The whole phenomenon of the ‘kid detective’ / ‘mystery-solving kid gang’ thing seems to be making a bit of a resurgence in the modern pop-cultural zeitgeist of late. I have a vague feeling that Alex Hirsch’s wonderful ‘Gravity Falls’ may have something to do with it, not to mention the Duffer Brothers’ ‘Stranger Things’… but just in the last couple of weeks, it’s been popping up on my radar with an odd regularity and from a number of different sources (including our own Greg Hatcher’s recent musings on the ‘Three Investigators’ series). Which brings me to Edgar Cantero’s ‘Meddling Kids’.
A quick aside, I’ll be keeping this review almost entirely spoiler-free. There’s a lot to discover in this book, and part of the fun is getting to do so in your own time.
‘Meddling Kids’ tells the story of a group of mystery solving kids who, during their last case in 1977, encountered some things that can’t quite be explained away by rubber masks and smoke machines. The story begins thirteen years later, as the members of the Blyton Summer Detective Club are forced to re-convene in order to finally lay to rest the horrors their investigations may have unleashed.
If you’re me, that’s the kind of pitch that has you buying a book sight unseen. I confess, it’s one of my weaknesses, when you take something familiar and twist it just slightly so that it catches the light from a new angle you may never have seen or considered before, but a lot of the time, there’s not much beyond that novelty to recommend it. This is definitely not the case with this book.
The author, Spanish writer and cartoonist, Edgar Cantero, originally pitched it as Enid Blyton’s ‘The Famous Five‘ vs Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, but after being told by his American publisher that nobody in the US knows Enid Blyton, he reworked it to include more Scooby Doo riffs. This is one of the things that works to the book’s benefit. It’s very tempting to ‘assign characters’, but Andy, Kerri, Nate and Peter AREN’T Fred, Daphne, Velma and Shaggy any more than they’re Julian, Dick, Anne and George. They’re well-crafted characters in their own right, and in the end, it’s far more rewarding to read about the stories and adventures of actual characters rather than paper-thin parodies.
Similarly, with the plot, it would have been very easy when writing something with an elevator pitch like ‘The Scooby Gang vs Cthulhu’, for a writer to take it easy, include a bunch of Easter Eggs and self-referential in-jokes for the people playing at home, and let the combined forces of familiarity, irony, nostalgia and post-modernism do all the heavy lifting. And there’s always that feeling of trepidation when you encounter something with such a captivating central conceit that that’s all there will be to it. Cash the cheque, follow the formula and let the whole thing just play out as expected. It’s the sort of thing which usually results in something crowd-pleasing but disposable.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a LOT of Easter Eggs and I frequently found myself delighted or astounded by a plot twist or sly reference to the source material, but these were there to reward fans, not to prop up shoddy narrative. The weight of the plot is born on the back of some absolutely crackerjack storytelling.
The other big pit-trap that I was worried about – and this is something that happens a lot when two genres rub up against one another – would they get along? How would the essential optimism of the kid detective genre fare against Lovecraft’s cosmic nihilism, for instance. And would these clashes make for compelling reading, or would they drive the whole thing off the road and into a ditch? The biggest of these concerns was how would the mystery genre deal with the inexplicable?
In detective or investigator stories, we have the denouement, where the secrets are unfolded, the masks are removed and the inexplicable explained. In Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic horror, much of the narrative weight rests on the unknown and the unknowable. It’s a common problem in those “this time, the monsters ARE REAL!” stories, where the reader who was enticed in by the promise of a mystery sees the whole mystery element casually discarded “because magic”, and suddenly the whole reason they came here in the first place turns into an inconvenience for the author to just handwave away.
Luckily for us, Cantero manages to deftly avoid both of these traps. He rolls up his writer’s sleeves, and puts in the hard work. The world of the Blyton Summer Detective Club is rich and well-realized. The characters and their world have a compelling solidity and texture to them, and the mystery narrative is rich and complex and continues to reveal new terrors and treasures throughout the story. The end result is an extremely satisfying and rewarding read.
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