The dedication on the very first page of The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity, the very first book of the Brixton Brothers series, now three in number, will tell careful readers what to expect from the entire series: “For Shawn, old chum.” Steve Brixton, a boy detective living in the contemporary Bay Area, is well aware that the modern definition of “chum” is “raw meat used to attract sharks.” But he insists on using it to refer to his “best chum,” Dana, who occasionally attracts the attention of the local bully for having a “girl’s name.”
Steve Brixton, you see, is a connoisseur of the Bailey Brothers — Kevin and his younger brother, Shawn, “a better football player but slightly less handsome” – who, in “fifty-eight shiny red volumes” engaged in “never-ending fights against goons and baddies and criminals and crime.”
The brothers drive a Tucker Torpedo, jokingly nicknamed “the Jalopy,” and rely on having a “hunch” to solve crimes (a hunch, Steve knows, is “remarkable, even magical…like a two-legged stool that somehow still managed to support a fat man’s weight”). When excited, the Bailey boys are often moved to exclaim: “Jumping jackals!”, “Nattering nanny goats!”, and “Zounds!” (Naturally, there is a companion series to their adventures, starring a girl detective named Kate Sugarwood, which “sounded good, but they had pink covers, and Steve was afraid people would laugh at him if he pulled one out at school.”)
All clues point, of course, to perhaps the most popular American children’s novels of all time: the detective novels produced throughout most of the twentieth century by the Stratemeyer Sydicate and its stable of ghostwriters, most famously the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. The third and most recent entry in the series, It Happened on a Train, is rife with send-ups of these crime-fighting predecessors.
Unlike Stratemeyer’s two most famous detectives, Steve is not sixteen, but twelve, a much more believable age at which one would choose to shun all romantic and social activities in pursuit of a mystery. He is also the child of a single mother, which conveniently provides the opportunity for a nemesis in the form of his mother’s new boyfriend, Rick, a police officer who blow dries his hair, knits, and assures Steve that “in the real world…detectives don’t race around in roadsters” but instead “spend most of their time alone in their cars, eating french fries and spying on jealous men’s wives.” Rick never gets the goon.
But Steve does, thanks to his glossary of “suspicious characters” (tip-offs include persons wearing a “loud necktie”, “cheap suit”, “mysterious pinkie ring”, and the “use of gel or pomade”) and an Eisenhower-era home crime lab (a typewriter missing the letter t, a Dictaphone, plaster of Paris, a mustache collection, and a Soviet uniform).
This series replicates the clever, fast-paced drama of the detective novels that inspired it: Like the originals, it provides predictability and repetition to reward loyal readers, balanced with just enough surprise to keep things interesting. But author Mac Barnett takes it much further: these novels are also hyper-aware that the original Stratemeyer novels became more fascinating to each generation precisely because they became dated artifacts reflecting an era of imagined childhood that had since passed. The “chums” and the “roadsters” provide a playful, post-modern, meta-fictional wink on every page that is both satisfying to adults and simple enough to be appreciated by a third-grader. David Foster Wallace, thanked in The Ghostwriter Secret, would approve.