I, doubtless in common with anyone who has persevered through the stronger and weaker works of any prolific author’s career, have been moved at times to reflect at what point a long-running series becomes good before it starts to tail off in quality through the challenges of sustaining such an output.
The first “Ken Holt Mystery for Boys” from the joint pen of Sam and Beryl Epstein I read was eighth title The Clue of the Phantom Car (1953), and it’s still the high point of the series for me. The Espteins demonstrate in that book a real talent for spinning a story on a completely new direction at a moment’s notice, and in building a compelling narrative based around intelligent reasoning that also doesn’t shy away from some grim-faced toughness when needed. Having now read the fourth, fifth, and this, the sixth, titles in the series, I can see how they were slowly working up towards that sort of story: The Clue of the Marked Claw (1950) is pretty linear in its developments and doesn’t necessarily make a whole lotta sense, The Clue of the Coiled Cobra (1951) makes even less sense but it clearly trying hard — possibly too hard — to be a bit more creative, and The Secret of Hangman’s Inn (1951) feels like the point where the breakthrough might have occurred.
There’s a good mixture of thinkin’ and doin’ in this one, kicking off with the nicely unostentatious occurrence of old Joe Driscoll, the dogsbody of Brentwood’s Advance newspaper run by the Allen clan, not turning up for work. Ken and Sandy Allen are dispatched to his isolated, telephoneless cottage on the edge of town to check up on him, and find the cottage abandoned, with unwashed dishes and other signs of a hasty departure. They report this to Pop Allen who sends them back to look for Joe in case he’s come a cropper in the surrounding countryside, and upon approaching the house this time they find the dishes put away, any mess tidied up, the bed made, and a variety of clothes and books missing. They also find tyre tracks, which is all well and good except that Joe Driscoll doesn’t own a car…
“Well, that seems suspicious…”
Chief of Police Andy Kane may not be that concerned by the lads’ findings, but when they also dig up a note in Joe’s belongings warning him to “keep a sharp eye out for the Black One. I saw him this morning” they begin to have more serious concerns, and start some good, solid detective reasoning to track down the origins of the note and its sender. Along the way they’ll also encounter what is obviously at the root of all this mysteriousness, but I’ll confess to overlooking it completely on account of the great time I was having: I know it’s easy to ridicule detail-oriented detection, and I don’t deny that some of it bears lampooning, but I’m rarely happier (in fiction, of course) than when someone its intelligently responding to the situation in front of them to try to puzzle through a mystery. And it’s even better when, as here, your protagonist runs up against a wall every now and then — a superb revelation at about the quarter-way point showing how “Ken and Sandy…had also envisioned melodramatic — and extremely unpleasant — explanations for Joe’s absence” in a manner that shows Andy Kane’s correctness in not putting out an APB at their first concerns.
Of course, the secret of Hangman’s Inn can’t simply be that Joe Driscoll went to look after his ailing brother, despite a brace of semi-cryptic telegrams and postcards promising exactly that. If these missives contain any clues, and they apparently do (though this thread is staggeringly underdeveloped, especially in light of the old “pie the type” hint) then Ken is going to dig them up, and he’ll do it while apparently under surveillance from shadowy outsiders who obviously don’t want anyone finding out what really happened to Joe Driscoll.
Sandy gave his head a little shake. “The trouble with your wacky ideas,” he said finally, “is that they’re just logical enough to make it necessary to check them.”
Along the way, we get some of the high quality writing the Epsteins have exhibited in the best parts of this series: the clue that revolves around anthimeria, for instance, or the instance of what I’ve often thought of as The Inexpert Clue where someone who should know something is wrong doesn’t pick up on its incorrectness (c.f. “I love Agatha Christie! My favourite of her books is The Greek Coffin Mystery…”). Elsewhere the fine delineations the matter so much in detective fiction get a good, subtle examination — the difference between someone being respectable and your having been told that they are respectable…man, we could really do with a glossary for this sort of thing — and, of course, some of the prose itself is simply lovely and restrained:
A moment later, across the uneven scrub of the marsh, they saw a long streamliner rounding the bend from the direction of Brentwood. Its headlight painted a white path almost parallel to the highway and some thousand feet away — a brilliant streak that seemed to intensify the gathering darkness.
“A saw a train once.”
While there are undoubted flaws — my old friend the Hissed Sentence That Doesn’t Have Anything to Hiss In It rears its head once more (“Kill that light, you fool!”), the title doesn’t really make that much sense — this stands in contrast to …Coiled Cobra for how propulsive the action is, even before the adventurin’ takes over in the latter stages. A couple of car chases are very well written indeed, and an extended escape sequence gave me numb fingers while also not shying away from, nor glorifying, the damage that would perhaps be done to someone in those circumstances. We know there’s only so much damage that Ken and the boys will come to, of course, but one of the most pleasing things about these books is how the Epsteins have never been ones to duck the slightly grimmer or more perilous elements of their plots. I’m a fan of this, it’s cropped up in a few of the early Three Investigators books, and I think more juvenile fiction needs to acknowledge risk in this things-do-go-wrong way,
I’m hopeful, then, that next Ken and Sandy novel The Mystery of the Iron Box (1952) continues this trend, and from here its more of the type of adventure I started this series with. Whether they’re able to maintain such standards remains, of course, to be seen, but I feel more positive about these books now than I did when the Cobra had finally un-Coiled. Because it’s not like there was far too much on my TBR already, hey?
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)