The Case of the Missing Message
A Brains Benton Mystery by Charles Spain Verral
The first in a series of six titles features Brains Benton and Jimmy Carson as the Benton and Carson International Detective Agency. Already pre-established as good friends and partners, with a number of small cases under their belts, this is their first ''big case''... and it is a pretty big case too, involving a circus and a dangerous man by the name of Otto, and his equally nasty colleague known as the Joker.
It all starts when Jimmy, in an effort to increase his list of subscribers for the local newspaper so he can win a prize, stops by at the spooky old Madden House, which stands alone in a swampy section about half a mile from town. They say the place is haunted, and Jimmy is not overly fond of visiting... but he really needs the subscribers and so he bravely approaches and knocks on the door. A strange man answers dressed in a blue and white striped bathing suit worn in ''the Gay nineties'' (yes, that's the 1890s, folks) and a pair of skin diver's goggles (see book cover). Bizarre? Yes, and he seems half crazy. ''Did you bring the fish?'' he asks. When Jimmy explains about the newspaper round, the man then asks if the paper can be read underwater. Then he goes inside and fetches another guy, another crazy person, this time a German smoking a huge pipe. He listens intently while Jimmy explains about the newspaper, and then gets very upset when Jimmy mentions about a comic strip for the man's child. ''Child? What do you mean child? I have no child,'' he snaps, and slams the door in Jimmy's face.
This might not seem strange in itself, but it is when you consider that, upon leaving, Jimmy plainly sees a frightened looking child his own age peering out of a window. A mystery has loomed up! Is the boy a prisoner of madmen? Jimmy rushes to tell Brains. At this point I was briefly reminded of Enid Blyton's The Boy Next Door, where the owner of the house denies a child is living there and reacts in much the same way despite the fact that a child has been spotted. And, in both books, it transpires that the boy is not being held captive but is being hidden from villains!
Before this comes to light, however, Brains and Jimmy take it upon themselves to spy on the old house, and this involves crawling through woods to the edge of the lawn and then crawling through the long grass in an effort to get close. To their surprise they come across the boy quite freely wandering about outside. As they watch, he climbs a ladder to a strong wire stretched between poles, and starts tightrope walking, an umbrella held high for balance. A tightrope walker! Then the boy takes a small dog for a walk around the grounds and it's at this point that Brains and Jimmy spot another man, dressed in black, spying on the boy from the woods. The man makes a grab for the boy, and captures him but Brains and Jimmy rush to the rescue and the would be kidnapper is frightened away. But was it Brains and Jimmy who frightened him away, or the elephant rushing across the lawn towards them, ridden by an angry bald man?
It's bold and unexpected surprises like this that makes this book stand out. It transpires that the boy, named Skeet, once belonged to a circus, and his father was the owner until he met with an ''accident.'' Before that, a relatively new member of the circus, a man named Otto, had been busy embezzling money away from the circus to the point that the owner, Alf Fenton, had no choice but to take on Otto as a full business partner despite having a feeling in his stomach that Otto was a crook. Alf then found out the truth about Otto, and about his past, and wrote it all down and told the crook that he'd better watch out or this hidden information would fall into the hands of the law. Shortly after that, poor Alf and his wife were killed in a car accident, leaving Skeet an orphan. Otto took over running of the show but financially the other half of the circus still belonged to Skeet, so Otto started training Skeet very hard in an attempt to cause another unfortunate accident...
And so Skeet ran away, into the care of Bimbo the clown and Bimbo's wife, who were good friends of Alf. Together they went into hiding, for Otto was still after that missing message the one that could put him away for a long time if it were ever found. The bad guys in this are really quite menacing, and when Skeet is kidnapped the trail leads to Lake Carmine, where the action really hots up...
An excellent start to the series! The author is Charles Spain Verral, a much loved children's writer whose other work includes Lassie, Popeye and Rin Tin Tin between 1950 and 1990. The remaining five books are supposedly written by George Wyatt, but many believe this to be simply a pen-name for Verral.
September 24, 2006