I have read some dull books of late, but The Mystery of the Grinning Tiger (1956), the eleventh entry in Beryl and Sam Epstein’s series featuring teenage sleuths Ken Holt and Sandy Allen, might be the dullest yet.
Young Timothy Crandall — I guess he’s about six years old, but I don’t care — is a millionaire several times over, his wealthy parents having died three years before. Having spent those three years in Jolly Old England, away from the prying eyes and rapacious talons of the American press and hangers-on, Crandall is due to return to the United States and, given that he wrote Ken and Sandy a fan letter citing his desire to be a “detektive” like them when he grows up, the Global News Agency that backs so many of their shenanigans is keen to see if some connection can be exploited to get them an exclusive interview. Ken and Sandy go to the airport, get a picture of Richie Rich and arrange to meet him at his house later. When they arrive at the house, they’re not allowed in — six year-old multi-millionaires not having exclusive rights to determine who is allowed access to them, to the apparent surprise of our intrepid duo. Seventy pages later, Ken and Sandy suspect the boy may have been kidnapped. 50 pages after that, they’re proved right. 60 pages later, they find him and save him. Then the book ends.
Oh, spoilers, I guess.
Everyone involved in creative endeavours will run out of gas, however temporarily, at some point, but this is so far off the pace of the previous books in the series that I’ve read — even fifth entry The Clue of the Coiled Cobra (1951), which has about six thousand pages of Ken and Sandy walking slowly through woodland before the denouement — that it sort of beggars belief. While never exactly cryptic puzzle masterpieces, the Ken Holt series have usually been a swift and enjoyable time, packed with incident, derring-do, and more than a little hard-edged drama. By comparison, this is simply appalling, with Ken happy to spout bromides about how it seems suspicious and Sandy happy to dilute them with increasingly tenuous explanations until it tuns out they were right anyway, get kidnapped, escape, and uncover the villain, all probably without their pulses rising above 60 bpm.
Where the likes of The Secret of Hangman’s Inn (1951) or my current highlight (and, I suspect, series zenith) The Clue of the Phantom Car (1953) were well-constructed mysteries, presenting engaging situations and then intelligently winnowing down the possibilities until surprising and exciting conclusions were reached, this takes an obvious idea (kidnapping a millionaire — who’d ever suspect that?!) and denies that that’s what it’s doing for 60% of its length, then admits it, rolls over, and goes back to sleep. And it manages to string itself along by the sorts of leaps in reasoning that are shallow, warm beer in comparison to the rigour and care shown elsewhere in the series: the shape of a chauffeur’s ears, the height of a clock tower, how long it takes a cat to walk the length of a building, whether a business would still be open at 7pm on a weekday. I’ve made three of those up, by the way, but I bet you can’t spot the real one.
I could go on, but what’s the point? This is a book so bad that, were it to be your first experience of the series, it would likely put you off for life, and I didn’t start reading these mysteries for younger readers to read this sort of thing, nor to make you read about my having read it. There’s some genuinely great work that has been and continues to be done in mystery fiction for a juvenile audience, and it’s always a joy to be able to encounter something and then be enthusiastic about it to the small number of you who actually read these posts (Minor Felonies is, by some distance, the least popular stuff I post about…not, I hasten to add, that such things ever really bothered me, otherwise I would have stopped writing about them a long time ago). Listening to — er, reading — me work out my frustrations over something that fell short for no good reason isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time, hey?
So, what the hell — a short review today, and doubtless a lenghty hiatus before I summon the enthusiasm to pick up any more Ken Holt.
I just wanna read three good books back-to-back, y’know? How difficult can it be?
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)