The summer before sixth grade, I (Ben) took a two-week class at the Smithsonian on detective work. I was fairly set on “Detective” as my career path at that point in time. I recall only three things about those two weeks spent in a basement classroom of the Smithsonian Castle:
1) Some guest speakers from the F.B.I. visited our class, and none of them looked like detectives. The guys were all bald. None of the women were sexy. I was pretty disillusioned.
2) I wrote a 27-page novel for my final class assignment, the plot of which was virtually identical to Hardy Boys #31: The Secret of Wildcat Swamp, except that Wildcat Swamp now bore an eerie resemblance to Washington, D.C.
3) The “Penny Drop,” a maneuver of such brilliant simplicity that I began to understand why paunchy men and unthrilling women could squeak by in careers of modern detection. The “Penny Drop” consisted of
- identifying and tailing a suspect, ideally in a public place like the National Smithsonian;
- getting close enough to the suspect to drop a penny in his/her immediate vicinity;
- bending over to pick up the penny and using that opportunity to get a close look at the suspect’s shoes, or to look up her dress, or to engage in any other clandestine activity afforded by a dropped penny.
We were actually given quarters to use during our Penny Drops, and I used my quarter to tail a family of four in the Air & Space Museum. From a distance of about ten feet I pitched the quarter in the general direction of the target. It rolled up against the shoes of the youngest boy, who was probably half my age. Being ten feet away from the action, I sprung toward the quarter and bent over to pick it up at the same time as the boy. I beat him to it by inches and remained crouched down for a moment, exhausting all detective opportunities from the ground level before standing back up. The boy was looking at me with an expression of outrage. His father was standing right behind him, glaring down at me.
“I think that’s my son’s quarter,” he said.
Don’t panic! I thought, imagining what an uninspiring, middle-aged man with a receding hairline might do in my situation. “Actually, this is my quarter,” I said, almost apologetically. “I just dropped it by accident.”
“Why are you stealing a quarter from a five-year-old boy?” the father asked.
I looked at the boy, as if he would be the voice of reason and clear up the misunderstanding.
Instead, his eyes beginning to well with tears, he pointed at me and said, “You took my quarter.”
I was feeling outraged. I was not a thief. I was a detective. What a misunderstood group we really are! I recall thinking.
I sputtered a few things about how it really was my quarter and that I wouldn’t steal a quarter from a five-year-old before I realized there was no way I could dig myself out without blowing my cover. So I gave the stupid kid my twenty-five cents. That was pretty much the end of my career as a detective.
Mac Barnett’s new book for young readers, The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity, is the first in a promising new series called The Brixton Brothers. It’s a rather misleading series title as there is only one Brixton brother, not two. His name is Steve Brixton. Steve is one “ace sleuth,” thanks primarily to his close study of The Bailey Brothers, “a.k.a. America’s Favorite Teenage Supersleuths.” Everything Steve does is modeled on the Bailey example, and so Steve is well-prepared one day when he checks out An Illustrated History of American Quilting from his local library only to have an alarm go off and a shadowy figure break through the skylight, rappelling down as a dozen other figures in black race through the door and crash through the windows, all in hot pursuit of young Steve, who thinks at this point,
They’re looking for me. Why would they be looking for me?
Steve remembered he owed $3.45 in overdue fines. They were really getting serious.
As he hides in the library, Steve’s eye catches “a poster showing a guy slam-dunking a basketball with one hand and holding a book in the other, urging kids to READ! Weird, thought Steve. How can he even see the hoop?”
Steve soon discovers that he has crossed The Librarians, a super-secret organization of people not to be crossed with. A Librarian named Mackintosh informs Steve that “Librarians are the most elite, best trained secret force in the United States of America. Probably in the world.” To which Steve responds, “What about the FBI?” “Featherweights,” Mackinstosh says. “The CIA?” Steve asks.
Mackintosh snorted. “Don’t make me laugh. Those guys can’t even dunk a basketball and read a book at the same time. Every Librarian is a highly trained agent. An expert in intelligence, counterintelligence, Boolean searching, and hand-to-hand combat.”
At this point the reader is still only on page 41, and there remain 138 pages of this kind of sublime goofiness to be enjoyed. Before reaching page 179 (which will happen all too soon, as the type in this book is quite large, and there are illustrations by Adam Rex to boot), the reader will be treated to a rope-tied Steve breaking free from a party limo ( “Ropes wrapped around the upper half of his body,” Barnett writes, Steve “sprinted down the road like a sausage escaping from a butcher shop”), eating copies of his warrant as they spool out of a fax machine, catapulting (twice) from second-story windows during narrow escapes, dressing up as a sailor and ordering a milk “on the rocks” (with a straw) from a bar called The Red Herring, and twelve pages of dialogue like “Then we can thpend the retht of the day thleuthing” after Steve bites his tongue jumping off a sinking ship.
Think “Get Smart” (the TV show, not the insipid movie) mixed with “Scooby Doo,” “Naked Gun,” “The Pink Panther,” The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Hardy Boys with irony, and me attempting to be a sixth-grade detective, and you’ve got The Brixton Brothers. Assuming you don’t hate good things, I’d recommend you read it.
(Thank you, Molly Gillespie, Steph Porter and Erik Brueggemann, for telling me to do the same.)