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The Brains Benton Mysteries

During a trip to a local secondhand bookshop I was lucky enough to stumble upon two hardback originals from a short series I'd never heard of before. These unexpected delights are The Case of the Counterfeit Coin and The Case of the Roving Rolls, books two and four of a six-book series known as The Brains Benton Mysteries.

Curious, I bought them and did some research, and to my surprise found this series to be just as popular in the sixties and seventies as The Three Investigators. The first book, The Case of the Missing Message, was written in 1959 by Charles Spain Verral, and the remaining five in 1960 and 1961 by George Wyatt (although there is a "widespread belief" that the two different authors are actually the same person, and I would certainly agree that the style is consistent).

Barclay "Brains" Benton and James "Jimmy" Carson live in Crestwood. While they're young enough to be junior high school students, in their spare time they're "professional detectives" known as the Benton and Carson International Detective Agency. Brains is the leader, and his codename is X, or Operative X. He's a real brainbox and talks in an intellectual, stilted manner, using a lot of big words and constantly showing off his powers of observation. Jimmy basically does as he's told, and spends a lot of time fretting over the dangers and trying to keep up. Comically, his codename is Operative Three—there is no second operative at all, and this odd little gag is never explained.

Brains is tall, lanky and red-haired, wears glasses, and talks like a walking encyclopedia—but he's not your average wimpy nerd, oh no, he's fearless and determined and even the best pitcher in school! Jimmy, on the other hand, is self-described as ordinary: brownish hair, round face, freckles... the sort of person that would go unnoticed in a crowd. I like the way that Jimmy has a newspaper round that often gets in the way of cracking on with the case. This part-time job is integral to the plot in the first two books, but serves to add a feeling of everyday realism in later books.

Every detective agency must have a headquarters. Brains Benton's father is Professor Benton of Crestwood College, a brilliant scientist, so he doesn't bat an eyelid when his son takes over the rooms over the garage at the back of the garden. In the horse-and-buggy days of old, this garage was a coach house and so is a good size. Now it's a secret crime lab, and Jimmy normally gains entrance via the alley at the back; when the coast is clear he pushes the third nail in the fourth board from the bottom, activating an intercom, whereby he's prompted to state his name and business in much the same way as the Secret Seven have to state their password. Upon entry to the garage, a staircase unfolds with the clicking of well-oiled machinery and a bluish light winks on... Upstairs, in the rooms over the garage, the crime lab itself is "like a cross between a machine shop, a research laboratory, and the inside of a space ship."

Although the high-tech lab idea is beyond the reach of most wannabe detective kids, the mysteries themselves are not. So whether you operate out of a fully-equipped research facility or a cosy shed in the bottom of your garden, the important thing is that the mysteries and cases Brains and Jimmy get involved in are easy to imagine happening in your own small town. In that sense they're quite Blytonish—circus folk hiding out in an old house, a team of counterfeiters producing "rare" coins, a prince from some made-up country unable to take his rightful place at the throne because of a missing golden vial... that sort of thing. Nothing too ordinary, but nothing too fantastic either, and all grounded in reality—sort of like the village-bound mysteries that the Five Find-Outers are used to, but with a touch of the Adventure series thrown in on occasion. For instance, in The Case of the Waltzing Mouse we have an eccentric German with a menagerie of animals that he carts about from place to place in a "combination trailer-zoo"—a musical seal, a couple of monkeys doing a trapeze act, exotic birds giving a song recital, a snake that doesn't do much other than sleep, and a mouse that dances! The characterization of this bumbling old German professor is brilliant, and the case takes place on a lake with a small motor boat, skuba diving equipment, treasure in the water, and baddies in a power boat. All very exicting, and a little more than the Find-Outers would get involved in but nothing too out of the ordinary for Philip, Dinah, Jack, and Lucy-Ann in the Adventure series.

The stories are written in the first person, from Jimmy's point of view. He knows a journalist who works for the local newspaper, the Crestwood Daily Ledger, and the novels are presented as accounts written by Jimmy himself, which are apparently printed in the Ledger from time to time. It's only natural, then, that Jimmy (through whom we experience the stories) is depicted as a bit slow on the uptake and quite easily scared, for in novels the reader almost always sees things from the point of view of one of the more "ordinary" characters so that other characters stand out as extraordinarily brilliant or dashingly brave or mindnumbingly foolish. In these books we are Jimmy Carson, an average personality to suit the average reader. However, I often found myself wondering if the author dumbed-down Jimmy's character a little too much, making him appear completely dense at times. Also, average he may be, but does he need to be quite so apprehensive about everything he's asked to do? Still, that said, Jimmy also has some very good redeeming moments; no matter how much he moans and grumbles about heading into danger, he will never allow Brains to go alone, and often surprises himself by taking the lead. Jimmy sees danger everywhere, but he's no coward when it comes right down to it. In The Case of the Counterfeit Coin, after a daring nighttime snoop to take photographs with an infrared camera, Jimmy and Brains return to the lab to find that the lens cap was still on! Feeling guilty, Jimmy sneaks away for a second snoop round the villains' lair. Foolish? Or bravery to match any of Blyton's leading characters?

My only other minor quibble with the books is that the author unfortunately relies a little too heavily on cliffhangers-that-aren't-really-cliffhangers, and an over-the-top sense of danger when the possibility of actual physical harm is no more likely than when the Five Find-Outers are nabbed by crooks. Phrases like "it looked like curtains for us" and "we were goners" are a bit much when repeated often enough, and although the villains do seem a little rougher and tougher than many of Blyton's, I doubt that the boys would ever suffer more than a box around the ears.

Overall the stories really are very nicely written, and definitely page-turners! And although you might not find the characters as appealing and memorable as Fatty and the Find-Outers, the truth is that these plots are tight and exciting, with no room to spare for having leisurely picnics and sending village policemen on wild goose chases.

It's a shame this series is no longer in print. The only copies you can get hold of now are secondhand. I got mine from eBay, and to date have four of the six. Since there are only six titles in the series, and I'm in the process of grabbing all of them, they are listed as follows:

  1. The Case of the Missing Message
  2. The Case of the Counterfeit Coin
  3. The Case of the Stolen Dummy
  4. The Case of the Roving Rolls
  5. The Case of the Waltzing Mouse
  6. The Case of the Painted Dragon

It's apparently quite difficult to get a good matching set of these. The first book I have is an original 1959 Golden Press edition, with dust wrapper. The other three I have are Whitman pictorial hardbacks, but the main difference between them is the size—same height but two different widths! And the wider editions have both orange and sepia internal illustrations, whereas the slimmer editions are in black...

The orange in the Golden Press editions seems a very odd choice, and the sepia in the wide Whitman editions not much better. I think I'd prefer the more standard black. Still, the illustrations themselves are superb, or at least the ones by Hamilton Greene are, in the first two books and apparently the last. All the illustrations on this page are by Hamilton Greene. The ones by Al Schmidt in the other three books are not anywhere near as good, and some are frankly awful.

But what really matters is the writing, and in all cases these books are strong on plot and rich in characterization. WHY there were no more of these I don't know, but I plan to do a bit more digging to see what I can find out...

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