After March was filled with more social engagements than a debutante’s coming out Season, I’m back with a series that sounds like — though thankfully is not — some sort of Alt-Right recruitment pamphlet.
The Power Boys are instead brothers Jack and Chip Power, whose father Thomas works as a freelance photographer and travels the country with the boys from job to job, their mother having died some years before. They appeared in six books between 1964 and 1967, all out of the Whitman Books stable that produced a fair tranche of titles for younger readers around this time. Since so many authors who wrote for Whitman used pseudonyms on their works, it’s not entirely clear who Mel Lyle actually was, nor which gender the nom de plume was intended to occupy — though this is an era when Boys books were for Boys and Girls books were for Girls, remember, and generally the author’s name matched the chromosomes of the intended audience (as we’ve already seen, and shall see again later this month, with the Ken Holt Mysteries for Boys by husband and wife team Sam and Beryl Epstein who wrote as ‘Bruce Campbell’).
Many of the Whitman series used a pseudonym in place of the actual author’s name. William Larson, an editor hired by Whitman in 1964, stated that if more than one book in a series was published in a year, they were almost always written by different people. Since two Power Boys books were published in both 1964 and 1965 it is likely that more than one person wrote the series.
So by implication we could have a William Arden/M.V. Carey (please note the de-gendering of Mary Virginia, else boys would have been thoroughly confused) Three Investigators situation where different people wrote independently for the same series or — since the Epsteins put out two Ken Holt books in 1949, 1950, 1951, and 1956 — it could be a name for a couple of authors working together. None of this really matters, and it will be difficult to tell until I read any further in the series, but it’s an interesting situation if only because so few mysteries of this ilk remain these days. And just to add fuel to the fires of speculation, roughly a decade prior to the publication of the title I’ll eventually get round to discussing, a series of books featuring young men with the surname Power — this time Ted and Steve, working on the father’s newspaper, not unlike in the Ken Holt novels — were written by Arthur Benwood, a nom de plume of Woody Gelman. Sure, they follow a similar line in titling — The Mystery of the Marlow Mansion, The Secret of the Crazy Cavern, etc — but that just seems to be the idiom adopted by this style of Boy’s Own adventure; c.f. the Hardy Boys, and the aforementioned Ken Holt and Three Investigators for starters.
Anyway, to the book itself.
“Not before time…”
We open with the Power clan arriving at the New york apartment they’ve sublet (note to younger readers: this is the 1960s version of AirB&B) from the never-seen Detective Wilson who is in Europe and — swiftly thereupon — the arrival first of young Ward McGrath who leaves without stating his business, then a phone call summoning Tom Power “back West” to photograph a devastating forest fire in California, and then the elderly Mrs. Marsh who claims a poltergeist is terrorising her in the own apartment just down the hall:
“Just before I came here, I was having my morning tea. You may not believe this, but I saw it with my own eyes. The sugar bowl flew off the table. Flew! I saw it! And of you want proof, the sugar it spilled is on the carpet, all along its flight to the hall.”
Clearly Mrs. Marsh and I have different understandings of the word “proof”, but this brings the first of many creditable aspects of this book to the fore. If, say, the early Three Investigators books were guilty of one weakness, it was a tendency to allow someone to jump to a conclusion unchallenged — “Gleeps, a g-g-ghost!” — and wrangle some extra pages out of said jump. Here, not only to 17 year-old Jack and 15 year-old Chip bicker and goad each other like only siblings can, they do so in a way that is quick to underline the flaw in any faulty reasoning the other jumps to. For example, the early encounter with a curmudgeonly individual whose grim features and surly demeanour cause Chip to declare him guilty of the poltergeist activity has Jack scoffing “Why would he do that? Have you figured out a motive for him?”. When Mrs. Marsh moves out of her apartment to a nearby hotel and the boys see a sinister figure they’ve previously had a run-in with watching a hotel nearby, they conclude that it must be Mrs. Marsh he is after, only to cudgel themselves about the head with remorse when they unpick that conclusion and offer at least another two possible explanations.
What’s great to see is the haste with which these alternatives are rushed into place, not wasting tim trying to create false leads in the narrative so that it can meander on for another five chapters before someone goes “Buy hang on! What if we’re wrong about X?!” to the surprise of maybe 4% of their audience. There’s some detection involved here — and the boys have a remarkable range of skills and insights, from developing their own photographs to being aware how to dismantle a lock to spot signs of its having been picked — but very little of it is as pleasing as the refusal of Lyle to take obviously blind and lazy paths just to boost the wordcount.
From here, another thread is added by the reappearance of Ward McGrath, who it transpires is concerned about the delays to the skyscraper his father is overseeing being constructed downtown. Work is not merely slowing down but being reversed, reports of ghostly sightings are leading to workers walking off the job, and the whole project is going to potentially ruin the building company responsible…a company until recently owned and run by Mrs. Marsh’s late husband, the control now having passed to her. There will be poltergeist activity, kidnappings, chases, and some last-minute desperate measures before the various problems are wrapped up, and it would be a hard heart indeed that couldn’t find a huge dollop of charm at the centre of it all, helped by the badinage of the Brothers Power — such as Jack pointing out to Chip as they ride an elevator to their nth floor apartment that poltergeists might only be known for throwing things around, but there’s no evidence they wouldn’t also, say, cut the cables of an elevator if they really wanted to dissuade any investigation…
It is also told at a pace that defies accurate description. Lyle, whoe’er t/s/he/y may be, is not one for long travelogues and time-wasting. I have a mental image of a old-school hardened newspaper man hunched over a typewriter with a cigarette constantly burning in the pinched corner of his mouth: “Ya wanna know what Noo Yawk looks like? Then go ta Noo Yawk, ya bum…”. The majority of this is no-nonsense dialogue, a sniff of scene-setting, and, if you’re lucky, perhaps an adjective or two to go massively overboard:
The man’s eyes were a hard gray. Cruelty was suggested by the trace of amusement in them.
Working theory: Mel Lyle was Ernest Hemingway. No, wait, he died in 1961.
And yet, for all its sparsity of character, it has some glorious character beats to go alongside the Brother Power and their fraternal jesting. See the taxi driver who refuses to accept the promised tip with which Chip had bribed him to follow another taxi on account of losing said quarry or, best of all, the bizarre non-sequitur of a scene in which the boys are confronted by an armed man who has nothing to do with the narrative of the story and, after menacingly hinting at some wider universe of concerns, simply walks out of their apartment and the book both. From the perspective of not the intended audience, too, it’s very pleasing to see the adults not behaving merely as dolts the majority of the time, so that Jack and Chip must at times engage with them on a level at which adults would generally function, rather than as broad stooges who are there simply to make the boys look good no matter what; the way Selwyn Bancroft, for instance, tumbles to some shenanigans on account of two proximal events is great, and was for me an unexpected degree of intelligence for your average adult in such juvenile-centric fare.
There’s a “but” coming, of course, and this is it: it’s all very pleasing, but for the final revelations of the poltergeist activity. Jack and Chip witness early on a chair dancing and a ceramic dish being thrown at their heads when in Mrs. Marsh’s apartment, and Mrs. Marsh herself has the “proof” of her flying sugar bowl and the fact that a) her heating was turned off and b) her blanket was stolen while she slept. I’ve tagged this as an impossible crime on account of these ghostly happenings, especially as we get to see them rather than simply hear about them, but the explanation offered up might as well be a picture of someone engaging in hand-waving nonsense since all we get told is some vague hints about magnets and catapults, which in no way accounts for everything we’ve been shown. It’s not even dull or abecedarian, it’s just badly done. And this, I think, might be how the multiplicity of Mel Lyles might be settled: whether these explanations improve in later books, showing a tighter hand on the rein as the author/s grow in experience and confidence with this type of plotting and resolution (c.f. Robert Arthur’s early T3I books — apologies for the repeated references, but it’s a very logical reach). And, hey, when everything else is so good, I have no doubt that an improvement will be made…always provided, of course, that the same person gets to have a second swing at it.
Such a two-bit denouement is perhaps unsurprising, though, given the pared down nature of what we get throughout, and it would be a shame to allow it to encroach on what is so strong elsewhere. Some era-appropriate details are dropped in here and there — hard hats worn on construction sites are made of steel, someone’s essential decency and good nature is referred to as them having “a lot on the ball” — and Raymond Burns’ single-colour line drawings used throughout, and replicated here to illustrate this post (like Young Robin Brand, the Powers do everything in a blazer and slacks it would appear…), capture the era as smartly as the child-fantasy plot of being alone in New York to investigate a mystery while also having the freedom for breakfast to consist of “cereal, eggs, chocolate milk, and coffee cake”. This was a little joy, and I’m very keen to track down the other titles and review them in due course. Ahhh, it’s good to be back…
The Power Boys books by Mel Lyle:
1. The Mystery of the Haunted Skyscraper (1964)
2. The Mystery of the Flying Skeleton (1964)
3. The Mystery of the Burning Ocean (1965)
4. The Mystery of the Million-Dollar Penny (1965)
5. The Mystery of the Double Kidnapping (1966)
6. The Mystery of the Vanishing Lady (1967)