Man, things were simpler in the 1950s. Back then, the fourth book in a series of juvenile detective adventures could centre around lobster fishing and the series could still run for a further 14 titles. Kids those days, eh?
So, yeah, solidly the first half of Ken Holt and Sandy Allen’s fourth adventure — though the spine and back cover of my edition declare it to be the first, despite explicit mention of two previous cases in the opening pages — revolves around lobsterin’. Following a “long-standing invitation from one of Ken’s former schoomates to spend a week out on the tip of Long Island, where they would have nothing on their mind but sun and sand and sea” they arrive at Ted Bateson’s house to find that the lobster fishing business he runs with his father is under threat. It seems the recently-arrived rapscallion Jackson (not entirely sure if that’s his surname or his first name, since he’s never called anything else that I can recall) has been going out at night to pilfer lobsters from the nets of other fishermen, and so Ken and Sandy sign on to help catch him in the act and put an end to his no-good ways.
Sam and Beryl Epstein, who wrote this series under the nom de plume Bruce Campbell, were advocates of not talking down to their audience, and expressed some delightfully intelligent views on how to use vocabulary for younger readers. And the background of sea-faring venture provides ample opportunity for the argot to seep into proceedings in a pleasingly non-hand-holdy way. For every instance of Ted telling Sandy that the kitchen on the boat is called a ‘galley’ you get two sentences like…
Ted lashed the boom in place and hosed down the deck, sweeping the debris through the scuppers into the sea.
…and it’s refreshing to have our heroes figure out that someone is pretending to fish on account of the lack of line let out from their rod without the authors then choosing to take four or five lines to explain what this means. If at times this results in the apparent presumption of an over-familiarity with boating and its accoutrements that leaves you in the doldrums — maybe it’s just me, but at times I could not figure out the relative geography of the people in the finale — it’s a book that flashes past and is to be commended for never stooping to condescend. Yeah, it’s not exactly stylistically showy, and the characters are painted in broad strokes that mean anyone could be anything until a final ‘shocking’ reveal, but if you’re simply here to be entertained then entertained you shall be.
I also learned several things, which is always part of the enjoyment of older fiction for me. Firstly I learned what “claw plugs” for lobsters are — they’re effectively wedges pushed up the side of the hinged side of the claw to prevent it from opening — but, in fairness, I didn’t know that I didn’t know that (I guess I would have assumed elastic bands were used…). Secondly I learned, to my shame, what a lift (or elevator, for our North American cousins) operator actually does: I hadn’t realised that there was a control in the lift to make it stop at each floor, and had supposed up until now that the operator just pushed the buttons for the floor the passengers wanted — which is why this always seemed like a preposterously made up job to me. Thirdly, there’s a mini-lecture just before the halfway point about the developing of photos which not only provides a superb piece of intrigue but also taught me far more about developing fluid than I’d ever previously considered.
To save you Googling “lobster claw plug”
You’ll deduce from that mention of liftevators that this isn’t all a life on the ocean wave, and that civilisation beckons come the second half. As intrigue builds, Ken’s standing with the Global News Service comes in helpful as they race to New York to find out stuff about things. Perhaps feeling guilty at their responsibility for Ken’s father Richard always being “off in some strange corner of the world, gathering the exclusive news which made him the ace reporter of the Global News Service”, Ken and Sandy are given the run of the offices, uncover some shocking developments, and we get a couple of decent suspense sequences as they’re chased around a sealed building by four grown men and must then race back to Long Island in an apparent convoy of cars all tailing each other. And while there’s not strictly much in the way of clewing for this mystery, this does at least lead to a nice discussion about the importance of relevance in these investigations:
“We might be complicating this whole thing ourselves,” [Sandy] said as they walked towards the elevator. “Take out the Dolphin and the other factors fit together a lot better.”
“This is no time to take out the Dolphin,” Ken pointed out. “She’s more mysterious now than ever.”
“But look. There was probably a mysterious robbery in Timbuktu yesterday — but it doesn’t necessarily tie in with our problem.”
It will surprise no-one, I’m sure, that there is a way to link all these things together, and while the eventual scheme does sort of interlock there’s still a rather key aspect — namely how they’re putting the [REDACTED] into the [REDACTED] — which either I overlooked or the Epstein’s don’t actually tell you (and that would be just like them, eh?). Drawing a line that joins the starting point of this with the end isn’t hideously complex, but I’m not convinced the scheme is as well-developed as that in The Clue of the Phantom Car (1953) would be three years later.
To the Epsteins’ credit, however, they’re not ones to shy away from the more perilous elements of their denouements. Here as in …Phantom Car, there’s a decidedly steely aspect to the finale, with a combination of very smart thinking by Ken, physical prowess on the part of Sandy, and slightly gut-wrenching risk-taking by both that brings a — don’t laugh — Geoffrey Household-ish air to things. While you’re not going to be comminuted to a gibbering wreck by the conclusion of a YA novel, there’s a surprising amount of peril in these conclusions, and there’s just the slimmest shard of “holy crap, what if…?” hanging around the edges of thing — which, if anything, is testament to the exemplary work done in making the books rattle along and the characters feel just slightly more defined than the archetypes they initially might appear.
I have another five of these Ken Holt novels, and were I a younger man in a simpler age I’d be champing at the bit to read another one…which isn’t the response one might expect from a book based around, remember, catching lobster. Ken, Sandy, and I will return at some future point with The Clue of the Coiled Cobra (1951) which could turn out to be about Morris-dancing basket-weavers for all I care: I’m signed up for the other 16 books, and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.
The Ken Holt books by ‘Bruce Campbell’:
1. The Secret of Skeleton Island (1949)
2. The Riddle of the Stone Elephant (1949)
3. The Black Thumb Mystery (1950)
4. The Clue of the Marked Claw (1950)
5. The Clue of the Coiled Cobra (1951)
6. The Secret of Hangman’s Inn (1951)
7. The Mystery of the Iron Box (1952)
8. The Clue of the Phantom Car (1953)
9. The Mystery of the Galloping Horse (1954)
10. The Mystery of the Green Flame (1955)
11. The Mystery of the Grinning Tiger (1956)
12. The Mystery of the Vanishing Magician (1956)
13. The Mystery of the Shattered Glass (1958)
14. The Mystery of the Invisible Enemy (1959)
15. The Mystery of Gallows Cliff (1960)
16. The Clue of the Silver Scorpion (1961)
17. The Mystery of the Plumed Serpent (1962)
18. The Mystery of the Sultan’s Scimitar (1963)