Clifford B. Hicks | Donald J. Sobol | Erich Kästner | Henry Winterfeld | E.W. Hildick | Martha Freeman | Anthony Horowitz | Mac Barnett | The Hardy Boys, Kay Tracey, and Nancy Drew | Mystery Books | Donald Keith | Rolf Heimann | Kim Blundell and Jenny Tyler | Susannah Leigh and Brenda Haw | Scoular Anderson
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Caius ist ein Dummkopf / Detectives in Togas (1953)
Alvin's Secret Code (1963)
Alvin Fernald, Foreign Trader (1967)
Alvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day (1970)
Alvin Fernald, Superweasel (1974)
Alvin Fernald, TV Anchorman (1980)
The Wacky World of Alvin Fernald (1981)
The Peter Potts Book of World Records (1987)
Angie's First Case (1981)
The Amazing Power of Ashur Fine (1986)
Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective (1963)
Encyclopedia Brown Gets His Man (1967)
Encyclopedia Brown Solves Them All (1968)
Encyclopedia Brown Carries On (1980)
Encyclopedia Brown Sets the Pace (1982)
Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake (1982, 1983)
Encyclopedia Brown and The Case of the Treasure Hunt
The Case of the Absent Author (1995) (Chapters 1-8, 17)
The Purloined Corn Popper (1997) (Chapters 1-3, 5-7, 9-10, 13-15, 17-18, 21-22, 26)
Who Stole Uncle Sam? (2008) (Chapters 1-15, 30-32)
Three of Diamonds
The Greek Who Stole Christmas (2007)
The Mansion of Secrets (1942)
A Puzzling Day in the Land of the Pharaohs (1996)
Maze Puzzles (1993)
Double Maze Books
Mastermind Mazes (1997)
Monster Mazes (1997)
The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald. The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald (1960) introduces Alvin and his family and friends. It is very mild, compared to later books in the series, but pleasant. It suffers from centering on that cliché of the children's mystery, the mysterious house.
The book is structured around four attempts to connect with the mystery house. The most creative is the third, which involves message passing.
There are some echoes between the inventions concerning the mystery house, and other parts of the book. The summoning of Shoie in the middle of the night, is also an attempt to connect with Shoie's house, and communicate with someone inside.
Alvin's Secret Code. Hicks' most important work from a mystery reader's point of view is Alvin's Secret Code (1963). Each chapter of Alvin's Secret Code is written in a different style. There are comedy sections, ingenious pieces on codes, thriller chapters, and so on. The chapters all fit together like a mosaic, and form a unified story. This mosaic technique is quite fascinating; it seems to be unique to Hicks, and I have never encountered it in any other writer.
Alvin Fernald, Foreign Trader. Alvin Fernald, Foreign Trader (1967) verges on science fiction. Transportation is a motif that runs through this novel, everything from motorcycle cops to a plane trip to a paper airplane to bicycles. Hicks eventually develops some visionary ideas about new kinds of transportation. These seem oddly anticipatory of contemporary real-life developments in the 2000's. This is one of Hicks' longest books, and one that gets Alvin most involved in the world. Alvin takes part in both science and society here.
Both the international USA-Europe trade perspective and the industrial spy aspects of Alvin Fernald, Foreign Trader develop motifs found earlier in Alvin's Secret Code. Both books also reflect the spy-novel craze of the 1960's.
The big race at the end, perhaps reflects the popularity of recent comedy films about high-tech races in Europe: Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (Ken Annakin, 1965) and The Great Race (Blake Edwards, 1965). A plot development about the outcome of the race, perhaps echoes one in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.
Alvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day. Alvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day (1970) has a large supporting cast of kids, each of whom has their own talents and differing approaches to life. These talents play a role in the plot. Hicks eventually adapted this book into a play (1992).
Much of the technology in the novella concerns communication devices the kids encounter: a telephone system at the Mayor's office, teletypes, walkie-talkies. Another set of elements involves construction: municipal projects, the playgrounds.
The municipal corruption that forms the crime subplot, was common in pre-World War II stories, both pulp magazine crime tales, and comic books.
Alvin Fernald, Superweasel. Alvin Fernald, Superweasel (1974) is a strange extravaganza dealing sympathetically with the environmental movement, and shows Hicks' talent going full tilt, although it has less emphasis on pure mystery than other works in the series. It is very imaginative, and is Hicks' second most important work after Alvin's Secret Code. Like Alvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day, it brings Alvin into the public realm, taking action to change the society in which he lives. Both books reflect the Age of Relevance that influenced American entertainment around 1970.
Alvin's Swap Shop. Alvin's Swap Shop (1976) is the most conventional and least creative of the full-length Alvin books. Much of the story simply pits the kids against the sort of professional criminal seen on TV cop shows: a less imaginative plot than in most Alvin books. The book is too violent: the crook is the only murderer in the Alvin tales. And the book glamorizes the use of torture by the good guys: a bad moral misstep.
Alvin's Swap Shop does have some good storytelling. It also has a well-constructed mystery puzzle, about the treasure. The next book in the series Alvin Fernald, TV Anchorman will also have a fair play mystery puzzle. The puzzle in Alvin's Swap Shop has a bit of an Ellery Queen feel. SPOILER: The favorite Ellery Queen plot of a "hidden object" is a bit related to the missing treasure in Alvin's Swap Shop. The nature of the treasure also seems Ellery Queen-like.
Alvin shows good logic and analytic skills, when he develops a list of four tasks that must be done to free young Pim from his troubles (Chapter 16).
Alvin's Swap Shop falls strictly into two parts, with little connection. The opening (Chapters 1 - 6) tells about Alvin and his friends opening a swap shop. This part is a series of many little vignettes about colorful people living in Riverton. Such large casts appear in other Hicks stories, although here they include both adults and kids, rather than the exclusive use of kids in other Hicks tales. The rest of the book is the crime and mystery thriller. A similar two part structure will recur in Alvin Fernald, TV Anchorman.
There is a brief but vivid image about a bond that develops between Alvin and Pim (Chapter 18). This perhaps anticipates the more detailed look at the Alvin-Shoie relationship in "The Mind of a Savage Untamed" and Alvin Fernald, Master of a Thousand Disguises.
Alvin Fernald, TV Anchorman. Alvin Fernald, TV Anchorman (1980) is a well done tale, with some elements of mystery. It follows some of the same patterns as Alvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day:
The Wacky World of Alvin Fernald. The Wacky World of Alvin Fernald (1981) is a collection of five short stories about Alvin Fernald. The best is "The Mind of a Savage Untamed", which is one of the few episodes in the saga with Shoie in the lead. "The Mind of a Savage Untamed" shows the same mosaic construction as the book length Alvin's Secret Code. Each of its five episodes (the clay, the two modeling scenes, the bull and the art show) has its own distinctive setting and feel. The finale has the characters pulling off a small scheme, like many Alvin finales. The opening has a mess made at Shoie's house, as in the nocturnal summoning in The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald. It also recalls the mess the kids make while cooking candy, at the start of Alvin Fernald, Foreign Trader.
Two stories, "April Fool!" and "Alvin Invents a Man", deal with elaborate jokes or hoaxes pulled off by Alvin. Some of the disguises in Hicks' next novel, Alvin Fernald, Master of a Thousand Disguises, also can be considered as elaborate hoaxes. However, most of the schemes in that book are a means-to-an-end, solving a mystery, while the hoaxes in The Wacky World of Alvin Fernald are done for their own sake.
Alvin Fernald, Master of a Thousand Disguises. Alvin Fernald, Master of a Thousand Disguises (1986) is a more conventional kids' mystery, with a search for a hidden treasure. The disguise in Chapter 10 is perhaps psychologically revealing. It extends the portrait of the Alvin-Shoie relationship. It can be linked to "The Mind of a Savage Untamed" in The Wacky World of Alvin Fernald.
The book is better in its second half, when the kids' schemes get underway. These later suspense passages recall the public library suspense chapter in Alvin's Secret Code, with the kids' actions suspenseful up against a fence. The attempts to penetrate into the walled garden of a house, also recall The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald. The disguise approach is different from the technological communication ideas in the earlier novel.
The use of a large group of kids, each with their own personality, recalls Alvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day.
Pop and Peter Potts. Pop and Peter Potts (1984) is a minor if sometimes charming work, focusing on various wild schemes of Peter's grandfather Pop. It contains three short stories. The first two extend ideas from "The Mind of a Savage Untamed" in The Wacky World of Alvin Fernald: "The Lion That Fell in Love" deals with a large dangerous animal going after the hero, like the bull in the Alvin story, and "Pop and the Great Stone Man" has Pop becoming a sculptor, like Shoie in "The Mind of a Savage Untamed". Unlike Shoie who works in clay, Pop carves out of stone. There are moments of interest in the account of moving the big piece of rock used. This shows Hicks' mechanical interests. A mild weakness in "The Mind of a Savage Untamed" that gets worse in "Pop and the Great Stone Man" is the satire on professional art critics, who are shown as dim bulbs who get fooled and make stupid claims. I don't agree: in real life, many art historians actually know a great deal about art.
The best of the three tales is the last and longest, "Pop Potts, Hypnotist". This story shows a vulnerability in Peter Potts' life. He has neither money nor parents, and he can become a social target. This is one of Hicks' most "realist" works, with none of the thriller or mechanical invention elements of most of his fiction. The tale looks at the government aspects of a new children's playground, recalling Alvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day. "Pop Potts, Hypnotist" also offers the best look at the family life of Peter's friend Joey Gootz in the books. Joey's father is a likable character, one of the most socially responsible adults anywhere in Hicks' books.
The stories in Pop and Peter Potts are a bit unusual, in that they are all instigated by Pop's schemes. By contrast, only one of the five tales in The Peter Potts Book of World Records centers on a scheme of Pop's: "The World's Tallest and Fastest Stilt Walk". The others are mainly efforts of the kids themselves.
The Peter Potts Book of World Records. The best book in the series, The Peter Potts Book of World Records (1987), shows Hicks' skill with character drawing and storytelling. It is an emotionally involving book, with some wisdom to impart to its readers about life. Especially in the running plot, given full expression in the last story, about the impending birth of Peter sister's child.
The first three short stories in the collection feature inventions that are giant versions of ordinary devices. Hicks shows his background as a contributor to Popular Mechanics. Hicks gives an interesting, physics-based account, of how such large devices would differ in operation from normal sized ones. The account is especially skillful in the third tale, "The World's Tallest and Fastest Stilt Walk". Such works remind one of the modified-bicycle finale of Alvin Fernald, Foreign Trader, and the devices in The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald.
The fourth story, "The World's Biggest Kid Parade", is different. It is much longer than any of the other tales, and is not centered on inventions. Instead, it recalls a pair of Alvin Fernald books. Like Alvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day and Alvin Fernald, TV Anchorman, it has the kids organizing by themselves an activity normally run by adults, here putting on a parade. (However, parades in real life are sometimes done by kids as well as adults, and the subject is less purely kids-in-the-roles-of-adults than the two Fernald books.) Also like those two books, a guest star kid is the organizational brains behind the action. Juvenile entrepreneur Willy Peters is closest to the kid mastermind in Alvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day, in having somewhat selfish motives. He is in fact the most mercenary sympathetic character in Hicks. Willy Peters previously appeared in Pop and Peter Potts, where his greed and business acumen were established. His portrait gains in complexity and interest in "The World's Biggest Kid Parade".
"The World's Biggest Kid Parade" also resembles Alvin Fernald, TV Anchorman in having the kids involved with local television, and a grown-up TV host. The tale is dotted with numerous bizarre-and-funny kid activities, each one performed by a different kid making a cameo appearance: also like the news reports of various kids in Alvin Fernald, TV Anchorman.
During each of these peak periods, Sobol also broke forth into novels, something he didn't usually otherwise do. It was if his creativity was overflowing in all directions. In the sixties we have a spy novel, Secret Agents Four (1967). This ingenious book includes a detailed mystery plot of a kind related to those of Golden Age Mystery. In many ways it is a mystery story masquerading as a spy novel, or at least, a mystery story in the form of a spy novel. The eighties tale, Angie's First Case (1981), is an out and out mystery, and is perhaps Sobol's finest work. It too builds up into an elaborate old fashioned mystery plot.
In both stories Sobol attempts to surprise readers that such an elaborate solution is coming. The form does not announce it, as did the form of the classic Golden Age Mystery. The solutions of both novels are formally similar in that they are "unexpected solutions", the real truth, and the fact that there is a "real truth", emerging as a surprise at the end of the book. The solutions of many older mysteries explain a large number of mysterious events that both the reader and the detective have been puzzling over in the course of the story. The reader knows that there are many unexplained mysteries and is expecting the solution to provide a rational explanation. Sobol's two books make everything look normal and spring the final revelation of hidden mystery as a surprise. Another formal similarity is the large number of clues hidden in the narrative. They are simply lurking there, hopefully unnoticed by the reader, until Sobol pulls them together at the end and weaves them into his final pattern.
All three of Sobol's main mystery titles, the Encyclopedia Brown books, Secret Agents Four and Angie's First Case seem to be set in South Florida, sometimes explicitly, as in the chase through the Florida Keys in Secret Agents Four, and sometimes just implicitly, with the many ocean beach scenes of the E. B. books. Sobol is very good at capturing South Florida atmosphere. The many mansions open to the public, museums and exhibits in the books are typical of South Florida life, as are the many roadside stands and tourist attractions, often run by his perennial villain, Bugs Meany. Paradoxically, the books give no evidence that Sobol is attempting to portray South Florida. The material is just "there", without any labeling as regional material. In fact, Idaville, the location of the E. B. books, is often referred to as a typical American town. It is very possible that Sobol is just making up plots, and is unconsciously inspired by what he sees around him. These books, richly atmospheric of a region, show none of the clichés of self consciously "regional" writing. There is no attempt, for example, to suggest that human nature is different in Florida, or that character or morals are shaped by the region. Sobol does not lay on "atmosphere" or local facts with a trowel, so that the reader, who has paid good money for a "regional book", knows that he is getting his money's worth and "learning about Florida".
Although the title of the book is Angie's First Case, to date there has not been a sequel, unfortunately. Sobol has since published an interesting fantasy thriller, The Amazing Powers of Ashur Fine (1986), whose ending also seems to promise a sequel. Ashur Fine is much more somber than most of Sobol's work, and shows a deliberately gloomy or tragic tone.
His first book, Timpetill (1937) (translated as Trouble at Timpetill), is an ingenious story about a town of children whose parents get angry, and who leave them en masse, to take care of themselves. The children have to learn to govern themselves, get food and supplies, and cope with groups of bullies. The story is pitched somewhere at the adventure story-children's thriller level. The plot reminds one oddly of Buster Keaton's film The Navigator, in which Buster and his girlfriend must learn to take care of a gigantic steamship out at sea all by themselves.
Winterfeld's masterpiece is Caius ist ein Dummkopf. This book was published in German in 1953; the French translation came out in 1955, and it appeared in English in 1956 as Detectives in Togas. It is a mystery set in Ancient Rome, and follows a group of schoolboys who track down a problem concerning their teacher. Historical mysteries were a rarity back then, except for the books of John Dickson Carr, and an occasional work like Christie's Death Comes as the End. Both the Roman background, and the mystery plot are well handled, and carefully integrated with each other. Winterfeld, like many older writers of Children's mysteries, fits squarely into the tradition of puzzle plot detective fiction. These stories all have a bit more adventure than the typical grownup mystery, but this is all to the good: it merely means that their tales are not as static as such adult writer dullards as Henry Wade. There is also a good deal of humor in Winterfeld's work.
Winterfeld wrote a sequel called Caius geht ein Licht auf (1969) (translated as The Mystery of the Roman Ransom), but it is nowhere as good. Mystery elements are skimped, and the book is mainly a preachment against the evils of slavery in Ancient Rome. There is a third novel in the series, Caius in der Klemme (1976), which I have not yet read. Readers interested in Roman mystery novels should check out Rick Heli's huge website devoted to them.
Winterfeld also wrote science fiction novels for children, such as Kommt ein Mädchen geflogen (1956) (translated in 1957 as Star Girl) and Telegramm aus Liliput (1958) (translated in 1960 as Castaways in Lilliput).
The Purloined Corn Popper is most interesting when investigating physical clues at a crime scene: the theft of the title object. Both Snell and the children she helps, find clues, and interpret them to reconstruct the crime. This is a type of pure detection that goes back to Émile Gaboriau in the 1860's, at least. These sections seem written as an instruction manual for kids, showing them how such detection works. They might make informative reading for young people, opening their eyes to this kind of sleuthing.
Also interesting, in the same instructional mode: Felicity's explanation of three different kinds of clues (Chapter 9). This seems to be an original idea of Hildick's. Also good: the way early theories are not quite right, but contain some germs of good ideas. This is a conventional part of detective fiction, but something informative for young readers. Another good part of traditional detective fiction: the use of maps, floor plans and diagrams.
The later sections of The Purloined Corn Popper are not as interesting. The choice of the thief is not very good, with only a few logical ties to what went before. It does use pure detective work, however.
The use of color imagery and a bit of surrealism is also pleasant (Chapter 22).
The Serial Sneak Thief. Hildick wrote a sequel The Serial Sneak Thief (1997), but it is nowhere as good. Much of the book focuses not on its mystery plot, but on an unrelated side issue: a treasure hunt mystery contest at the library. The opening sections describing this hunt are not bad (Chapters 1-8, 11). The actual mystery features a very unpleasant villain who is not just a thief, but a vandal attacking the library. There is less actual detection than in The Purloined Corn Popper.
The Case of the Absent Author. The name Felicity Snell comes from a McGurk book The Case of the Absent Author (1995). The "author" is a mystery writer who goes missing. Among his creations is a series of cozy detective novels about Felicity Snell, a librarian turned amateur sleuth. These are "books within a book", a popular and likable tradition. The Case of the Absent Author also has a Pirandellian parody of the McGurk Organization itself. Hildick must have liked the idea of Felicity Snell, because he soon went on to create two actual novels about her.
The crime is not an impossibility. But it is bafflingly strange and difficult to figure out.
Who Stole Uncle Sam? is an example of modern day mysteries for young people, preserving the mystery traditions of Golden Age books for adults. It has the mystery plotting that used to be de rigueur in old detective novels. Surrealism too has a long and strong history in mystery fiction. The strange comic events in Who Stole Uncle Sam? recall the spirit of Craig Rice.
The main mystery plot about the Twelve Days of Christmas is not as good. It seems too whimsical, and arbitrary in its plot developments. It does include a neighborhood full of interesting people.
The book comes with a nice map. It combines a literal map of the heroes' street, with symbolic descriptions of their Christmas decorations. This sort of "mixed information" is unusual in a map.
His Diamond Brothers mysteries are often quite funny. They contain a wild melange of wisecracks, jokes, puns and references to books and movies.
Three of Diamonds contains three long short stories, or novellas, about the sleuths. The best is "I Know What You Did Last Wednesday" (2002). This is a wild riff on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939). Horowitz comes up with a new, ingenious solution that is quite different from Christie's.
While much of The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity is adventure-comedy, it has a full puzzle plot mystery. A concern with mystery puzzles can seem more prevalent in juvenile mysteries than grown-up ones these days, although I have no statistics to prove this. The book actually has two puzzles: the location of a National Treasure, and a whodunit about the identity of a criminal mastermind. The Treasure location puzzle is particularly well done.
There is much dead-on parody of the Hardy Boys in this book.
The answers to these questions in these Stratemeyer books are not as clever or as memorable as the best of Chesterton, Christie, Queen or Carr. Yet the fact that they are asked at all, and in such abundance, is the root of the fact that these books give surprising amounts of genuine pleasure to clear-eyed adults, who are neither wallowing in nostalgia, nor snickering at camp. They also form a startling contrast with many contemporary "crime novels", in which the mystery is hardly stronger than finding out the guilty party.
Among the children's books I read as a youth, two Stratemeyer syndicate stories stick out because of their fascinating subject matter. The Shore Road Mystery (1928) has a finale in which the Hardy Boys explore caves; in The Mansion of Secrets (1942) Kay Tracey explores a house full of secret passages. Kay Tracey is little remembered today, at least in official nostalgia celebrations, where all the attention goes to Nancy Drew. But she was my favorite of the Stratemeyer characters while growing up. If the Hardy Boys' Bay City has a New England feel - I always assumed it was near Boston - the location of the Kay Tracey stories is in a set of suburban towns interlinked by railway; not too far away is a giant city. My best guess is Westchester County, an affluent suburban area north of New York City.
Another outstanding piece of storytelling in the series is The Green Cameo Mystery (1936), wherein Kay tracks down a gang of counterfeiters. The plotting is this book is dramatic, logical and gripping. This story also has a Chinese background. The author was careful to include sympathetic Chinese characters, and to stress the glamorous and beautiful nature of Chinese culture. It is clearly an attempt to teach kids about a culture of another country, and I thoroughly enjoyed it while I was growing up.
All the Stratemeyer books were published under house pseudonyms. The Green Cameo Mystery was reportedly plotted by Edna Stratemeyer Squier, and written by Mildred Wirt Benson. The Mansion of Secrets was reportedly plotted by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, and written by Anna Perot Rose Wright. Mildred Wirt Benson, the real author of many of the early Nancy Drew books, is just now emerging from anonymity.
A chess mystery. A young sleuth helps clear up a mystery of identity during a children's chess tournament by putting indelible red ink on a kid's neck. (This book has been identified by readers. It is John and the Chess Men (1953) by Helen Weissenstein. It is designed to help introduce young readers to the world of chess.)
A mystery solved by an entire troop of Brownies (and the author points out what an unusual "protagonist" this is). It takes place in a house surviving from the Revolutionary War (or was it the Civil War?), one which contains a secret passage. (This book has been identified by my alert readers! It is The Mystery of the Old Fisk House by Mary Shiverick Fishler and Lois Hamilton Fuller. A review on this site is hopefully coming up soon.)
A story about a bunch of kids who live in a row of houses in England. They live next to a warehouse, which has a triangular yard they call "Tom Tiddler's Ground", after a poem by Walter de la Mare. By an elaborate scheme, they prevent a teenager living in the row from robbing the warehouse.
An sf thriller about a kid who sees water running uphill, discovers a top secret government gravity project, and fakes his own death to run off an join the project.
A historical fantasy-cum-detective story, set in Scotland, about a kid with second sight, who sees part of a murder plot during a vision.
Donald Keith was the joint pseudonym of Donald Monroe and Keith Monroe. The team published a sequel, Time Machine to the Rescue (1967). They also published some science fiction short stories for grown-ups, such as "Butterfly 9" (1957) and "Command Performance" (1958).
Heimann's work seems fairly Viennese. Amazing Mazes has a formal garden that reminds one of those attached to palaces in Vienna. Heimann was born in Germany, and has long lived in Australia. He also works as a cartoonist.
Heimann uses a number of recurring settings for his mazes; two are especially appealing. One kind shows the roofs of a Mediterranean style village, in which all the homes are built together, and which one can pass from roof to roof by a series of ladders, stairs and walks. The other shows an outdoor landscape, complete with many roads and paths, as well as interesting buildings and signs. Both show the interest in architecture and landscape that is so successful in the Golden Age mystery novel. Heimann clearly likes these types as well; they predominate in Amazing Mazes 3 (1996), whereas they were in a minority in his earliest books.