#513: Minor Felonies – The Case of the Missing Message (1959) by Charles Spain Verral

Case of the Missing Message

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.

MM2

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 and a 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.

MM3

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)

6 thoughts on “#513: Minor Felonies – The Case of the Missing Message (1959) by Charles Spain Verral

  1. Yay, another of my favourites from my halcyon days! 🙂

    Good to have it confirmed that there were only ever six novels in this series, because when I read them, it felt as though there could/should have been more. I’ve always liked Jimmy’s narrative voice, though his sometimes “aw shucks” being impressed with “Brains” – who coincidentally was translated as “professor” in Swedish – can grate a little.

    In one of the novels in this series, there’s a cheering rhyme featuring the name of one of the characters, Gretchen Rand. I wonder what that rhyme looked like in the original English, because it always seemed to be very Swedish to me, so I’m guessing the translator might have taken some liberties there.

    I liked how you put this series in its chronological context vis-a-vis the Three Investigators series. That kind of stuff was something I never even thought about when I was fully immersed in reading them, so it’s interesting to see.

    From one thing to another, I suppose you won’t be taking a look at the French YA mysteries by P.J. Bonzon? From my snooping on the web, it seems that not much, if anything, of this series was translated into English. It was always one I really liked to read, mainly because it featured a country with many cultural differences from the Anglosaxon world most of these YA mystery series.

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    • Interestingly, it seems that on the last year or so two authors have started their own “continuations” of this series — I presume because it’s now out of copyright and so saves them having to come up with any, y’know, original characters. Because squatting over someone else’s intellectual property is just as good 🙂

      For me, Jimmy’s cynicism is an amazing book for these books — we see so many Watsons being staggered at their detective’s insight, someone being a bit more arch than usual was a nice touch. Yeah, it’s rarely directed at Brains, but equally I guess you can’t have your second lead undercutting the achievements of your first lead all the time. Verral does a great job making him just sarcastic enough, and making Brains just charming enough, that it worked really well for me, and that’s the one aspect I’m very much looking forward to in the sequels. That, and the cases being solved by actual reasoning rather than simply stumbling over the answers.

      Which book is the rhyme in? I’m hoping to track down some more of these before too long, so I’ll keep an eye out and (hopefully) we’ll be able to compare notes.

      As for Bonzon, I’ve had a look and they don’t seem to be in English and thus I am unlikley to get to them any time soon. My French is…poor. I’m hoping to improve it, but that will take a while since I’m a) disorganised and b) a slow learner. So, yeah, no. Which is a shame, because you make them sound very interesting indeed.

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      • The book with the rhyme is “The Case of the Waltzing Mouse”. Incidentally, I never really looked at the original English titles of these books – they’re generally better than the Swedish ones, which are fairly generic, particularly the first two. In translation, they’re as boring as this:
        “The Professor and the Kidnappers”
        “The Professor and the Forgers”
        “The Professor and the Riddle of the Pond”
        “The Professor and the Ghost Car”
        The Professor and the Treasure in the Lake”
        “The Professor and the Dragon Jewels”

        The Bonzon books (of 38 books, 20 were translated into Swedish) are perhaps a bit less “mystery” and a bit more “adventure”, generally. The kids are from the Croix Rousse neighbourhood in Lyons, France, and most of them come from very poor families, which makes for an interesting background – and it differs quite a lot from the fairly affluent middle class kids we see in Blyton, 3I or for that matter in this series. Still, they do manage to get away on different holidays together and come across various mysterious happenings during those (except for those mysteries that happen at home…).

        And while I’m on the subject of recommendations, another author and series you might like to take a look at is Terrance Dicks and his Baker Street Irregulars series. As that name indicates, it is modelled on the kind of mysteries we tend to like… There are ten of them, and since they were written in the late 70s and 80s, they’re a bit more modern than these other series we’ve discussed.

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        • “The Professor and the Riddle of the Pond” sounds like a euphemism for something…

          Hmmmm, a less affluent middle class approach to this sort of story would be interesting. It would present new difficulties in allowing the young ‘uns to get involved in such scrapes, for one thing — as I say in the above, everyone else seems to exist in this sort of Parent Free Zone usually afforded by a sort of middle class malaise where parenting was involved. Indeed, this book is interesting for how Brains and Jimmy actually have to spend several scenes reasoning with and talking to their parents. Well, who knows, maybe the Bonzon books will come across, or maybe my French will eventually take me to them. Watching this space is not advised.

          I don’t know the Terrance Dicks series, no. Thanks, I’ll keep an eye out (once the walls of my TBR recede a little…). I frequently fear that the Sherlock Holmes name is used to justify a lot of lazy stuff that would otherwise gain no attention, but it stands to reason that some of the extended universe stuff — Watson! Mrs Hudson! Ariadne Oliver! Wiggins! — might be pretty decent. Maybe that’s a whole new feature on its own.

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        • I loved Terrance “Doctor Who Target Novelisations” Dicks’ Baker Street Irregulars – especially the first in the series (something like “The Missing Masterpiece) where there was a definite threat of serious violence, despite the youth of the protagonists. “The Blackmail Boys” also stands out in my mind.

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          • Thank-you! I had a scratch in my mind saying “there’s a Doctor Who connection here”, but dismissed it as getting confused with Terry Nation.

            Also good to hear these books have some merit to them; I will certainly keep an eye out for them, once Fort TBR’s walls have been eroded by frequent reading raids.

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