Enjoyable read with some questionable morality and a possibly disturbing premise for young readers.
Reynie Muldoon is a smart and gifted child - a smart and gifted orphan who has long since passed all the orphanage's classes, but is not allowed to go to another school. When he and his tutor, Miss Perumal, see an ad in the newspaper for a center that offers tests for special children, they decide that Reynie should take the test. Take it he does, and on the way makes friends with a boy named Sticky Washington - in whose brain all facts stick - and a girl named Kate Wetherall - whose special bucket is always kept by her side and contains a mishmash of possibly helpful items. The three children manage to pass the tests and meet with the organizer of them, a Mr. Benedict. And he tells them of the reason for the tests.
A man named Curtain has found out a way to transmit messages into people's minds using radio and TV broadcasts, messages that affect the lives of everyday people. He is planning something greater and more devious to come, and it is the purpose of Mr. Benedict's small band of helpers to stop Curtain before he can instigate his "Improvement." Because Curtain uses children as a filter for his messages, believing that children's minds simplify what they hear, it is only possible for children to enter his Institute for the Very Enlightened and act as spies.
Joined by a midget of a girl named Constance, Reynie, Sticky, and Kate (the new Mysterious Benedict Society) head to the Institute to stop Mr. Curtain.
For the most part this is a good-against-evil story, with the children working to stop the bad guy, but there are some iffy parts. First of all, though part of the children's test at the beginning was whether or not they would cheat and accept the answers to the written exam, they are later encouraged to do just that while at the Institute. This is to insure that all four of them will be able to become Messengers - meaning, those children that Mr. Curtain selects to "filter" his messages. The children are shocked by this call to cheat, but go ahead with the plan.
Secondly, the children must lie to avoid being caught while at the Institute. While the mindset is that they're doing it for "the greater good," at least two of their lies have the prospect of getting people into serious trouble. Sticky accuses a Messenger (a girl whom they all hate for her arrogance and swagger) of making him help her to cheat - a lie which may land her in a bad spot. Later, a lie from Reynie condemns another Messenger to be "brain swept" - that is, for all his memories to be "locked away" out of reach, reducing the boy to a sad state. While Reynie struggles with the ethics of this, in the end, nothing comes of his doubts.
Later, in order to indispose all the Messengers, the Benedict Society mixes powder from a root into the cafeteria food to induce vomiting. This also affects "innocent" students, for which Sticky feels bad...and is essentially told by Kate to get over it. They also have a good time imagining Martina Crowe (the aforementioned Messenger whom Sticky accuses of cheating) throwing up.
Of course, Curtain is a self-centered man who only cares about his own fame. His egotism is frowned upon, however, as is the jeering and taunting of some of his Executives toward the Benedict Society.
Friendship and loyalty are two major themes in the book; unfortunately, there could have been more of "Love your neighbor as yourself."
Really none. When Reynie has trouble sleeping at the Institute, he soothes himself by writing mental letters to his tutor, Miss Perumal, which could be seen as an alternative to praying. Mr. Curtain's machine, which transmits the hidden messages, is capable of soothing people's fears.
There is a mention of a man being hit over the head. The children are nearly kidnapped toward the beginning of the story, and there are other references to people being kidnapped and then "brain swept." The Recruiters at the Institute, who are the kidnappers, wear shock watches that stun children; another man carries a tranquilizer gun and uses it several times.
Several characters go to, and others are threatened with the prospect of going to, the Waiting Room: a dark, mud-filled room in the lower part of the Institute, full of creepy crawlies. The Executives box children's ears and, near the end, one of the Benedict Society gets into a brawl with three of them. A man breaks his arm bending a metal bar.
After hearing about how the butchers on the Institute's island used to empty the excess blood into the channel and how sharks would then prowl the water, a girl fears being eaten by those beasts; she contemplates whether she will be killed by their jaws or by drowning.
Drug and Alcohol Content
None, other than the powder used in the cafeteria food.
Crude or Profane Language or Content
Some uses of "shut up" from the children, and Mr. Curtain uses "what the devil?" and "d*mn." He also makes exclamations like "Dogs and cats!" One of the Executives calls the children "squirts" and other rude, but non-vulgar, names. After the other students eat the food with the root-powder in it, there are quite a few references to barfing and vomiting and the like. One reference to someone picking their nose.
"The Mysterious Benedict Society" was an enjoyable read, despite some of the problems in morality mentioned above. It had its memorable and funny moments, and the children's characters were interesting - especially that of the stubborn Constance. The story also took a couple of intriguing twists here and there, which keep the reader interested, and there is also a plethora of puns and word plays throughout the book.
There were a few aggravating parts in the story and writing themselves that may go unnoticed by younger readers. For one thing, the children can be a little dense; the older reader may spot something a mile off that the Benedict Society doesn't realize until pages later. Also, in some places it felt like the author went overboard on Reynie's struggles with doing the right thing, and Sticky's defining nervousness and timidity could get a little stale.
In addition, the whole premise of having thoughts whispered into your head through broadcasts could be very disturbing for younger children. While the book is geared toward pre-teens, this kind of subliminal-messaging-plot may not be suited to that age group. Since the writing style is for children, but the actual plot presents this problem, The Mysterious Benedict Society's recommended age group is hard to pinpoint.