Billy Argo has done everything you might expect from a child detective. He has left no mystery unsolved, and his photo has graced the newspaper’s front page more times than he can count. He’s cracked crime with the haste of the Hardy Boys, the determination of Nancy Drew, and the brilliance of Encyclopedia Brown. But now, Billy must do what the others have not: he must grow up.
Joe Meno’s The Boy Detective Fails is a radiantly creative masterpiece about saying goodbye to the wonders of childhood—in which every riddle has a happy ending—and saying hello to the frosty realities of adulthood. At 30 years old, Billy’s carefree, crime-solving days have long departed him, thanks to his younger sister Caroline’s suicide and the resulting shock that left him in a mental institution for ten years. Finally functional enough to step outside again, Billy begins tackling the two most important mysteries of his life: Why did Caroline kill herself? And why do people do evil things?
Set in a space somewhere between eerie nightmare and strange dream, the story entertains with characters like the crazy villain Professor Von Golum (who rides the city bus at night trying to remember that he’s supposed to kill Billy) and Billy’s amusingly eccentric new friends—Effie and Gus Mumford, the kids across the street who want to include Billy in all their adventures, and Penny Maple, the shy pickpocket with whom Billy falls in love. Meno matches these memorable characters with an equally absurd plot—in which Billy must battle a band of evildoers who can make entire buildings vanish in the blink of an eye, while at the same time he barely survives an emotionally draining job as a hair-replacement salesman to the friendless and the dying.
Meno’s writing is clever and whimsical, yet a feeling of quiet solemnity pervades even the novel’s most ridiculous moments, reflecting Billy’s realization that death and evil are inevitable forces in the world. One minute, the comically bizarre prevails as Meno makes us laugh with bits like: “No one will share an umbrella with him, no matter how sad he makes his face look, and so he begins making a high-pitched noise like a motor boat starting. People at the bus stop slowly step away from him.”
While Billy’s awkward antics may be endearing, his sense that he doesn’t quite fit in with grown-up society can also produce a much darker effect. Meno’s uniquely quirky tone grows serious as Billy supposes: “It is as if the world has lost all its manners and meaning. It is as if people have lost their minds. It is as if we are adrift in a glowing asylum hurtling through the darkness of space and there is absolutely no escape.” And when Billy responds to this new awareness with a hauntingly childlike fear, one can’t help but feel that his grief is touchingly familiar, as he hides with Effie and Gus beneath their porch, explaining, “[w]e have no way of saving ourselves at the moment. We have no way of knowing when the world of evil will find us.”
A bleak scene, perhaps, but fortunately Meno is not content with such melancholy. No, Meno appears to be an optimistic at heart, for he cannot abandon his hero—or his readers—under a porch, eclipsed by the lonely shadow of disenchantment. Meno instead shows Billy that there does exist a way to save himself: through love. Love—the only force more incomprehensible than evil—reaches Billy in the form of unexpected friendships, moments of trust, and his first kiss, rousing in him the strength to dust off his childhood detective kit and seek the answers he so desperately needs.
The life of a boy detective, now grown-up, is not easy. For the first time, Billy learns what it’s like to fail, to find a mystery that can’t be solved, to find his world fallen apart. But Meno’s imaginative genius spins heartache into hope within this fanciful growing-up tale that glows like no other.
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