The Crystal Ball

Published in 2012; author Jacqueline Debmar Greene; illustrator Sergio Giovine


While on the way to watch the famed escape artist Harry Houdini give a free performance in Times Square, Rebecca and her family see several street vendors selling fortunes and good luck charms. Back at home, Rebecca, Sadie, and Sophie dabble in fortune-telling, learning about suspending a needle on sewing thread and watching its movements and other things. Sadie bought a good luck crystal prism from a vendor, and she bets Rebecca the crystal against Rebecca's heirloom brooch that she can learn to escape from a tied rope before Rebecca can. 

Rebecca ends up talking with Mr. Rossi about good luck and fortune-telling too. She does a fake prediction for him, but he takes it more seriously than Rebecca intended. A little bit later, Mr. Rossi attempts to tackle a pickpocket going after Rebecca's father's wallet. The pickpocket escapes, but Mr. Rossi saves the wallet...at the expense of two broken fingers and sprained wrist. It'll be difficult for him to do his job properly. Fortunately, a man who helped Mr. Rossi after the incident, Mr. Silver, is a handyman who can help out. With Mr. Silver on the job, Mr. Rossi thinks he should accompany his brother to visit their sick sister in Italy--Rebecca said he'd be taking a long journey after all (she thought she was just talking about going to see his brother in New Jersey). Predictably, Mr. Silver starts acting suspicious, digging around in odd places under the guise of trying to help Mr. Rossi. Rebecca has a bad feeling about him, but can't quite pinpoint why. Then when she's feeding the pigeons, a homing pigeon arrives with a message. It's not one that Mr. Rossi recognizes, and the message is for "Mio carissimo leone" which was his late wife's pet name...and it's signed with her name. Could she be communicating from beyond the grave? 

While this is going on, several valuable items go missing from the apartment's tenants. Rebecca's cousin Josef, who is living with her family, is the prime suspect as he's been doing carpentry work all around the building. He denies any wrong-doing, pointing out that Mr. Silver has access to all the apartments too. Rebecca brings up that none of them really know the man. The next day Rebecca sees some familiar looking items in a nearby pawnshop, but the owner won't tell her who brought them in. 

On the way back home, she sees Mr. Rossi exiting a fortune-teller's storefront. The woman he saw told him some very specific things about his late wife, and says she needs her candlesticks to see more. Rebecca agrees to lend them to Mr. Rossi, but wonders if the woman is somehow conning Mr. Rossi. But how would she know so much? Cold reading alone wouldn't reveal what she knows. Something's off about this situation. Rebecca and her sisters try to accompany Mr. Rossi to the fortune-teller's in case she tries to swindle him, but she says no visitors are allowed. Outside the building and wondering what to do, the girls see a scruffy-looking boy who has been loitering around their father's store and their apartment building. He exits the pawnshop and Rebecca sees him disappear into a a trap door in an alley. She follows him, and discovers that it leads into the fortune-teller's store. She's telling Mr. Rossi that the candlesticks are cursed and convinces him to give them to her so she can destroy them. He relents but quickly changes his mind. Just then, a hand is clapped over Rebecca's mouth. It's Mr. Silver--and he tells her not to move a muscle or make a sound.

He binds Rebecca's hands and feet and leaves her in the dark cellar, gloating that the pawnbroker will pay nicely for the candlesticks. He, the boy, and the fortune-teller have been running an elaborate scheme, and using the information gleaned from working in the apartment to steal from Mr. Rossi as well as the tenants. Using a trick her sister Sophie showed her, Rebecca gets loose and goes back out the passage. She breathlessly explains to her sisters and Mr. Rossi, who are talking, that they need to get to the pawnshop. There, she tells the pawnbroker what's going on. He calls the police, and just then Josef comes in. He's been saving up to buy back the ring his mother had to pawn, but the pawnbroker has been raising the price over and over. With the police on the way, he decides it's better to be honest and returns the ring for a lower price. 

Mr. Silver comes in next, stunned to see Rebecca. He tries to leave when it's clear that everyone knows what's going on, but Josef blocks his path long enough for the police to arrive. Soon everything is smoothed over--Mr. Rossi learns that his sister is better and makes plans to visit when war isn't so much of a threat, the crooks are behind bars, the stolen items are returned, and Josef gets a commendation for helping stop the thief. Rebecca's father makes plans to introduce him to some fellow shopkeepers who need new display shelves built.

Looking Back

The historical section starts with a biography of Harry Houdini (skipping his death). One cool thing I hadn't known before is that he was so indignant that con artists would pose as mediums to take advantage of grieving people that he used his knowledge of magical sleight of hand and other illusions to prove that they couldn't really communicate with the dead. It also talks about how people preyed on others' innocence and superstitions to make money, pretending to tell the future or selling items meant to bring good luck or money. Things got so bad that New York actually enacted a law that no one but a priest or minister could claim to tell the future. It continues to describe how pawn shops work, and homing pigeons.


This book is dedicated to "Matthew and Ken, my first fans."

Rebecca's mother gives a brief overview of cold reading, the method that people use to pretend they're psychic.

Mr. Rossi joins Rebecca and her family for Sabbath dinner on Friday evening, and Rebecca gets to light the candles like she wanted to in Meet Rebecca, housed in the candleholders Mr. Rossi gave her in Candlelight for Rebecca. It's not mentioned whether Mr. Rossi, who's Catholic, takes any of the chicken. I only noticed because in Secrets at Camp Nokomis one character specifically mentions Catholics not eating meat on Fridays, and this book is still set well before Vatican II (Catholics are still obliged to give up something on Fridays but it no longer has to be meat except during Lent).

Rebecca learns here that the candlesticks were a wedding gift from Mr. Rossi's in-laws.

Cold onions make eyes water less when cut. If the stinging bothers you, store onions in the fridge.

Related to swindlers selling good luck items, someone broke into a Catholic church in Seattle a while back and stole a relic (item belonging to a saint--second-class relic--or a piece of a saint's body, like a bone--a first-class relic). To combat this sort of thing, the Catholic church long ago declared that relics have no fiscal value and can't be bought or sold. A holder can be (for example, I have a third-class relic--something touched to part of a saint's body--that's attached to a holy card), but not the relic itself. So whoever stole that will have a hard time selling the thing itself.

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