Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Black Seven

The Black Seven by Carol Kendall is a first edition, debut novel that I picked up on one of my book-buying extravaganzas. Found this one in our local used bookstore, the Caveat Emptor. Before snagging this off the shelf, I had never heard of Carol Kendall before...probably because this would seem to be her only adult mystery. The story stars a twelve-year-old protagonist and she found that she enjoyed writing about children so much that she went on to publish two mysteries for children before writing The Gammage Cup, a fantasy novel which received a Newbery Honor in 1959 and which prompted two sequels.

As mentioned, the story features Roderick "Drawers" Random--a precocious 12-year-old who fancies himself a small-town version of Sexton Blake. His father has him on a regimen of reading the classics--but Drawers has fixed himself up a secret hideout where he can read
Astounding Stories and other pulp magazines in peace. That is until the owner of the property where his cozy little shed shelters in the tangled, neglected garden manages to get himself killed. Then Drawers finds himself drawn into the real-life realm of mystery and excitement that surrounds his odd neighbors, the Twiggs.

Originally a large family living in Twigg Terrace and bullied by their eccentric father Tobias, the Twigg family--Jasper, Casper, Toby (Jr.), Dulcet, Cannas, (siblings all) and Tammany (their cousin--went their separate ways when Tobias died, an apparent suicide, five years ago. Detective Peter Mood has always had his doubts about the manner of Tobias senior's death, but with no proof and no encouragement from his superiors to investigate further he had been forced to leave the case alone. Then Casper, current head of the family, calls his relatives together to let them know he plans to restart the bullying campaign that ended with Tobias senior's death. Well, you can imagine how well that went over...and soon Casper is found beaten to death among Cannas's petunias (or whatever variety of garden flower she goes in for--it's not specified).

There are many clues and interesting items that are soon brought to Drawers' attention (and through him to Peter Mood)--from the rumor of the Seven Black Babies (which may or may not be gems) to the sprightly, talking starling to the regular parade of Twiggs who visit him in the Gas House (his humble hideout). They're all on a treasure hunt for the Babies; they're all trying to keep that fact from the others. And one of them is a murderer. But which one?

I'll just tell you upfront--this is not exactly the most intricate and literary vintage mystery. It's not even all that good as an example of the genre. But it is
fun. Drawers is an appealing character. And it's very entertaining to watch him make his way through adventures not unlike those his pulp heroes have faced--rats in the cellar, being jumped and searched, facing a gas-masked villain intent to kill. All the thrills and chills of the early adventure/detective stories. And his poor father--totally oblivious to everything. It's totally worth it just for Mr. Random's speech to Drawers about murderous strangers running amok in their small town.

"This morning's paper carries the story of a murder in this very neighborhood. No one you would know, of course--an older man. I really didn't read the whole story, but I gathered he used to live over on the next street. Therefore I think it wise that you should be careful not to speak to strangers. If they offer you candy or an automobile ride, you must refuse and get away from them quickly. Do you understand?"

"Yes sir. I'll be very careful."

"And Roderick..." His father hesitated. "Roderick, of course I know I don't need to say this, but if I were you I would be very careful not to go out after dark, even with any of your little friends." [Oh, how little he knows his son...]

"Yes sir," said Drawers. "I suppose, sir, it would be all right if I...talked on the telephone?"

"Yes, Roderick," Said Mr. Random gravely. "But don't let anybody lure you away from the house on a false errand."

I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Three stars--for good, decent fun.

Oh...and a favorite quote:

It's a lot easier to like people when they can't make life miserable for you any more.

**One small note: There is a usage of the N-word. It's not in reference to actual characters in the story, but it's a phrase of the time and may offend some.


J F Norris said...

Sounds almost like an early male version of Flavia de la Luce. I wonder if this was intended for children first and the publisher released it as an adult book instead? I think this was on a list of overlooked books put out by Anthony Boucher when he was a big mystery book reviewer for serveral newspapers. I remember writing it down ages ago. I'll have to dig around in my file of lists to see if I am I remembering this correctly. Nice to see you digging into the obscure works. ;^)

Bev Hankins said...

John: It's kind of like she didn't know what she wanted to do...children or adults. Drawers is a VERY precocious 12 year old--swilling beer and talking to the "dames" like he's straight out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. Kind of unsettling in that respect...but I did enjoy it.