#510: Minor Felonies – The Mad Scientists’ Club [ss] (1965) by Bertrand R. Brinley

Mad Scientists Club

This collection is composed of seven fun, light-hearted stories of youthful shenanigans perpetrated in the smalltown Americana of Mammoth Falls.  Sure, it’s not strictly detection, but the prospect of actual, y’know, science in the Mad Scientists’ Club’s adventures seemed to warrant investigation.

The club itself is formed of “seven lively ‘normal’ boys” with “a clubhouse for cooking up ideas, an electronics lab above the town hardware store, and a good supply of Army surplus equipment”, and the stories appeared in Boys’ Life magazine in the early 1960s.  The names of the members are marvellous on their own — Dinky Poore, Homer Snodgrass, Mortimer Dalrymple, the ex-communicated Harmon Muldoon who was kicked out for “conduct unbecoming a scientist” and acts as the Skinny Norris of these tales — and the ambience falls into that halcyon almost-remembered past of endless summers with zero parental supervision, veering wildly and very enjoyably between Encyclopedia Brown and…honestly, nothing else I think I’ve ever read.

We start with ‘The Strange Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake’ (1960) in which Dinky Poore invents a story of a monster in the huge lake outside of town to account for his tardiness in returning home for supper, and the Club decide to build one to give people something to talk about.  The precise events in the story hold few surprises — cue media frenzy, men with guns out to shoot the beast, and tourists flocking from  miles around — but it commends itself in how piquantly Brinley captures the spirit of a group of boys engaging in this sort of endeavour.  From the casual mention that “Jeff Crocker is President of the club — mainly because his father owns the barn that we have out lab in” to the way Dinky is appeased in the final line, the effortless rendering of this group of juvenile trouble-makers is wonderful to see.  And there’s even some pretty decent reasoning involved on Harmon Muldoon’s part when he figures out the ruse, so that the frank unbelievability of the whole enterprise won’t bother you one jot.

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‘The Big Egg’ (1964) is…odd.  Neither good nor bad, it relates the exploits of the Club after they discover, lose, and then rediscover what might be a fossilised Brontosaurus egg.  Alongside the perfectly-pitched dialogue:

“Why don’t we set up a tent on Homer’s front yard and charge ten cents a peek to look at the egg?”

“Crazy!” said Freddy Muldoon, who was munching sunflower seeds in the corner.  “I’ll bet we could almost make a million.  Everybody in town would want to see it.”

But Homer Snodgrass shook his head.  “I’ve got a better idea,” he said to Dinky.  “Why don’t we put it in your front yard and charge two bits?”

“My old man wouldn’t like it, that’s why.”

“That’s parents for you,” said Freddy, with his chin in his hand.  “Always standing in the way of progress.”

…some interesting points are made about scientists protecting their discoveries, and the scope for mendacity where certain fields are concerned — hello there, Piltdown Man — and a keen piece of insight uncovers falsified evidence and leads to a refreshingly open conclusion, but it’s all a bit something and nothing.  Charming, and helped along by Charles Greer’s beautiful diagrams, but you feel it was perhaps put in the collection at this early stage — weirdly the stories are not arrayed chronologically — so as not to disappoint later on.

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The longest story in this collection might just be the best: ‘The Secret of the Old Canon’ (1963) concerning vanished spoils from a bank robbery, a Civil War canon, a mayoral race, and the ongoing animosity between two local families.  It’s a doozy — the ideas are rich, the misdirection canny, some of the scheme employed by both the Club and Harmon Muldoon show gleeful ingenuity in a manner that feels very kiddish while also very perceptive, and it could almost claim to include aspects of an inverted impossible crime.  Plus, there’s actual science in this one — admittedly a little hand-wavey, and with a casual mention of asbestos — but the explanation (and this will become very important in a later story, too) makes you happy to believe it.  The one real tonal flaw that these stories have — namely that the adults are dolts of an order of magnitude that overshoots merely ‘gormless’ and lands squarely in ‘a danger to themselves and others’ — works here, too, with the Club achieving…something with science that the adults then come in and must brute force after them.  Glorious, a classic of the type.

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‘The Unidentified Flying Man of Mammoth Falls’ (1962)…did not work for me.  It’s the story where the hamartia in Brinley’s writing — painfully stupid adults, inconsequential actions, million-to-one odds, and an over-reliance on situation rather than content — overwhelm.  It would be funny if you believed in it for a second, as ‘Sea Monster’ was, and it would be entertaining if there was any purpose to it as with ‘Old Canon’ — hell, even ‘Big Egg’ manages to drop a surprise or two on some members of the Club, and hence the reader, but here you just get a sort of broad sweep of slapstick and then an ending that simply stops rather than makes any sort of sense or communicates any wider idea (again, see ‘Old Canon’ for that).  The one purpose this does serve is to make ‘The Big Egg’ seem richly realised and craftily constructed by comparison, but it’s difficult to hold too much against it on account of how charming Brinley’s prose remains.  But, yeah, easily the least essential of those collected herein.

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‘The Great Gas Bag Race’ (1964) is pure adventure, with the Club — and, indeed, almost everyone else in the surrounding towns — taking part in an annual balloon race.  Of all the stories here, it’s the one that falls most fully outside the purview of my classic detective fiction blog, but — oh — it’s exquisite.

There’s something about a balloon ride that’s different from any other ride on earth.  Unless you look down at the ground, you don’t even realize you’re moving.  The balloon goes wherever the wind pushes it, and since you ride right with the wind there isn’t any air rushing past you.  It’s absolutely quiet and still, and sometimes you feel as though you’re just hanging motionless from the sky.

This — with its discussion of tactics based on air currents — is where Brinley really makes you believe in something that could be absolute hogwash, and the patient, methodical nature of Henry Mulligan’s application of theory to practice wins through in a quietly believable way that would have had bookish nerds the world over rooting for him.  It’s also the first story in which we learn our narrator’s name.  As acknowledged, this has no place on The Invisible Event, but it’s taken up residence in my heart and I’ll love it for decades yet.

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We veer into that Young Adventurer standfast — the rationally-explained haunted house — in ‘The Voice in the Chimney’ (1964), wherein Harmon Muldoon seeks to investigate the abandoned Old Harkness Place and the Club take it upon themselves to scare him up but good.  All well and fine, but we then get grown men in the shape of the Mayor, the Police Chief, and Constable Billy Dahr also entering the house and being scared by boys painted with luminous paint and hiding in chimney nooks to make ghostly noises.  It would be more interesting if told the other way around — someone reports these ghostly happenings, it and the Club figure out how it was done — but that would perhaps end up too Three Investigators or similar for what Brinley was trying to achieve.  By this point, though, I must admit that the hopes of scientific detection I’d fostered when I first heard of this collection had abandoned me, and I was content to simply enjoy this, have some explanations thrown at my head, and move on.  By no means bad, but not what I’m looking for.

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Finally providing some semblance of the scientific process I’d hoped to see — it’s basic stuff, but utilised bearings and cross-referencing, and contains a great example of how to follow a map in the real world if your view is limited — we have ‘Night Rescue’ (1961) wherein the Club set out to find the pilot of a downed plane, despite the lack of enthusiasm for their involvement displayed by some adults.  Simple explicit observations of common sense — how to set a fire, or getting a line across a stream, or not moving an unconscious man lest he have a broken back — glimmer through the plot in this one.  The nature of their search moves this more into the sort of ratiocination-driven plots I’d been hoping to encounter, and make the ostensibly Boys’ Own adventuring a little more cerebral, but let’s not kid ourselves it’s trying to be much more than a slightly-above-average-intelligence tale for curious youthful minds.  Also, this is where the non-chronological ordering of these becomes odd, since they meet for the first time a character known to them in one of the previous stories…a weird decision, that.

~

So, well, not my usual, but I intend to read further in this series and, depending on the content of those, news of my wanderings may appear on this site at some stage.  For the curious, there’s an official website maintained by the author’s son — from which I have grabbed the above images used to illustrate these tales — the very simplicity of which is so perfectly on-brand that it makes the whole thing even more appealing.  This collection as a whole is difficult to fault for how fully it achieves what it sets out to do, but arguably only ‘The Secret of the Old Canon’ and ‘The Great Gas Bag Race’ come close to essential reading.  I am very charmed, however, and Bertrand R. Brinley can most certainly count me among his fans.

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