The Boy Detective Fails

The Boy Detective Fails

by Joe Meno


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In the twilight of a mysterious childhood full of wonder, Billy Argo, boy detective, is brokenhearted to find that his younger sister and crime-solving partner, Caroline, has committed suicide. Ten years later, Billy, age thirty, returns from an extended stay at St. Vitus' Hospital for the Mentally Ill to discover the world full of unimagi-nable strangeness: office buildings vanish without reason, small animals turn up without their heads, and cruel villains ride city buses to complete their evil schemes.

Lost within this unwelcoming place, Billy finds the companionship of two lonely, extraordinary children, Effie and Gus Mumford—one a science fair genius, the other a charming, silent bully. With a nearly forgotten bravery, Billy treads from the unendurable boredom of a telemarketing job, stumbles into the awkward beauty of a desperate pickpocket named Penny Maple, and confronts the nearly impossible solution to the mystery of his sister's death. Along a path laden with hidden clues and codes that dare the reader to help Billy decipher the mysteries he encounters, the boy detective may learn the greatest secret of all: the necessity of the unknown.

Kirkus Reviews,June 15, 2006
"What happens when a Hardy Boy grows up?
Mood is everything here, and Meno 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."

BOOKLIST, July 2006
Comedic, imaginative, empathic, and romantic, Meno, whose diverse works of fiction include Hairstyles of the Damned (2004) and Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir (2005), is particularly attuned to the intensity of childhood and its lifelong resonance. In this cartoony and dreamlike novel, Billy Argo of Gotham, New Jersey, receives a True-Life Junior Detective Kit for his tenth birthday, and in no time, the gifted boy detective becomes front-page news as he thwarts comic-book villains with the help of his younger sister, Caroline. But Caroline commits suicide,

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781933354101
Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication date: 09/15/2006
Series: Punk Planet Books Series
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 803,641
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 7.50(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Joe Meno is the best-selling author of the novels Hairstyles of the Damned, The Boy Detective Fails, How the Hula Girl Sings, and Tender As Hellfire. He was the winner of the 2003 Nelson Algren Award for short fiction and is a professor of creative writing at Columbia College Chicago.

Read an Excerpt



It is no parlor trick: There is a skull and, in the dark, it is glowing. Somehow it is now floating above us all. Listen: The skull is speaking. It is saying your name. It knows about you and your favorite flower and all about your tenth birthday. But it does not matter. You are not convinced. For some reason, you are still full of doubt. You stare into the dark, looking for wires. Grasping for strings, you hold your hands out.


Dear Reader,

The story thus far, as you may have forgotten: Even as a young boy, Billy Argo showed an uncanny talent for solving puzzles of almost every configuration, arrangement, and design.

That is all.

No — it was more than a talent. It was a kind of very sad genius, so that in the end, the very sad genius appeared on the boy detective the way a child born with a deformity — a missing hand or one leg shorter than the other — might make the same adolescent distant and dreamy; like a birthmark in the shape of an elephant smack dab on the forehead, it led Billy to be somewhat shy, somewhat withdrawn, though not at first. No, at first the boy was at play: happy, daring, secretly cunning.

In the stark world of Gotham, New Jersey — small white houses and green, murky woods surrounding a modern factory town, home to both the Mold-O-Form Plastic and Harris Heating Duct plants, a burg bustling with both Prosperity and its companion Crime — Billy would run hand in hand with his younger sister, Caroline, and behind them, their childhood friend, a husky neighborhood boy by the name of Fenton Mills, would often come calling.

Through the nearby grassy field, with the chimneys of the plastics factory churning black clouds in the distance, the children would hurry, shouting, trampling the fuzzy white puffs of dandelions and sprawling knotty underbrush. Their hideout was an abandoned lot which was wide and silver and green with enormous, expressive daisies. The lot had remained unsold — being too filthy with lead after an explosion during the days when the land had been home to the old Drip-Less Paint Factory. Above the dirt of an unmarked grave and beneath the shadow of the abandoned refinery, the children would play their own made-up games: Wild West Accountants! in which they would calculate the loss of a shipment of gold stolen from an imaginary stage coach, or Recently Divorced Scientists! in which they would build a super-collider out of garbage to try and win back their recently lost loves. Together, forever, they would explore the near-dark world of wonder and mystery.

The boy detective in his youth was pale with dark wispy hair and was generally a nervous child, both quite short and strange-looking for his age. There was an incident in the boy's elementary school cafeteria involving a bully named Wayne Meany III concerning Billy's unusually large eyes. One day, Billy, sitting unsuspecting beside his younger sister, felt a pronounced thump at the back of his head. When Billy turned, the back of his cranium sore, his face red, he discovered a knotty green apple lying there on the floor. Wayne Meany III laughed and pointed, then remarked, "How do you like them apples, owl-eyes?" Billy pondered the question for a moment but did not have a proper answer. His eyes were indeed large and wise, and yes, somewhat unbecoming, but with his sister and their one true friend, those same eyes would be central in examining a collapsed ant hill or measuring the size of a wrecked nest of speckled robin eggs, carefully held amongst all three pairs of their small dirty hands.

His sister, Caroline, both blond and petite, was the charming one: always taking notes in her white-and-gold diary, a perfect record of all their discoveries; always curtseying; always learning French, or so it seemed. Her favorite word? Jejune, as in: "What they force us to wear as school uniforms is very jejune."

Their neighbor friend, Fenton, short and chubby, sweaty, and always out of breath, followed last in his small red beanie, his mother's solution for the boy's persistent psoriasis. The portly boy always reminded the others when it was getting too dark, admonishing them when he thought that what they were doing might somehow make their parents worry.

It was a summer that never ended for the three of them: a summer of games and puzzles and surprises.

It was a summer that, lying in bed, we wish we had once had.


When Billy Argo turned ten, he received a True-Life Junior Detective Kit from his aunt Eunice for his birthday. The family was all there in the small yellow kitchen: Mr. and Mrs. Arg o, Billy, Caroline, their older brother Derek, in visiting from the Navy, and the neighbor boy, Fenton. Billy, on that day, wore a small blue party hat, along with his favorite blue suit and clip-on tie, which featured an orange owl along its wide center. The family stood around him at the white linoleum table, cheering, handing him gift after gift. Hooray, they said, the boy is one year older. Hooray, we are all one year closer to our deaths.

The gifts that year had been quite lackluster: From Mr. Argo, Billy received a woodworking set, which was not recommended for anyone under the age of eighteen and had to be taken back. From Mrs. Argo, a new blue cardigan which was exactly the same size as the previous year's and thusly too small. From Caroline, a set of colored markers which produced fruit smells and which all looked suspiciously used. From his older brother Derek, a record entitled Mood Music for the Enterprising Bachelor, a gift which his mother called "perhaps somewhat inappropriate, but thoughtful nonetheless."

Finally, Billy stared down at his last gift, wrapped in blue paper, which proclaimed, Happy Birthday to a Fairly Nice Boy! Standing beside Billy, Caroline and Fenton clapped obnoxiously, pulling on each other's paper party hats, wildly blowing their noisemakers in each other's ears. Ignoring them, Billy opened the box from his aunt. When all three children saw what was inside the package, the noisemakers went deadly quiet in their mouths and there was a profound and immediate silence. Within the box, there was more than their small eyes, hearts, and minds could grasp in a single glance: a magnifying glass, a pencil, a pad of paper, a fingerprint set, a number of real lock picks, a pair of binoculars, an eye patch, a working flashlight, and a fake black beard with a matching mustache.

What happened then was this: The lost part — the silver, misplaced key to his heart, the part of him that seemed to be missing — had been suddenly found. Words were not necessary. The room was still as the boy detective took the magnifying glass in his hand and began to do what he had always been meant to. At once, the mysterious, the unknown, and the unidentified moved from the shadows into sharp contrast before his eyes. It was at that moment that the boy detective first began to detect.

It went exactly like this: Billy held up the magnifying glass, the lens bringing the wondering faces of his family into perfect sharpness, their soft expressions suddenly becoming serious, each a portrait of some hidden secret. Billy spied his older brother with the magnifying glass, as he was the relative standing the closest, and Derek immediately confessed that he was gay. Also, that he hated life in the Navy.

After the drama that followed, in which Mrs. Argo dropped the birthday cake out of nervousness and Derek hugged Billy and apologized for ruining his younger brother's birthday, the boy detective laid in his bed and wondered what other strange discoveries might now be awaiting.

Within two weeks, the answer came. Staring at the front page of the Gotham Daily, the children found a picture of themselves staring back, beneath a headline that read:


Kid Sister and Neighbor Boy Help Out From that front-page photograph, this interesting description: Billy, Caroline, and Fenton accepting congratulations from hefty Mayor Pierce, a shady union-supported candidate with an enormous bald head, all four of them in front of the Gotham Town Hall with a galley of news reporters before them shouting question after question and flashing their flashes. In the accompanying pictures, the children look wonderfully composed and serious. Billy, in his blue suit and clip-on tie, holds the detective kit's magnifying glass to his right eye and wears the eye patch over his left. Together, Caroline in her white dress wearing the beard, and Fenton with the mustache and his beanie, hold a simple drawing depicting a stick figure disguised as Abraham Lincoln running with a long-barreled pistol; Lincoln's one long stick leg is stuck in a large gray crayon-colored mansion where the victim, a Sir Tobias Earl, was shot to death, while the other leg stretches into the entrance of the local wax museum (where, with the boy detective's insight, the perpetrator was found hiding). In the front-page photograph, the Mayor stands unconvinced beside the children, the round man in a wrinkled black suit, his own mustache both weak and droopy; at first it seems he is offering to shake their hands but then, fearing he may look foolish, he simply presents the children with the reward offered by the grieving millionaire's family. The Mayor holds up the gigantic white check, the amount of $1,000.00 almost as indecipherable as the embarrassed Congratulations, he seems to be muttering.

Within a week or two, then, another clue, and another headline:


Kid Sister and Neighborhood Boy Lend a Hand in Murder Investigation

Another photo from the front page once again: Outside a dilapidated, still-smoking orphanage, the charred embers of a swing set and dormitory rising like skeletal ribs in the distance, young Billy points at a crooked-looking fireman being led away in handcuffs by two bearded policemen, all of whom are frowning sadly. Caroline and Fenton look on with disapproval. Caroline is holding up a smudgy fingerprint belonging to the guilty fireman. Fenton again stands with a drawing that illustrates the suspect's motive: a scribbling of the burning orphanage, doodled children burning in their sleep, while buried beneath, an immense cache of pirate's treasure lies quietly, clearly illustrated with the familiar shapes of gold doubloons and a smiling skull adorning the chest. In a subsequent photograph, Billy and the other two children are given a second award by the Mayor, again on the steps of City Hall. The Mayor, chagrined by both the scandalous rogue fireman and the children's crime solving abilities, which some critics believe call his entire administration into question, this time deigns to shake their hands, while spotty, faceless townspeople stand by applauding.


Children Save Town from Bankruptcy

In this photo: Billy and Caroline and Fenton wear large miners' helmets, their single cyclopic lights aimed in the dark at a great green glowing rock. Caroline points to a long silver radiation detector, which Billy holds, smiling widely, the long handle of the device leading to a wide arching head which is lit up madly. Once again, the kids shake hands with the Mayor, who, hunched into the opening of the mine and overcome with sweat, looks altogether foolish. He has begun to show the sure signs of his imminent mayoral defeat: His face is completely smeared with dirt, as are the newspaper stories concerning his lazy police force. The Mayor, being the Mayor, looks downright humiliated, but does his best to smile the politician's winning smile, not fooling anybody.


Three Dead at the Scene

With the advent of these triumphant newspaper clippings, Billy Argo's parents, Jack and June Argo, couldn't have been more proud or happy. Mr. Argo was a judge advocate general, an officer in the Navy, and a world-class bantam-weight karate champion. Oftentimes, he would be found in the backyard breaking bricks with his bare fists, or would not be found at all, flying off in the middle of the night to help prosecute a wayward sailor. His wife, Mrs. Argo, was a world-renowned Nobel Prize — winning chemist and amateur artiste. When she was not busy in her lab, inventive with her rows and rows of Bunsen burners and powdery silver chemicals, she would paint portraits of famous world leaders. When they were not occupied with their own work, both parents gladly encouraged their son's determined sense of justice and unyielding curiosity.

Through all of Billy Argo's trials and tribulations stood his charming sister Caroline, who was always darling and a real ace with the fingerprint set, and their loyal sidekick and friend Fenton, whose belief in the decency of man and certainty concerning the triumph of good over evil was unshakable. The three of them had all pledged to the three cardinal rules of detection, which young Billy had, of course, invented, and were later recorded in Caroline's diary with perfect penmanship:

Cardinal rule #1: the boy detective must solve any inexplicable mystery

Cardinal rule #2: the boy detective must foil any criminal caper he can

Cardinal rule #3: the boy detective must always be true to his friends

Between them, soon enough, all foul riddles, all wild hoaxes, all staged problems were solved quickly, with joy, fondness, and surrender.


The boy detective's most memorable case: The Haunted Candy Factory (but we may be getting ahead of ourselves already).


Trouble began the following year when Caroline, bored with always being the boy detective's assistant, requested a magic set for Christmas. That wonderful morning, the silver Christmas tree blooming with false white light, Caroline tore through the boxes and boxes of other gifts to find the crinkly silver gift-wrapping that held a True-Life Junior Magician Set. In her small, starchy white nightgown, Caroline pulled apart the box, her fingers working ferociously against the paper. Billy looked on with dismay and fear. From within the box, Caroline yanked out a black top hat, and immediately a white dove took flight, fluttering and flitting above the family members' heads. Gleeful, the girl clapped, chasing the bird wherever it landed, ignoring the gift Billy had bought for her: a brand new magnifying glass, decorated with a gold ribbon around its handle.

"What will you name your bird?" Mrs. Argo asked.

"Margaret Thatcher," Caroline replied, without giving it a second thought. Billy turned, pouting, opening a gift from his father: a taxidermy kit and set of torque wrenches. For him, it was the worst Christmas ever.

For several months, then, Caroline was completely disinterested in her older brother's adventures.



The boy detective took his sister's absence very badly. The two children were often found in the small white hallway between their bedrooms shouting, cursing each other with ferocity: "You simple-minded dwarf !" or "You hopeless barbarian!" — enigmatic insults neither understood fully. In their disagreements, Caroline simply stated that magic was more fun because it worked on the notion of wonder and mystery. Upon hearing this, Billy threw her magic set on the floor, arguing magic was fun only for irrational, childish babies.

Most of these contests ended the same way: Caroline, alone in bed, crying.

A strange, important, event occurred one day: Caroline's magic-set dove, Margaret Thatcher, born with a silent and inoperable heart defect, quite naturally passed away, falling on its side, dead in its shiny silver cage. It was a true shock, seeing the puffy white bird lying there dead, staring strangely back at her from beyond the world of the living. Caroline, at once, lost all interest in magic of any kind. Quite sure the ghost of the bird would return to haunt her unless it was given a proper interment, Caroline begged her brother Billy for his help. Together, the two children made amends and gave the beloved pet an appropriate burial, hiding the remains within a strongbox beneath the Argos' front porch.

And like that, Caroline was happy to accompany Billy on his adventures once again.




An excerpt from Caroline's diary at that time reveals the joy of their continuing escapades:

all the other girls are wearing skirts and makeup.
some worry about their hair and nails,
but i'm not interested in that. i'd much rather climb into a dark mine. i'd much rather follow Billy into the dirt. sometimes he can be quite hard to tolerate. sometimes he can act rather bossy, but he can also be very sweet.
i often wonder, stepping quietly behind him, could it be that he also enjoys my company? i am not very talented with codes and puzzles but i am actually very professional with the fingerprint set and am very diligent in taking notes, even in the dark, doing quite well documenting all our adventures. it is good to be needed for something. additionally, i have a notion that Billy has a fear of heights, while i do not, and also, he is afraid of bats: their sounds are enough to start him panicking. there is something in their delicate wings that really makes him shiver, though he acts quite brave whenever our good friend fenton mills is around. what i truly love the most are our secrets together.


Excerpted from "The Boy Detective Fails"
by .
Copyright © 2006 Joe Meno.
Excerpted by permission of Punk Planet Books/Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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