We all live in tiny worlds of tragedy. Some books celebrate this concept, others mock it, or satirize it, or try to pretend it isn’t so. The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno is the kind that embraces it with a big, squishy heart.
This isn’t a novel you’d call experimental, exactly, and the writing is occasionally a tad pedestrian, but it does try to do some creative things with its premise, and there is something unique and beautiful at the core, wrapped in the cold linens of a psychiatric hospital cot.
The narrative centers around Billy Argo and his inability to deal with life and the loss of his sister Caroline. After a string of successes in amateur crime-solving as children, Billy and his sister are forced to grow up, which sees Billy going to college while Caroline, suddenly alone and seemingly without identity, succumbs to a depression that ends in suicide. Billy winds up in a mental ward filled with a colorful assortment of characters including fellow patients, an unstable nurse, and an aging nemesis who seems comically hell-bent on his destruction. A misfit brother and sister pair across the street and a variety of washed-up villains and former detectives round out the cast, though some of them don’t get as much of the spotlight as they deserve, ending up merely as cameos that provide glimpses of Billy’s former life as an investigator.
The book’s heroes are the kind you want to embrace that still feel oddly at arm’s length once you have; or perhaps the kind you don’t identify with the way you might hope to, making the moment they show up between your arms an even bigger surprise. Either way, it’s a dreamy ride that never feels quite like reality, and that never turns out to be a bad thing.
Despite being an amusing and colorful book, there’s a vein of darkness that Mr. Meno mines with dexterity from beginning to end. A few gimmicks exist to good effect, such as the decoder ring which you can cut out and build from the back flap to solve a few riddles, and a longer message scattered along the bottom of each page, but it’s the deadpan delivery strung round with the ornaments of its humor and pretty depression that makes the story sing.
There are only a few problems worth noting. Though diligence is rewarded, the early stages don’t move rapidly toward a concrete story, nor does every thread see a satisfactory resolution by the end. Several characters are left more or less abandoned, and a few mysteries with potential don’t develop into anything tangible. There is a sense that more could have been done, that the story could have had a multitude of interesting facets without that much extra work.
But these are minor problems, and not really what should be taken away from any review. The showcase here is Mr. Meno’s ability to bring his chosen elements together into a whole that is bittersweet without bitterness, sad without weight, dark without forcing the reader to squint. That alone is an accomplishment, and the worthwhile story with its many colorful memories, things that stick in your mind like faded photographs of better days, are memories worth keeping.
This is the first work by Mr. Meno that I’ve read. Instead of moving on to Hairstyles of the Damned, the only Meno novel you’re likely to find in a major chain bookstore with any regularity, I plan to next read his short story collection, Demons in the Spring.
The Boy Detective Fails was published by Punk Planet Books in 2006. It is 328 pages long and available only in paperback. If you pick up a copy and decide you don’t feel like dealing with all the message-decoding (which isn’t necessary to enjoy the book, for the record), you can find a list of the solutions available online here. Joe Meno’s official website can be found at www.joemeno.com.
[This post originally appeared at theflyingmonkeyapparatus.com]