There’s a comforting familiarity about the Ken Holt Mysteries for Boys written by Beryl and Sam Epstein under the nom de plume Bruce Campbell. This is only the third one I’ve read, but, perhaps because of the strict adherence to classic ingredients, I feel like I’m about 12 books deep in the series.
And that feeling of familiarity might not always be a good thing. I’ve read a couple more Five Find-Outers books than I have Ken Holt ones, and each of those cases feels like it has its distinct identity and purpose. These trips with Ken ‘n’ Sandy seem, at this early stage, to be very much of a type, without quite the same level of invention and variation, and, to be honest, I actually got a little bored of The Clue of the Coiled Cobra (1951) with about 50 pages — a quarter of the book! — remaining.
It starts promisingly, and efficiently: teenage reporters Ken Holt and Sandy Allen returning from a none-too-exciting local dog show they covered for the Allen family newspaper, stopping off at a diner for some food, and offering a lift to an apparent near-vagrant who is heading to their home town of Brentwood. Things take a slightly confounding turn when they discover that the ‘vagrant’ has dropped in their car a bus ticket which would have taken him through Brentwood and beyond, and since that diner is a rest stop for that exact bus route, and since buses go through every hour, his need for a lift seems unusual. Cue private investigator Andrew Richards, who tracks Ken and Sandy down and explains matters: the vagrant is a recently-released heist-smith, with an impressive haul to his name.
“I remember,” Pop muttered. “The Plunket payroll robbery. Fenton got a hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
“And seven years in the penitentiary, minus two for good behaviour,” Richards added. “He’s out now — and here in Brentwood, if” he looked at the boys “that’s where you dropped him off?”
The small matter of that $150,000 having never been recovered is what has set Richards on Fenton’s tail — there’s a $5,000 reward for the return of the money, and the insurance company have put Richards on the case. And, well, Ken and Sandy fancy their chances, too. So, with only a few details from old newspapers to go on, they set out to find where Fenton could have absconded to with the money in the short time between the theft and his arrest.
“Did you check the laundry?”
The first half is loads of fun — involving Ken and Sandy tracking down Fenton while themselves being pursued by suspicious types with an interest in the money, and filled with neat little flourishes like how someone is able to drive away from the scene of a fight and robbery without their car engine being heard (it’s not complex, and don’t get the impression it qualifies as any sort of impossibility, but the way it’s presented works neatly in context), and a pleasing reliance on logic and rigour to work out what Fenton may have done and therefore how those actions might inform where he — and presumably the money — is now to be found. And there are some delightful lines, too, with the comfortable use of easy humour that borders on the caustic and confrontational but for the underlying strong relationship that Ken and his adoptive family have. Plus, the Epsteins remain committed to using some complex language without feeling the need to condescend to their intended audience: I’d never heard of a jalopy before, but the way it’s used here is both natural and clever, and then you get stuff like:
“A considerable amount of tempus had fugit-ed since we saw Fenton shut himself in.”
And then…then it takes a running leap out of the very top of the insanity tree, and collides with every brand of nonsense and convenience on the way down. It’s not as if the Epsteins take a gamble that doesn’t pay off, and simply try to push a bold plot-forrader that backfires; hell, I’d applaud the aspiration of that. It instead descends into a nonsense of maps and coincidences and loopy schemes and wild leaps of logic with no basis in the preceding intelligent build-up…all of which counts for precisely nothing when you get to the end and (spoilers?) the money is eventually recovered. Did they need to overlay the snake on the map to find the hidden entrance to the…very public and loud festival? You could argue they did, but did Fenton need to leave that clue in that way? Holy hell, no. All his skulking around is…without any motivation at all, unless he deliberately left clues to the money in that way because he thought it would make an interesting YA plot at some point (and he was wrong about that).
It’s more frustrating because of the sheer number of times either Ken or Sandy says “Well, of course, this whole thing makes no sense — why would he do X?” — and then it turns out that he only does X because that’s how they can follow him and find out the answer to the riddle. And it’s not even as if this is done in a compelling or exciting way — there’s none of the suspense of the extended, boat-set set-piece which topped off preceding volume The Clue of the Marked Claw (1950), since this boils down to an easy walk into a public space and then a bit with a snake to justify the title. And, hot damn, the number of chapters titled “This Thing Happens!” only for that to be the thing that happens in the very last line — jeepers, the developments of the final quarter can be read by simply scrolling through the table of contents.
Enter hilarious dog quote here.
A dud, then, and a notable dud for how good the other forty-seven books I’ve read in this series — wait, no, I’ve only read two others — are. Everyone has bad days, and there’s too much engaging stuff up front to dismiss this in its entirety, but if you’re starting the series I wouldn’t advise doing so here. There was a slim chance that some classic misdirection had been used to establish a bit of a twist come the end — and the relative point-and-click simplicity of the adventure could have been forgiven on those grounds, as the authors tried to keep you in the moment and not thinking about the bigger picture of how you’d been led astray — but that boils out to nothing when the ending feels more like the Epsteins were simply happy to get this one out of the typewriter and sent to the publisher in time to fulfil that clause of their contract.
Here’s hoping that their attention was more firmly fixed on The Secret of Hangman’s Inn (1951) this year, and they made the classic fighter’s mistake of looking ahead to their next opponent, only to have their lights sparked out here. Only in redounding on the success of something else could this one be deemed a success itself, so I shall keep my fingers crossed…
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)