The Three Investigators had Jupiter Jones, the Five Find-Outers had Fatty, and the Benton and Carson International Detective Agency had Barclay ‘Brains’ Benton. Welcome to the first of their six cases, from the same Whitman stable that brought us The Power Boys from a fortnight back.
Yup, it’s another youthful Genius Amateur Detective, cast unapologetically in the Sherlock Holmes mould, and accompanied by James ‘Jimmy’ Carson as his Watson. Except, well, Jimmy is really more of an Archie Goodwin — as impressed with his cerebral confrère as he is at times frustrated by him:
Brains sort of got your goat at times. I mean the big-headed way he talked as if he were actually Sherlock Holmes or somebody. I’d always wanted to take him down a peg, and this seemed to be my chance.
They’re a cracking pair, and while this opening case doesn’t exactly compel itself on the strength of the eventual outcome, there’s plenty to enjoy along the way and to make me regret that the other titles seem difficult to track down in this country for sensible money. A full six cases appear to have been written by Charles Spain Verral — the latter five under the nom de plume of George Wyatt — and the rush of productivity the series represents would put John Dickson Carr at his peak to shame: one book each in 1959 and 1960, then four in 1961 and then…nothing. My rigorous research seems to indicate that the original plan had been for Verral to write the first one and then someone else — maybe multiple someone elses — write other books from Verral’s outlines. Apparently this plan didn’t play out when Verral was unhappy with the work ghost-written and so he took back the property to fill out the other plots. And then presumably collapsed exhausted and never wrote again.
There’s a Robert Arthur comparison which I find interesting, too, when you consider how much these have in common with The Three Investigators: Brains and Jimmy have a special base of operations above Brains’ parents’ garage that the grown-ups seem to treat with a mixture of ignorance and amused tolerance — accessed by a secret entrance with a password and possessed of all manner of investigatory doodads. They have…
…a hidden tape recorder to take down conversations and a burglar alarm triggered by photoelectric cells. He had fingerprinting equipment, chemicals for analyzing clues and just about everything there was for crime detection.
Hell, they’ve even got a press on which they’ve made their own business cards, listing the members of the Agency — just the two of them this time — and their roles, plus their willingness to undertake almost any job there is. Not that any of this was in any way unique to Jupe, Pete, and Bob, but it’s interesting to see just how much commonality there is…especially when Brains and Jimmy had disappeared from the scene three years before Terror Castle was due to divulge its secrets. And the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin dynamic also helps seal the similarities, with Jimmy’s wry asides decidedly more pointed than Bob Andrews’ but still very much in the same spirit.
As a first case, this does embrace its loopiness in a way that it took the Three Investigators a little while to warm to, and part of the fun is seeing the direction things take after an opening couple of chapters in which Jimmy stumbles upon an apparent kidnapping and Brains becomes determined to search behind the facade. The scene depicted on the cover — in which a man wearing an old-timey swimming costume and goggles answers the door to a ramshackle house while holding a seashell to his ear — is not only actually in the book but it also far from the weirdest thing to occur in that opening third (wait’ll you get a load of Marjory…). My desire to avoid specifics makes this difficult to review too explicitly, but again there are shivers of Jupe and the boys with a spooky haunted house anda talkative parrot playing a part in what ensues.
Again we get some wonderful single colour illustrations, this time by Hamilton Greene, and while the direction things take will be a surprise to no-one over the age of…well, no-one old enough to be reading this, anyway, I’ve been very selective in not featuring any here that contain any relevant spoilers. It’s nice to see an illustrator from this era find clothes for youthful detective shenanigans to be undertaken in other than a blazer and slacks, however, and this fits in with Verral giving the boys rather more of an internal life than has been managed in any other books of this ilk I’ve thus-far read. The Find-Outers exist in permanent holiday mode, Bob Andrews’ sole difficulty is that he has a paper round (hmmm, so does Jimmy…), and Robin Brand can be found in those halcyon days of youthful freedom unencumbered by obligations or curious parents. Brains and Jimmy are at least given something more within the smalltown environment of Crestwood, with teachers taking and interest in their activities, and more than a mere wave towards their respective filial setups as we get scenes actually featuring the boys interacting meaningfully with their own parents:
My dad was standing there, looking at me. He was a big man with muscles. He’d been a fullback in college, and he could still handle a football. He’d taught me a lot about sports. It was easy to learn from him. He seemed to understand kids.
Sure, it’s not Beckett, and it leans heavily into its Holmes motif to the point that it’s almost tempting to classify this as a pastiche. Not only is Brains “extra tall…and so thin he looked as if he might break in the middle some day”, there’s also the depiction of him on the case “sort of bright-eyed and straining at the leash as if he just couldn’t wait”. He stops short of sherbert addiction between cases (this appears to be their first) but there’s definitively a whiff of If inconvenient, come all the same in his response to Jimmy’s frantic lament about how difficult thing will be should he run into his mother while on a suspicious errand — “Then don’t run into her” — and witness, too, the deductions Brains makes when first appearing on the scene, intended as far more homage than rip-off, and showing that Verral has a good eye for these things.
Alas, there’s not much logical reasoning, even though what does crop up is very smart: that a low-slung car would have been unable to travel by certain roads, that washing hanging on a line has only been out for a short time, or the superb Holmesian extrapolation of conclusions about a suspect from simple observations — it’s my hope that Verral’s displeasure with someone else’s work in this series sprang from insufficiencies in these areas, because it’s this coupled with Jimmy’s Goodwinisms (c.f. “His arms were hairy and bulging with muscle. He was the type with a low I.Q but a high K.O.” or “Was I scared? Well either my teeth were chattering or somebody was practising with castanets.”) that makes the book stand out.
Plot-wise things are held together by the sort of coincidence to which any moral fan of detection has a violent animadversion, but it charms the hell out of you along the way even when they do simply stumble into the answer and render most of what has gone before pointless (but, hey, I feared that they were going to Purloined Letter it for a while there…). Yes it focuses on certain details almost obsessively and lets others go without so much as a nod — where does Skeets go to the toilet? — but, hell, it’s infectiously fun, and allowing such issues to canker your pleasure is not really in the spirit of such an undertaking. It is sincerely to be hoped that I encounter these two again, because they’re great company and I have high hopes for the quality of their limited run.
The Brains Benton Mysteries by Charles Spain Verral:
1. The Case of the Missing Message (1959)
2. The Case of the Counterfeit Coin (1960)
3. The Case of the Stolen Dummy (1961)
4. The Case of the Roving Rolls (1961)
5. The Case of the Waltzing Mouse (1961)
6. The Case of the Painted Dragon (1961)