Bubble Gum-shoes: The Rise of the Kid Sleuth

Recently, descending a small, stony mountain in rural New Hampshire, I crossed paths with a four-year-old boy clambering up with his sister. She carried a backpack; he was brandishing toy binoculars. Scrambling, he urged her on in that gruff yet clear voice peculiar to four-year-olds: “Hey,” he called, waving his red and blue plastic viewfinder. “Hey, Katie! We need to go ahead and do surveillance!

My young crusader was ensconced in a world where the mere fact of binoculars lends any observable detail potential significance. Spies and armies might linger around any corner; pirates, dinosaurs, and fossil footprints lurk; one’s lunch becomes one’s rations; and above all, there is a mission to accomplish. In this space the mind both creates and unravels large and pleasing puzzles: Mysteries. This spirit filled my generation’s favorite kid detective — the private eye in sneakers, carrying his magnifying glass around seaside hamlet of Idaville. Encyclopedia Brown solved the case of the dead eagle, the slippery salamander, and got his man — all from the back of his bicycle. No one got hurt, except the eagle, but at stake was potential danger, adventurous neighborhood touring and the satisfactions of wunderkind sleuthing.

If Brown may seem a bit vanilla in retrospect, there’s also a kid detective in each us that never really grows up. It seems, as well, that the young — even juvenile — protagonist is very much in vogue. Twelve- or ten- or eight-year-olds offer would-be adults a chance to ride bikes and carry toy binoculars, even while undertaking slightly more sophisticated meditations on the nature of the hunt. Of three such novels published this year, two are coming-of-age stories; two have umbrella-carrying detectives on bicycles; one involves a 12-year-old’s foray into dusty Civil War era tunnels under the Smithsonian; and one contains a towering mythic city in which a loomingly bureaucratic detective agency conceals spiral staircases, secret passages, and a dumbwaiter. Oh, yes. Surveillance awaits.

On the surface, James Fuerst’s debut, Huge, tracks Encyclopedia Brown’s footprints most closely. Not that protagonist Eugene Smalls has any use for Brown. He’s into Sam Spade, Thoreau, and Arthur Doyle. The 56-inch tall, 96-pound 12-year-old has an overachieving brain, a habit of looking down older women’s shirts, and potty-mouthed lingo he’s learned from reading Raymond Chandler. His mission: to figure out who defaced the sign outside his grandma’s retirement home. Smalls may hate Brown, but he’s not so sophisticated that he can solve mysteries without the help of Thrash, his stuffed pet frog. He may see his world as a series of cases to be solved, but his knack for detection and his lingo also weave a defensive web against the semi-hostile (and semi-banal) world of suburban Jersey. They are also preparation for having to survey the most formidable terrain of all: junior high.

Fuerst makes a good case for the way the world of the book can both lead us to and also shield us from the difficult real world around us. He also beguilingly recalls the way that that coming-of-age requires a detective’s skill in handling the codes of race, place, family, station, and desire that confront every adolescent. Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet tracks similar questions while trying to understand how and why we (as people, and as a civilization) collect data at all. The work is less homage to Encyclopedia Brown than to another kid classic: E. L. Konigsburg’s 1968 From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which two runaways stow away in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But Larsen’s Spivet shares more than one similarity with Fuerst’s Small. He’s also a prodigious 56-inch 12-year-old, this time from the Coppertop Ranch near the Continental Divide in Montana. When his older friend submits some of Spivet’s specimen drawings to the Smithsonian, garnering him an honor, Spivet runs away from home with a with such personal effects as a sparrow skeleton, a broken compass, and a stuffed turtle.

Spivet has lot of erudite information to share about artifacts and clues as they relate to the pursuit of knowledge. Enamored of Lewis and Clark and Moby-Dick, he’s obsessed with mapping things as diverse as novels, beetles, and his sister shucking corn. His chronicles are full of digressions (doing for marginalia what A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius did for the footnote), and the book approximates either the experience of reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel or Darwin’s notebooks: One’s eyes are constantly darting sideways into the realm of the seemingly, though not wholly, extraneous. Visual disorder plays with the cartographical order Spivet is always attempting to create, in his wish for what he calls “the great roundup of knowledge.”

Each novel ultimately explores the unmappable terrain of coming of age. While Fuerst’s 12-year-old boy needs detection partly to protect himself against the perceived threats of his actual life, Spivet needs maps to defend against an unrepresentable family sorrow. Science, with its apparent empiricisms, protects him from the difficulties of figuring out the dynamics of harder things, like human emotion.

By far the season’s most sophisticated debut has no 12-year-old boy at all but is exactly the kind of book that the 12-year-old boy in me wanted really, really badly to own. Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection crafts a meta-meditation on detection that takes place in a surreal yet familiar urban landscape, a sublimely rendered alternate reality in which detection functions as an extended and elegant allegory for the mind’s hierarchical acts of tracking fact and speculation. When Charles Unwin, a detective’s clerk, begins, on a whim, to track a woman with eyes like cloudy mirrors at the municipal train station, he unwittingly enters a topsy-turvy world in which his boss has been murdered and the city’s alarm clocks are being stolen. Even his own dreams may be under surveillance. As in Larsen’s work, the fact collector’s frame is upended and disrupted: the apparent empiricisms of the detectable world, with its promise of recognizable chronologies of fact, are threatened by the unfolding mystery. Skillfully Berry creates an Escher-esque landscape where the puzzle both fits within and eludes its frame.

None of these novels ends as cleanly as an Encyclopedia Brown story, with a culprit found and punished; and order restored. Yet this kind of novel — this crossover of the boyish or boy-wonder novel into the world of semi-adult fiction — should elude such neatness. Maybe each of these books appeal so much because they offer their audience a new chance to come of age as readers themselves: As Spivet writes in one of his most charming pieces of marginalia: “Though the unstable verifiability of narrative made me nervous, it also kept me turning the page. I was hooked in believing and not believing. Maybe I was becoming an adult.”