What happens when a Hardy Boy grows up?
Mood is everything here, and Meno (Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, 2005, etc.) tunes it like a master, even though such a task initially appears impossible. Billy Argo, resident boy detective of his small New Jersey burg, seems to have inherited the aura of brains, fearlessness and rigid moral compass that always served the likes of Encyclopedia Brown in such good stead. Billy solves crimes and foils villains without breaking a sweat, aided by younger sister Caroline and heavyset friend Fenton. Their successes are trumpeted in newspaper headlines straight out of kids’ adventure books (“Boy Detective Solves Fatal Orphanage Arson”), prompting suspicions that what the author has in mind is a long and ironic riff on children’s fiction. But the book takes a dark turn as the years pass. Billy continues solving crimes and generally being a prodigy (“College Now For Boy Detective”), but Caroline slips into depression and ultimately commits suicide. Her brother winds up in an asylum as a result, not re-entering the world until he’s 30. This is the point at which Meno, a tricky postmodernist who likes to embed separate story capsules on blank pages and leave nonsense words in the margins, might be expected to throw the curtain back, showing that our hero was crazy all along, no crimes were solved and his whole life was a lie. Instead, the author gives Billy a gallery of rogues to combat and even sends him to investigate the Convocation of Evil at a local hotel (“Featured Panel: To Wear a Mask?”). Meno sets himself a complicated task, marooning his straight-arrow, pulp-fiction protagonist in a world uglier than the Bobbsey Twins ever faced but refusing to go for satire. Instead, the author takes his compulsive investigator at face value.
A full-tilt collision of wish-fulfillment and unrequited desires that’s thrilling, yet almost unbearably sad.