#583: Minor Felonies – The Clue of the Coiled Cobra (1951) by Bruce Campbell

Clue of the Coiled Cobra

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.

3 Chows

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)

13 thoughts on “#583: Minor Felonies – The Clue of the Coiled Cobra (1951) by Bruce Campbell

  1. I’d never heard of a jalopy before

    It’s interesting the way we each absorb different vocabularies, isn’t it? I’d regard “jalopy” as a common term and wouldn’t even notice the usage; inevitably there’ll be words that you regard as commonplace and that I’d be straining for. What usually happens in my own case is that I then re-encounter the “unknown” bit of vocabulary about three times in the next fortnight: clearly the word’s been all around me but I just haven’t been registering it.

    There’s a psychological term for the phenomenon, but I of course forget what it is . . . though you probably have it on the tip of your tongue!


    • I believe you’re speaking of the Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon, John — the sudden awareness of the apparent ubiquity of something once you’ve learned of its existence. Believe it or not, I was talking to someone about this just the other day 😲

      I wonder how era-centric “jalopy” was — I’m sure I’d’ve remembered it from GAD stuff, so perhaps it’s an Americanism that crept into common usage in the 1950s/60s. Seeing as I’ve read very little American work from that era, that could explain my blindness. Though I shall now, of course, find that it’s my address, my best friend’s favourite drink, and the name of my favourite author…


      • I’ve been familiar with it since my teens, at a guess — i.e., decades before I came to the US. On the other hand, it may indeed be an Americanism, as you suggest, because I was reading US (and UK, of course) science fiction since my preteens and crime fiction from both sides of the Atlantic from, probably, my mid-teens. And that’s ignoring all the US TV series on the Beeb, movies in the cinema, etc. I think the word’s used primarily as a sort of jocular archaism over here these days, although Brad would know better than I do. Perhaps it was in more contemporary use in my teens than it was in yours, JJ, you young whippersnapper.


      • Yes, my favorite drink is a Battered Jalopy: a jigger of rye, a jigger of rum, two tablespoons of prune juice and a dash of motor oil. You seal it all in the shaker and then roll it down a hill and over an embankment until it is both shaken and stirred. It is very important that you not drink these on an empty stomach.

        Even the dubiously veritable Wikipedia cannot come up with the source of the word, but I have heard old beat up cars in books and TV referred to as jalopies throughout my life. I think it was especially big in the 50’s and 60’s. Here’s a song by Frankie Laine from 1951:

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yep. Chambers English Dictionary lists it as “origin obscure.” Incidentally, the word turns up from time to time in Guardian Cryptic and Quiptic crosswords.

          It is very important that you not drink these on an empty stomach.

          Hence Tennyson’s famous couplet:

          You can feel pretty dopy
          After a Battered Jalopy.

          But of course you knew that.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Emerson and Thoreau were fond of knocking back a few Battered Jalopies together, which led to the infamous incident of them being discovered playing “Where’s Waldo?” with Emerson’s middle name on the shores of Walden Pond . . .


  2. This, I imagine, is basically the same sort of deal as the Hardy Boys. I loved them between the ages of 7 and 10 . . . and then I discovered real mysteries. I still have my HB collection, and every once in a while I’ll take one down with the thought of rereading it, open the book, pore through a page or two, close the book, and put it back on the shelf. There are a great many childhood authors I can revisit over and over – Betty McDonald’s Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series, Edward Eager’s magic books, and more – but some childhood joys you can’t recapture.

    You’ve never heard the word “jalopy” before? Well, I can’t tell the difference between Mariah, Ariana, Miley, Brittney, and Taylor . . . . so there! (Is that even a thing?)


    • Perhaps, except that I’ve read and enjoyed two other books in this series in the last 18 months, so I’m not going on faulty youthful memory/changed adult standards. Sometimes books just aren’t what we’d enjoy, right? There’s going to be a Three Investigators title that underwhelms me soon, I’m sure, and probably an Anthony Horowitz book, etc, etc, for everything I’ve ever enjoyed. It’s a shame when it happens, but we dust ourselves down and move on.

      I know this isn’t the point you’re making, but The Hardy Boys, it must be said, do not appeal to my adult mind. I understand them to be more adventure-y and, even if that’s not th case, I doubt I’d be able (or, indeed, willing — my TBR is ridiculous) to get them in appropriate numbers to be able to do them any justice.

      Mind you, four years ago I wouldn’t have considered it possible for me to be a Freeman Wills Crofts fan based on what I’d heard, so never say never…


  3. “Did they need to overlay the snake on the map to find the hidden entrance to the…very public and loud festival?”

    Actually, Jim, I think the dots hammered into the surface of the granite outcrop were intended to point to the cave; it’s just a massive coincidence that a snake charmer happened to set up shop right in that place AND use the cave to store the snakes.

    So it *sorta* makes sense, but give it any thought, and it’s a TERRIBLY impractical way to locate a cave a mile or two away and undoubtedly lost amidst vegetation and trees. It would give an accurate compass direction, I suppose, but nothing more than that. A compass isn’t even mentioned in the text.


  4. My review: (No Spoilers!)

    This volume, written with the usual panache and flair I’ve come to expect from the Epsteins (writing as Bruce Campbell), starts off with a jocular exchange between Sandy Allen and Ken Holt in their red convertible, fresh from covering a dog show for the Brentwood Advance. After stopping for lunch at a roadside diner, they pick up a sickly and meek-looking hitchhiker, whom they drop off in the parking lot of the Advance’s HQ. The hitchhiker turns out to be Arthur Fenton: a professional thief who has just been released from the pen after serving five years of a seven-year sentence, given for half-inching the payroll of a Beltville company to the tune of $150k. The wrinkle here is that the cash was never found, nor did Fenton disclose its hiding place.

    And so the hunt for the money is on, complicated by Fenton’s cunning, which both Sandy and Ken completely underestimate, and with the addition of cash-starved, ex-con siblings, Limpy and Ted Rand. The clues lead the boys to Kenshoa Park, where the story finally bursts to life, and the complex, if maybe a little convoluted, tale of the Coiled Cobra comes to a satisfying conclusion.

    However, there are three plot points here, revealed in the second half of the book, that are barely plausible and undermine much of the good groundwork laid by the Epsteins in the first part of the story. None are utterly fatal to the execution of the plot — yet they do unnecessarily complicate Fenton’s scheme and push the plan of a seemingly intelligent and rational thief into the realm of the absurd. A large and eye-watering coincidence near the end doesn’t help either.

    Oh, did I mention that sometimes the text suffers from over-elaboration, especially in the dialog (brevity is the soul of wit, it’s often been said)?

    Nonetheless, this reviewer thoroughly enjoyed Coiled Cobra and, while acknowledging its obvious flaws, feels it is superior to the previous entry in the series: Marked Claw.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Flaws with Coiled Cobra.


    (1) The Map – Does the state park leaflet show the fire trail? It surely must, if Fenton needed it. But Sandy and Ken missed the trail completely during their exacting post-mortem.
    (2) The three holes atop the granite outcrop are a terribly inaccurate way of locating a cave hidden among trees and approximately two miles distant.
    (4) Why does Fenton need to get involved with the snake charmer? Does he really need to hide the cash in the bottom of a snake’s wicker basket? Why not sneak into the cave the same way Ken and Sandy do?
    (4) Huge coincidence: Fenton uses a cobra ring to keep track of the exact location of the cave. . . . and five years after the theft, the cobra charmer’s tent is pitched *right* next to the cave where the money was secreted. A rare miscalculation by the Epsteins, I feel.


    • Yeah, I’ll be honest I don’t remember a lot of this book — it started well but ended up losing focus, and all I really recall is that the finale is a slow, drawn out trudge.

      Man, this really brings home how little we remember about the books we read, eh? Well, I say “we”; maybe everyone has perfect recall and I’m the only one with a leaking sieve for a memory.


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