The Boy Detective Fails - Joe Meno

It is embarrassing to admit, but Chapter Fourteen has been stolen. We truly apologize for this.

You could say that The Boy Detective Fails is a parody of kid detectives like Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys except that might imply that it's an amusing book overall. There are some funny moments, sure, but overall it's a dreary sort of humor, almost like Lemony Snicket for adults. (And sometimes downright black: a girl commits suicide while her parents are accepting "Gotham's award for Truly Above-Average Parenting.") There are a few references here and there (Billy is picked on by a Wayne Meany III; later he runs into the Hartly Boys, former child detectives "until they discovered that their father, also a professional detective, was leading a very well-organized counterfeiting ring").

Just the cast of characters may give you a good impression of the book. There's Billy Argo, the boy detective himself, who dropped out of criminology school and now lives at the Shady Glens Facility for Mental Competence, sort of a halfway house for ex-residents of the asylum, selling hair replacement products over the phone to extremely sad people. ("Yes, it's exactly that, sir, a miracle. A miracle of modern living.") Penny is a mysterious kleptomaniac who dresses all in pink and only steals pink things. Effie Mumford is an eleven-year-old who is a science fair winner and "an interminable social pariah," trying to find her dead bunny's missing head. Her brother Gus (age nine) is extremely smart but has been pigeonholed as a bully, and thus does not speak to anyone but writes notes instead. And then there's Professor Von Golum, Billy's archenemy, who also happens to be at Shady Glens and repeatedly attempts to kill Billy, only to fall asleep or forget what he was doing.

The story has a strange, surreal quality to it, accentuated by Meno's language. Billy remains "the boy detective" throughout the book despite the fact that he's in his thirties. When he first moves into his room at Shady Glen, flipping the light switch causes it to snow in his room instead of illuminating it; the snow is never explained but recurs frequently. It's intentionally disorienting: aside from the "stolen" Chapter Fourteen, the book is broken into several sections, starting with Chapter Thirty-One.

There are also a few coded messages (with an actual decoder ring to cut-and-assemble on the back flap), a bizarre encoded message hidden at the bottom of some pages, and every so often a page with a paragraph of very small print in the bottom right corner. Meno frequently addresses the reader, often says "we" and "our" but it's never entirely clear who that's supposed to be, and colors Billy's entire world with white and green.

The plot is kind of like this, too: surreal and somewhat aimless at first, but eventually pushing towards a mystery and a solution, of sorts. It doesn't remain (as I feared) hopeless and tragic, but it drags you through a lot of despair and apathy before easing up a little.

I wasn't sure at first if I liked this book or not, but it grew on me gradually. I was certainly never bored with it and it kept me guessing what would happen next but without any anxiety. In Billy's surreal world, anything could happen, and a statement that sounds like a metaphor could well prove later to be literal. It's not a book I would recommend to everyone, but if you're willing to take a chance on something a bit out of the ordinary, you might give The Boy Detective Fails a shot.

Fed to jonathan's brain | July 22, 2008 | Comments (0)


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