the rest of the book checking himself whenever he reaches for the polishing cloth. It creates sympathy for him, and respect for his willingness to overcome a habit. The book also strikes a good balance between explaining as little as possible yet providing enough backstory that readers can start here without having read the first two. There are many funny moments, and though all the kids are likable and distinct, Constance is always a howl.
Yet, I didn't love the book as much as I wanted to. Part of that, I think, is simply that the children's spectacular gifts are no longer as startling as they were in book one. That's just one of the conditions of being a sequel. But the real reason, I believe, is that once the plot got going, there was a lot of running around and not as much puzzling. It's the brain teasers and the fun of matching wits with the characters that make these books unique, and that was lacking a bit in this volume.
A heartwarming ending to this book prepares readers for the series to end at this point. If there are more Mysterious Benedict Society books, though, I'll gladly pick them up.