When the mysterious Dr. Fell moves into the abandoned house that had once been the neighborhood kids’ hangout, he immediately builds a playground to win them over. But as the ever-changing play space becomes bigger and more elaborate, the children and their parents fall deeper under the doctor’s spell.
Only Jerry, Nancy, and Gail are immune to the lure of his extravagant wonderland. And they alone notice that when the injuries begin to pile up on the jungle gym, somehow Dr. Fell is able to heal each one with miraculous speed. Now the three children must find a way to uncover the doctor’s secret power without being captivated by his trickery.
"Deliciously dark, funny, and foreboding, Neilsen’s first novel delivers with broad appeal." —Booklist
"Recommended for school libraries that need to breathe life into their traditional mystery collections." —School Library Journal
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|Publisher:||Random House Children's Books|
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|Age Range:||8 - 12 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Arrival of Dr. Fell
The large brick house at the end of Hardscrabble Street had been empty for a generation. During that time it had been a royal castle, a haunted ruin, an alien spaceship, and anything else the children of the neighborhood wanted it to be.
Lindsey Brackentwig said the last people to live in the house had been a family of circus performers who had practiced their skills on the abnormally flat roof. Josh Gallowsbee said they had been three witches who had stirred magic potions in the enormous bathtub on the second floor. Hannah Festerworth said they had been the parents of a young boy whom they kept locked away in the unfinished basement.
Every child had a story about the house, each wilder than the last. It was a house of imagination, a blank canvas just waiting to be painted with the gleeful brushstrokes of youth. Every parent in the neighborhood had forbidden their children from entering the house, and every parent in the neighborhood knew full well their children were disobeying them.
But when local real estate agent Dorothy Canvaswalter placed a Sold banner atop the aged, weather-beaten For Sale sign that had stood sentry on the front lawn for years, even the parents were disappointed.
“It’s like the heart of the neighborhood is being ripped right out,” said PTA Co-President Candice Gloomfellow.
“I still remember when little Johnny broke his arm falling down those rickety stairs,” agreed PTA Co-President Martha Doomburg with a wistful tear in her eye.
Every adult on Hardscrabble Street, as well as all those on nearby Vexington Avenue and Von Burden Lane, and nearly all on Turnabout Road (Old Lady Witherton could not be bothered), wondered about the new owners. Would they be a tidy family? Would they be a handy family? Would they be a noisy family?
The children of Hardscrabble Street, Vexington Avenue, Von Burden Lane, and Turnabout Road did not wonder about the new owners. As word spread of the sale, they gathered in twos and threes to stand in front of their magnificent former playhouse and sigh, pout, even weep. Some felt childhood was over. Others felt they had lost their best friend. All felt mildly resentful of the sale and were determined to dislike whoever ultimately moved in, no matter what.
“Why would anyone buy that house?” asked ten-year-old Gail Bloom, staring longingly at a second-floor balcony on which she’d fenced the imaginary-yet-dastardly Lord Dunderhead only days before.
“Maybe they’ve got kids,” answered her eight-year-old brother, Jerry, with his rose-colored viewpoint, eyeing the flat roof where only last week he’d set up his slot-car track and raced the cars wildly in circles for hours on end. “This is a good neighborhood for kids.”
“But it’s our place,” complained Gail’s best friend and Jerry’s worst nightmare, ten-year-old Nancy Pinkblossom, imagining the infamous Stairway of Death down which she’d tumbled each and every one of her Pretty Patty dress-up dolls. “Who said they could just come and take it away from us?”
The three children stood in place a moment more on that warm spring Saturday morning--each gathering and storing away an admittedly short lifetime’s worth of memories. Finally, at some unspoken signal, they turned away almost in unison.
“What should we do today?” asked Gail.
“We could go to the river,” answered Jerry, referring to the tiny trickle of a stream that snaked behind Hardscrabble Street. “There’s lots to do near the river.”
“She wasn’t asking you, Snothead,” said Nancy automatically, too upset to muster up a real insult.
“Wanna go see if Lindsey Brackentwig’s home?” suggested Gail.
“Sure,” said Jerry. “She’s fun.”
“Go find your own friends, Dorknose,” said Nancy.
“I’m not a dorknose.”
“Yes, you are. You’re a total dorknose.”
“You’re a dorknose.”
“Oh God, grow up, Dorknose.”
“Guys, who’s that?” interrupted Gail.
Jerry and Nancy put their epic Battle of the Dorknose on hold to follow the line of Gail’s finger to a tall, frail-looking man shambling toward them, hunched over as if he had long ago lost the struggle against gravity. He was dressed all in black except for a huge purple top hat, and he carried a small black leather bag by its polished white handle of bone. Even though he was still a ways away, the kids could make out a repeated creaking that sounded with each footstep, as if he were walking on a squeaky wooden floor rather than a concrete sidewalk.
The children stared at the strange man as he approached, and he at them. But where the children gawked in openmouthed wonder, the man merely smiled.
“A supremely pleasant good morning to you, urchins,” announced the man slowly in a high-pitched, weak, warbling voice. “Are you residents of this fine enclave of humanity?”
The children remained slack-jawed a moment more until the man chuckled good-naturedly.
“Forgive my manner of speech, young ones. What I mean to say is . . . do you live here?”
Gail and Nancy remained immobile, but Jerry managed to nod slightly.
A wide grin forced its way across the thin, heavily wrinkled face. “Then I am delighted to make your acquaintance. My name is Dr. Fell. How do you do?”
Dr. Fell extended a pale, bony hand toward the children. They watched it approach as if it were in slow motion, each knobby knuckle looking like it was ready to crack into dust at the faintest breeze. Finally, Gail, not wanting to be impolite, met the hand with her own and gave it a limp shake, careful not to exert too much pressure for fear of crushing the old man’s fingers.
“Hi” was all she said.
“I’ve just purchased the very house you stand before,” wheezed Dr. Fell. “I’m your new neighbor.”
The children looked the man up and down. Gail, who had released the hand, wondered why such an elderly individual would choose to move into this loud and boisterous community so late in life. Jerry tried to imagine the decrepit figure climbing up and down the Stairway of Death each day without breaking a leg.
Nancy, however, got right to point. “That was our playhouse.”
Dr. Fell raised first one eyebrow, then the other, before looking out over the heads of the children at his new home. “Was it? How dreadfully rude of me,” he said, then smiled back down at Nancy. “I do apologize. I trust this will not forever damage our relationship?”
Nancy, who normally would stand toe to toe with anybody, felt the need to take a step back, bumping into Gail, who gently nudged her aside.
“What she means, sir--” began Gail.
“Please,” interrupted Dr. Fell. “I’m not a sir. Heaven knows I’ve not been knighted. I am simply Dr. Fell.” As he spoke his name, he bowed his already-bowed body even more. There was a sudden flash of sunlight as something shiny slipped out of his jacket pocket and clattered to the ground at his feet.
“Oh!” cried Dr. Fell in alarm.
“I got it,” said Jerry, quickly stooping to pick it up. He moved to hand it to the old man but stopped when he saw what it was--a gold pocket watch.
“Thank you, young sir, for retrieving my little trinket,” said Dr. Fell. “I’ll take that now.”
Wordlessly, Jerry handed the watch back, and Dr. Fell carefully tucked it into his pocket. “Now then,” he continued, “you were in the midst of explaining how my recent real-estate purchase had upset the unwashed masses.”
“Well,” continued Gail, “your house has sort of been the unofficial playground for the neighborhood as long as any of us can remember.”
An odd, mute understanding slowly dawned on the face of Dr. Fell. “Oh, my dear bones. I imagine there are quite a number of disappointed young urchins hereabouts due to my arrival.” He looked back at the house, his eyes seeming to focus inward for a moment. “I shall have to find a means of making amends.”
Despite his pleasant words, friendly smile, and easygoing nature, something about Dr. Fell gave all three children the briefest of shivers on that warm spring Saturday morning.
“Indeed,” continued the good doctor. “That will be paramount.”
Jerry tugged on his sister’s arm. “Come on--let’s go to Lindsey’s house,” he said.
“Yeah,” said Nancy, happily going along with the lie. “She’s waiting for us.”
“Running along, are you?” asked Dr. Fell. “Well, it has been an absolute pleasure to meet you. Do have yourselves a festive and fantastically fun day.”
He jerked his hand up toward his purple top hat, struggling to lift his arm above his shoulders. Finally, his shaking fingers reached the hat’s brim, and gripping it tightly, he tilted both his hat and head slightly downward in farewell. “I’m sure I’ll be seeing each of you again soon enough.”
The children ran all the way to Lindsey Brackentwig’s house.
The Speculation over Dr. Fell
The moving vans arrived the next day.
There were a great many of them, and they took turns backing into the driveway, unloading their contents, and driving away. Each van was filled to the point of bursting with furniture, boxes, racks of clothing, more furniture, more boxes, and quite a few very large and very mysterious wooden crates.
It was this parade of crates that became the favored subject of gossip all Sunday long. Lars Oozewuld, who had stopped for a breather in front of Dr. Fell’s house while taking the Oozewuld family Pomeranian for a walk, swore to Nathan Festerworth that he’d heard eerie scratching noises coming from within one of the crates. Sandy Gallowsbee, who had chosen to take her daily speed walk up and down Hardscrabble Street rather than along her usual haunt of Von Burden Lane, told Veronica Plaugestein she’d seen dim, green smoke trail out of one of them. Edna Pusster, who had wandered into Dr. Fell’s front yard in search of her son, Ethan (despite knowing full well he was at home watching television), let Monica Brackentwig know that she had smelled the undeniable scent of formaldehyde coming from another.
“He works for a foreign government, and those crates are filled with stolen zoo animals!” accused PTA Co-President Candice Gloomfellow.
“He works for our government, and those crates are filled with nuclear waste!” corrected PTA Co-President Martha Doomburg.
Every adult had a theory about the crates, each wilder than the last.
Dr. Fell, for his part, spent much of the afternoon standing on his shaded porch in his purple top hat nodding politely to the movers as they unloaded van after van, his bent and broken frame seemingly ever on the verge of toppling over. He didn’t seem to be giving any directions, noticed Abner Fallowmold as he watched the action through his living room window, but the vans were emptied with clockwork precision. As if the movers already knew where everything needed to go.
The people of Hardscrabble Street, as well as the people of Vexington Avenue and Von Burden Lane and most of the people from Turnabout Road (Old Lady Witherton could not be bothered), spent most of the day trying to get a good look at Dr. Fell himself. It should have been a simple matter, seeing as how he spent the day on his porch. Yet none was able to form a satisfying image of the man in their mind. Certainly the purple top hat covered his hair, and his sleek black suit covered his body, but they would have thought that his face, which was not covered by anything, would have been easily observable despite the doctor’s pronounced hunch. Yet no matter where they were (and they took turns spying on him from nearly every house on the street), there always seemed to be something blocking their view of Dr. Fell. A hanging plant. The porch railing. The shadow from his purple top hat. A surprisingly large housefly.
The movers, on the other hand, were easily seen, easily identified, and easily gossiped over. They were all bald. Van after van backed up Dr. Fell’s driveway and spat out a team of bald men to unload more furniture, more boxes, and particularly more large, mysterious crates. And they weren’t simply the same few bald men each time. There were tall bald men and short bald men, fat bald men and skinny bald men, young bald men and old bald men.
“They’re all monks!” declared Horace Macabrador.
“They’re all bowlers!” announced Sharon Rottingsly.
“They’re all bald!” cried Jud Fetidsky, who had a habit of stating the obvious.
Finally, as the sun set, the last van pulled out of the driveway, drove down Hardscrabble Street, and disappeared into the evening dusk. Dr. Fell watched it go, then turned and gave a pleasant smile and shaky wave to the neighborhood before shuffling inside into the darkness of his waiting home.
McKinley Grant Fillmore Elementary School was all abuzz on Monday morning, as rumors about Dr. Fell were on every tongue and in every ear.
“He has a flying carpet!” guessed Crystal Chintzington.
“He drives a rocket car!” guessed Abby Goldbaum.
“He has three heads!” guessed Sam Blingforth, who had a rather uncontrollable imagination.
Children who happened to live anywhere near the suddenly famous Dr. Fell found themselves the center of attention. Most went to great lengths to prove they knew more about the good doctor than anyone else. Albert Rottingsly proudly told any who would listen that he was already on a first-name basis with Dr. Fell (though he wasn’t able to say just what that first name was). Gabby Plaugestein gave an incredibly detailed and completely invented list of everything contained within the large mysterious crates. And Bud Fetidsky told everybody that the moving men had all been bald (he’d learned that from his father).
Two of the only three kids in the entire school who were not interested in Dr. Fell that day were Gail Bloom and Nancy Pinkblossom (Jerry Bloom being the third). As the girls sat together in the back of Mrs. Worth’s fifth-grade class, Nancy didn’t tell anyone about the way Dr. Fell’s shoes squeaked when he walked on concrete, nor did Gail tell anyone about how fragile and brittle his bones had seemed beneath her fingers. Instead, they tried to concentrate on their schoolwork.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Worth was just as nosey as everyone else.
“Bloom! Pinkblossom! Don’t the two of you live on Hardscrabble Street?” asked their teacher in the middle of a lecture on multiplying fractions.
“Um . . . yes. Yes, we do,” answered Gail.
“So did you see Dr. Fell this weekend? What’s he like? Is he really seven feet tall?”
Gail glanced at Nancy for help.
“We didn’t really get a good look at him,” said Nancy, lying with ease.
“Right--we spent most of the weekend playing by the river,” agreed Gail, hoping the small fib wouldn’t cause her cheeks to become overly red. Gail was not as good at lying as Nancy.