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The Boy Detective Fails


Following the best seller Hairstyles of the Damned (more than 100,000 copies sold) with a spectacular coming-of-age-30 tale, Joe Meno proves once again why he’s the hottest indie author in America. Also check out Office Girl, Demons in the Spring, How the Hula Girl Sings, and Tender as Hellfire.

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Excerpt from The Boy Detective Fails

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like a birthmark in the shape of an elephant smack dab on the forehead, it led Billy to be somewhat shy, somewhat withdrawn, though not at first.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. Argo, 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 Prize­winning 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.