Tuesday, March 08, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #1: Boy Detective

Like millions of American children pickled in the brine of juvenile adventure fiction, I opened my own detective agency when I was 11 or so. Unlike the vast majority of kids who do this, though, my best friend and I actually ended up solving a case. At the time, I didn't think much of it, because it didn't involve foiling kidnappers or stopping counterfeiters, which the Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown and the kids from the McGurk mysteries did every other chapter.

The irony is, the methods we used to solve the case--interviewing witnesses and suspects, going over the crime scene with a fine-tooth comb, and using plain old observation and deduction--just didn't seem as exciting in application as they were in theory, although of course this is how real detectives solve crimes.

I wanted more. I wanted fistfights with bad guys. I wanted car battles and gun chases and rescuing locked girls from beautiful trunks. In the event, though, the crime really wasn't a crime, the only chase involved a dog and three broken-down buses, and the closest thing we had to a fight was averted with a container of baby powder.

But we did get paid for our services, and that makes it my first job.

A few years back I dug out the file from this case (oh yes, I kept a crime file) and at the time a friend suggested this real-life adventure would make a fun kid's mystery. I don't agree, but in honor of the fact that she thought so, I hope you'll forgive a little structural conceit and allow me to start with:

Detectives, Inc.

My partner in crime-solving was my best friend, Shawn. Together we were Detectives Inc. We made a sign that said so and hung it outside our headquarters, an old, abandoned mail truck left to rot in the field behind the house where I lived. Our motto--"No case too small"--was almost certainly cribbed from one of the detective books we so enjoyed. We charged 50 cents a day, plus expenses, although we didn't really have any expenses.

We did have a Mobile Crime Lab. No, not the mail truck. Think smaller. My father had a huge box of army surplus stuff. He let me have a great webbed belt with all manner of pouches and clip-on pockets. Once I got it sized to fit me, I realized all those pouches could accommodate pretty much everything I thought we'd need for our detective work (can't imagine where I got this idea). The Mobile Crime Lab consisted of:

--Swiss Army knife
--Old pair of tweezers
--Sucrets box containing band-aids, neosporin and other first-aid essentials
--Pack of Bubble Yum and some hard candies (in case we had to do stakeout work and couldn't leave to go get a decent meal)
--Small notepad and a couple of short pencils
--Roll of nickels (for phone calls, and also I had read somewhere that holding a roll of coins in your fist gave you a devastating punch in hand-to-hand combat situations)
--Police whistle
--Plastic handcuffs (just in case)
--Rolled-up garbage bag (for really grisly evidence or survival situations. Could be used to capture water or as a makeshift poncho)
--Yo-yo (I had one empty pouch and nothing to put in it)
--My Young Detective Fingerprint Kit

This last item was my most treasured possession, a Christmas gift from my parents. It was the real deal: It had all the materials you needed to take fingerprints off both light and dark surfaces, plus a roll of clear tape strips that you could use to lift the dusted print off any surface, plus pre-printed Young Detective Fingerprint ID cards, where you could affix the captured prints and record information about them. It also came with a magnifying glass and various brushes for when you got down to the business of dusting for prints.

God, I loved that kit. I spent half a roll of tape strips and a whole tube of graphite dust perfecting the art of lifting clear prints (usually my own) off tables and counters around the house (as a result, my mom had added a small dust rag to the kit and insisted I use it).

The kit fit neatly into two pouches: the vials of dusting stuff went in one, everything else went in the other. So we were set. All we needed was...crime.

Thing is, at this time I lived in a small town in the Midwest, where the most common crime was failing to license your dog. The last murder had been in 1875 (we looked it up). No one had ever robbed the bank or either of the two stores on the main street (the grocery and McNabb's, a five-and-dime place).

As the school year wore on and the weather got warmer, we got tired of hanging out in that musty old mail truck and more interested in playing baseball and exploring the abandoned houses on the outskirts of town. I still wore the Mobile Crime Lab everywhere, but ended up depleting its valuable resources: the gum and candy went first. Then I broke the roll of nickels open as the weather got warmer and Shawn and I got thirstier (there was this old Coke machine at the gas station that would cough up cans of pop if you put in a nickel and punched the side at the same time.)

(It has only just occurred to me that essentially I was using my Mobile Crime Lab to commit a crime! Gosh, and we could have solved that one easy, too...)

One Friday after school, we were sitting on the curb looking down the main street of our little town, sipping our partially filched Cokes, and watching the last of the buses come in. Our town had dwindled in size so much in the past few years, the district had decided to consolidate schools, so every kid in town walked up to the "old" school where they were then bussed to a bigger school with better facilities in the next town over. Shawn and I were always on the first bus, which we identified as "Hayward's bus," so named for the driver whose purgatorial job it was to haul us kids 20 miles there and back every day. We were waiting for the second bus, known as Cecil's bus, which had just arrived a block up at the school. We were going to hook up with some friends on that bus and put together a quick game of baseball.

The old gas station was owned by Jack Lacey, the town mechanic and tow-truck operator. He knew the insides of every car in town, as well as the buses and the town vehicles, which he serviced down at the district motor depot across the train tracks at the edge of town. Jack was a good guy. Looking back, I'm sure he knew that his Coke machine paid off for a nickel, but he never fixed it or said anything. I'm sure he knew it drew the kids and he liked having us hang around. He was the first adult who ever insisted I call him by his first name, and he didn't talk down to kids, you know? When he asked about the big military surplus belt I was wearing with my bell bottoms and my Hang Ten t-shirt, he didn't laugh or make fun of me when I explained that it wasn't a belt, it was a Mobile Crime Lab. He showed genuine interest and seemed impressed about my ambitions to be a detective. Like I said, he was a good guy.

So when this piteous wailing cry rose up from the knot of kids that had just come off Cecil's bus, Jack was out on the sidewalk with us in a flash. "Somebody hurt?" he asked.

Shawn and I looked at each other and sighed. We knew who it was. Still, she sounded really upset, and it was something to do. "We'll check it out, Jack," Shawn said (he loved saying a grown-up's name as much as I did) and we dashed up the block.

By the time we got there, Cecil's bus was lurching away to the district motor depot with an enormous grinding and sputtering. It stalled for a second, then jolted ahead, belching out a noxious cloud of exhaust that left us coughing and sputtering. We couldn't see so well then, but we could hear the hysterical crying, and went straight to the source.

Two or three older girls were surrounding a girl our age, a thin girl with glasses, who was hitching and gasping in uncontrollable sobs. It was Melinda, a classmate of ours. I didn't know her all that well--or even really like her to be honest. She was a bit of a cry-baby, always whining about something. But this was extraordinary even by her standards. The bigger girls were trying to calm her down.

"What happened?" I asked.

One of the big girls shushed me and turned to Melinda. "It's okay, sweetie," she said. "We'll get it back."

"Get what back?" Shawn asked.

Gulping air, Melinda blinked at us, probably noticing us for the first time. "Suh-someone stuh-stole MY DOG!!" she bleated.

Shawn's eyes were as big as saucers as he turned to look at me. We were both thinking the same thing: WE HAD A CASE!!!

"Excellent!" we shouted in unison.

And Melinda burst into fresh tears...


Good Stuff!

I was of the Harriet the Spy variety of detective when I was 12. Loved a mystery.

Starting a detective agency however...GROOVY!
I used to really dig "The Great Brain" series. I styled myself something of an kid intellectual (pondering great mysteries like "what is milk, really?" and "is my messy room considered repulsive in some alternate universe?"), but I could never figure the mysteries out before T.D.

The latest book I have been trying to slog through -- James Ellroy's The Cold Six Thousand -- gives me a headache after reading thirty pages or so. I must be a masochist, because I insist on finishing it (liked his older stuff). This, on the other hand, was a pleasure. More!
I was a fanatic of Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators series. They're kind of second class to the Hardy Boys, but I liked them more. I think I read fifty of them. Your mail truck reminds me of them, so does the kit. I wish I had something like this when I was a kid. Instead, I read about it.
Criminy -- I hope there will be a chapter two!

I started a museum in our basement. A military museum. I was into model airplanes and little plastic soldiers. So I put the airplanes on a table and covered another table with sand, around which I sprinkled the plastic soldiers. It was a depiction of one of Rommel's battles in North Africa.

I also ran an obstacle course in our garage. You had to ride a skateboard about five feet, climb over something, and give me a quarter.
Here is the comment I was trying to post, just before blogger went out to lunch... (YES I am that anal, that I saved it and came back to post it days later!)

As a kid I simultaneously had a crush on, and wanted to be, Encyclopedia Brown. (Yes you did steal your motto from him, and your prices too I think.)

I believe he had a missing dog case once too, but I can't remember what happened except of course that the mean older kid (Bugs?) was involved and he claimed it was his dog.

I also remember a story about a fake sword that someone was trying to sell... your missing dog didn't have anything about the Battle of Bull Run tattooed anywhere on him, did he?
Rurality: The Bull Run sword story is the ONE Encyclopedia Brown story I remember well. It was the ONE story I figured out before anyone else in class. (We got some kind of prize in that event.)
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