Archive for April 22nd, 2011

April 22, 2011

Boys Will Be Boys

by Vince Keenan

[Editor’s note: Today we have a guest post from Vince Keenan, whom I met many years ago in Seattle and with whom I  have been talking noir, Mack Sennett, the Mets and other matters ever since. A renaissance man married to a renaissance woman, the lovely Rosemarie, Vince is a screenwriter,  journalist, video game designer and cocktail enthusiast. His blog has its seven-year anniversary this week. –MA]

Megan was kind enough to ask me to represent a male perspective on young adult fiction. Because boys do read. Not openly and not often, but they do.

I could start with a sepia-toned reminiscence of the mail order Scholastic Book Club, which sounds so archaic now I might as well say that in my youth I was a regular user of the Pony Express. Amazon before there was Amazon, it was the best way to feed my reading habit in a section of New York identified on maps as Darkest Queens, where bookstores were thin on the ground. I could then follow up with some signature titles fished out of the packages delivered to Sister Maureen’s office every six to eight weeks. Like Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, about a silversmith’s apprentice crippled in an accident who winds up at the center of the American Revolution. (Bart Simpson said it should be called Johnny Deformed. He has a point.) Or A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith, in which a young boy dies as a result of an allergy to a bee sting and his best friend spends the rest of the summer learning to grieve for him. It seemed so adult, a book about death, and I read it more than once in the hope of growing up faster.

But that wouldn’t be accurate. I’d be projecting my current neuroses onto my youthful reading habits. Yes, I did enjoy those books, but I’d be pointing them out to make me seem interesting and well-rounded, the way I’ll casually mention that I’ve recently finished some award-winner.

The truth is that then as now, I consumed heroic quantities of crime fiction. And that meant The Hardy Boys. It’s fashionable to mock the series in all its gee-whiz, asexual glory. But I refuse to do that. I come here to praise Frank and Joe Hardy, not to bury them with scorn. The boys put me on a glide path that led to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, to Lawrence Block and James Ellroy. For good and ill, they made me the reader that I am today.

The series is a remarkable American narrative in itself. Created by Edward Stratemeyer, the pioneer of book packaging. Cranked out by countless ghostwriters. (I never believed in Santa Claus, but it crushed me to learn that Franklin W. Dixon wasn’t real.) The first 38 entries were substantially revised beginning in 1959 to simplify them in the face of television’s popularity and to eliminate racial stereotyping. As a result, two completely different novels with the same title could be in simultaneous circulation, a lesson I learned the hard way. Buying the “wrong” version of The Missing Chums (#4 in the series) prompted a crash course in typefaces. I soon discovered that the original editions had denser text in every sense.

Yes, the novels are deeply square, replete with outdated technology (#24 is called The Short-Wave Mystery, for crying out loud) and cardboard characters. Joe was only differentiated from older brother Frank in that he was dark of hair and hot of temper. Their friends were designated by ethnicity (Jewish, Italian) and weight (Chet Morton, forever branded “chubby” and my surrogate). I read the books over and over anyway. Screw Middle Earth and Narnia. I wanted to be in what I thought of as the real world, solving real problems.

That sense of engagement fuels every Hardy Boys story. The brothers hero-worship their famous shamus father Fenton Hardy, a remote figure who represents the dark and separate adult universe they agitate to be a part of. OK, sex was a mystery neither bright boy would ever solve; while Frank and Joe have girlfriends, their idea of a date is taking them out in a jalopy for hamburgers. But in the best of the books, sturdily constructed mysteries studded with local color, knowledge is power and the globe there to be trotted. High school familiarity with German explains The Clue of the Screeching Owl (#41). I still remember how to say thank you in Greek thanks to The Shattered Helmet (#52) – it’s efharisto, pronounced “F. Harry Stowe,” not “Harry F. Stowe” as poor hapless Chet mangles it – and learned that residents of the French section of Marrakesh roll pieces of bread into tiny balls as they eat in The Mysterious Caravan (#54). Some day that factoid will come in handy.

Even better are the spinoffs. My copy of The Hardy Boys’ Detective Handbook, consisting of short stories illustrating authentic police techniques, eventually fell apart from overuse. The Handbook had to be extensively revised by an FBI agent when the original consultant was indicted on corruption charges while an official with the Newark Police Department, the kind of case the brothers somehow never investigated. Repeated readings of their Seven Stories of Survival taught me how to produce water in the desert with nothing more than a hubcap, a rock and a dry cleaning bag. That tidbit has so far proven as useful as the Marrakesh bread balls, but it’s there when I need it.

Eventually I abandoned Frank and Joe for more sophisticated pre-teen crimefighters. The Three Investigators featured better writing (Edgar Award winner Dennis Lynds penned several series entries under the name William Arden), a team member I could emulate in that his sole skill was research, and a show business angle; Alfred Hitchcock introduced the first 30 or so books and appeared in the closing chapter as Jupiter, Pete and Bob wrapped up each case. Their adventures were in every way more sophisticated than the Hardy Boys’, but looking back I can’t recall the name of a single villain or any plot turn as memorable as Frank and Joe’s solution to The Disappearing Floor (#19). (The Three Investigators have proven hugely popular internationally, with a particularly fervent following in Germany. There are even Austrian movies. Here’s a trailer.)

There was no subtext to speak of in the books of my youth, which is a subtext in itself. My friend George’s father pressed a copy of Clifford B. HicksAlvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day on me by saying, “At least you’ll learn about politics while you’re reading it.” A boy couldn’t waste time with a book. He had to get something out of it. That relentless pragmatism is the entire point of another strain of YA fiction, about making, building, doing. The Danny Dunn series strove to make technology interesting, even positing the notion of a computer that could help you with your homework. The Mad Scientists’ Club stories, written by Lockheed systems analyst turned career army man Bertrand R. Brinley, had a troop of boys with names out of Damon Runyon (Freddy Muldoon, Mortimer Dalrymple) meeting every challenge with soldering irons.

Reading the posts at the Medicine Show this week has been eye-opening. The boy books of my 1980s childhood didn’t have much in the way of angst and existential dread. They seem almost quaint, offering a steady drumbeat of advice that could come from a disinterested guidance counselor. Learn a trade, son. Get out there and be productive. It’s shocking to compare them to contemporary variants like Frank Portman’s King Dork, packed with references to sex, drugs and, mirabile dictu, popular music. Would it have killed Frank Hardy to pick up Callie Shaw, crank up some Queen and get his freak on? But perhaps that’s the ultimate form of escapism as well as a critical life lesson: planting the seed that someday you’ll live in a world where there are no bullies or bad lunch tables, and the biggest problem is facing down a gang of smugglers.

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April 22, 2011

who would win: the great brain vs. encyclopedia brown

by Megan Abbott

[Editor’s note:  Today we are supremely lucky to have a special post from the multi-award-winning writer and cartoonist, Ed Brubaker, the man behind the dazzling Criminal series (which is how I first discovered him–it’s every noir-lover’s dream). Today, below, he writes about a series I remember well (Encyclopdia Brown, a favorite of my brother’s) and another I had read but long forgotten, The Great Brain. As soon as I saw the cover below, it came hurtling back. I even remember seeing the movie and I’m sure I’m not the only one. What a time machine this week has been.–MA]

WHO WOULD WIN IN A FIGHT—THE GREAT BRAIN OR ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN?

By Ed Brubaker

I grew up reading comics and watching old noir films, which explains a lot about my career so far, but I rarely talk about my favorite Young Adult characters—Encyclopedia Brown and the Great Brain.

I think I discovered them both at around the same time, snooping around in my big brother’s room. He read more books than me, and I mostly read comics, but the drawings on the covers of these ones really grabbed me, so I started flipping through them. A kid who is super smart and is a private detective? A kid who is super smart and is basically a conman? They didn’t make comics like this.

The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald takes place in 1890s Utah, but is based on Fitzgerald and his siblings, who were actually born about 20 years later— so it’s a strange fiction/real life hybrid. The books are narrated by a young JD, who’s always cleaning up after his brother Tom—known as the Great Brain in the family—who is constantly swindling the Mormon kids out of their Christmas presents or allowances. It was a bit Tom Sawyer-y, sure, but it was darker and more fun, and you got to follow The Great Brain’s progress as he grew up and tried to reform his wicked ways.

I’m pretty sure it was the only kids’ book series in the 60s where the star is actually a crook. “It’s like Parker meets Tom Sawyer” isn’t a pitch I can imagine going over well at the average children’s book publisher back then.

And as it turns out, the entire series came about by accident. Fitzgerald had written a few popular fiction books about his family in the 1950s, Pappa Married a Mormon and Momma’s Boarding House. What became The Great Brain was supposed to be the next in that series, but by the time he finished the manuscript, adult tastes had changed. As the book went from publisher to publisher, collecting rejections, an editor suggested cutting out over half the text—all the stuff about the adults—and just leaving the parts about the kids.

So Fitzgerald rewrote the book and it ended up becoming one of the most popular young adult series of its day. They even made a terrible movie starring Jimmy Osmond.

I’m sort of stunned people don’t know about these books today. The Great Brain at the Academy is probably one of my favorite young adult books ever. Right up there with Harriet the Spy and The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. Sent to a boarding school, the Great Brain immediately sets out to profit from all the rich kids, working out schemes to get extra candy and sneak out at night. And in the other books in the series he even solved crimes, stopped a corporation bilking the town out of their savings, and escaped kidnappers.

I can’t think of a kid I’d rather have been friends with than the Great Brain. But I wanted to be Encyclopedia Brown. I wouldn’t have wanted to be friends with him because he’s a narc-y little nerd. But being him would have been cool.

The Encyclopedia Brown series is a strange one. You remember the characters more than the crimes. You remember flipping the books over to read the solutions, and you remember feeling cheated by them pretty often—“What? He couldn’t have been playing guitar at the time of the theft because he didn’t have calluses on his fingertips? Are you fucking kidding me?”

But that’s not a knock on them, because Donald J. Sobol’s characters were so much fun that I didn’t care. Encyclopedia and his partner/bodyguard Sally, who is tall and pretty and can beat up anyone who messes with our hero. Bugs Meany, the town bully who never gets away with any of his pranks or minor crimes, but who has a gang called the Tigers, who will do anything he says. The town of Idaville felt like a strange island off the coast of California somewhere—fake and too small—and its emptiness reminded me of the military base homes of my childhood. So I could read these books and imagine myself as some kid detective riding up the lane to solve the case of the candy shoplifter (it was my brother).

Of course, Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown series has never gone out of print in almost 50 years (it was so popular that John D. Fitzgerald even tried his hand at a kid detective in 1974 with Private Eye) while the Great Brain books have been basically forgotten. But both of them meant a whole hell of lot to me, as both a kid and a writer.