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Book Review: Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius

Genre: Middle grade fiction, mystery
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Year Published: 2018
Format: Hardback
Original Language: Swedish
Translator: Peter Graves
Awards: Batchelder Award, 2018
Source: Library
Link: The Murderer’s Ape (Goodreads)

“Sally Jones is not only a loyal friend, she’s an extraordinary individual. In overalls or in a maharaja’s turban, this unique gorilla moves among humans without speaking but understanding everything. She and the Chief are devoted comrades who operate a cargo boat. A job they are offered pays big bucks, but the deal ends badly, and the Chief is falsely convicted of murder.

For Sally Jones this is the start of a harrowing quest for survival and to clear the Chief’s name. Powerful forces are working against her, and they will do anything to protect their secrets.”

From the book description on Goodreads

What I thought of The Murderer’s Ape

I’ll confess, the thought of a literate gorilla traveling around the world to prove the innocence of her former ship captain seemed a little far-fetched to me. But Wegelius builds the events in this novel so carefully one after another that suspending my disbelief didn’t prove to be any trouble at all. Which is really remarkable, considering all of the marvelous places Sally Jones oh-so-plausibly travels to in the course of proving the Chief’s innocence: London, Lisbon, Alexandria, Port Said, Karachi, Bombay, and Cochin.

I typically give a book somewhere between 50 and 100 pages to build its world and hook me on its story before I give up on it. Wegelius had me hooked in the first 145 words.

“The other day the Chief gave me an old typewriter, a 1908 Underwood No. 5. He’d bought it from a scrap merchant down by the harbor, here in Lisbon. Several of the keys were broken and the release lever was missing, but the Chief knows I like fixing broken things.

“It’s taken me a couple of evenings to mend my Underwood No. 5, and this is the first time I’ve written anything on it. Several of the keys still stick, but a pair of pliers and a few drops of oil will soon put them right.

“That will have to wait until tomorrow. It’s already dark outside my cabin window. The lights from the vessels lying at anchor are reflecting in the black water. I’ve strung my hammock and I’m about to climb in it.

“I hope I don’t have those horrible dreams again tonight.”

From The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius, p. xxiii.

Those four opening paragraphs are fairly typical of Wegelius’ narrative style throughout the 589 pages that follow. Sally Jones is a remarkably efficient, practical, and enticing narrator.

It’s fascinating to watch Sally Jones form friendships with the various humans who take the time to learn to communicate with her, and patiently work her way past the setbacks imposed upon her by the people who treat her as just another animal. I particularly enjoyed seeing how their interactions with Sally Jones changed the people closest to her, from the reclusive kind-hearted Ana Molina who finds the courage to pursue a singing career on-stage to the utterly self-indulgent Maharaja of Cochin, who in the course of his relationship with Sally Jones finds himself thinking about how his actions affect others for what is clearly the first time in his life.

You may have noticed that I said this book was 589 pages. Don’t rule it out based on length. It’s middle grade fiction, which means the text is a bit larger, the pages a bit smaller, and the sentences relatively simple. Add in a tightly-paced narrative and periodic illustrations from the author, and the result is a book that reads much more quickly than you’d expect from its page count. I tore through this book in two sittings on a recent weekend.

In this black and white illustration from The Murderer's Ape, Sally Jones sits on a staircase and stares out a window.
Illustration from The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius. In this image, Sally Jones sits on a staircase and watches out the window for a person she believes could help prove the Chief’s innocence. (Illustration: Jakob Wegelius)

Who would enjoy this book?

  • Anyone looking for a mystery suitable for middle grade readers
  • Anyone looking for a book told from an animal’s point of view

About the Author and the Translator

Jakob Wegelius is a Swedish writer and illustrator who lives and works in the small village of Mörtfors. In Sweden, he was awarded the August Prize for Best Children’s Book and the Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize for The Murderer’s Ape. It is also an International Youth Library White Raven Selection.

Peter Graves is a translator from the Scandinavian languages known n particular for his translations of novels by August Strindberg and Selma Lagerlöf. He has received many Swedish Academy prizes for his translations.

(Bios reprinted from the inside jacket cover of The Murderer’s Ape.)

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