The Brixton Brothers: The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity
By Mac Barnett
Illustrated by Adam Rex
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
On shelves October 6th
Kid walks into your library. Says he wants a mystery series. A new mystery series. You hand him Encyclopedia Brown. He withers you with a glance. You hand him Enola Holmes. His upper lip curls at the female protagonist (it happens). You hand him a recent Hardy Boys where they fight terrorists. He looks at you like he may be seriously doubting your sanity. You finally hand him The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett, the first in The Brixton Brothers series. He sighs in relief and then asks for the other books in the series. You tell him there is only one out right now. He kicks you in the shins. And, ladies and gentlemen, this little drama is soon to play out your home town any minute now. Countless young hoodlums will instantly find their desire for mystery and snarky self-aware writing satiated by this Mr. Barnett, only to find themselves infuriated by the (as of this review) lack of subsequent novels in the series. Reports of the death of the boy detective novel have been greatly exaggerated. It lives on the only way it can in this day and age; with a wink and a nod.
If there’s one thing Steve Brixton knows about it’s detective work. And why wouldn’t he? A fan of the great Bailey Brothers book series, Steve is pretty confident that in the event of a crime he’d definitely be the one to solve it in the end. So all things considered, he’s probably the perfect fellow to be mistaken for an evil spy. That’s just what happens when Steve goes into his local library to check out a book on quilting for a school project. Next thing he knows, Steve’s discovered that all librarians belong to a highly specialized force of undercover agents and he has, unwittingly, pitted himself against them. Now he has to clear his name and find out the true villains before the librarians get their hands on him once and for all.
It’s funny. Funny is hard. I don’t mean to say that there aren’t plenty of books for kids out there that are funny. Sure there are. But to write a funny book is to write a story that sustains its humor and still manages a satisfying ending, which is no small potatoes. Fortunately Barnett, who has seemingly appeared out of the ether itself, has a style that amuses both kids and adults simultaneously, without talking down to either of them. His writing will undoubtedly catch you unawares. It’s all in the details. For example, at one point we read, “Steve hated fish. He hated the way they tasted and the way they smelled, but more than anything he hated the way they looked. The problem was in the eyes. There was no difference between the eye of a dead fish and the eye of a live one.” Beautiful. In the same vein the next chapter begins by describing a villain as “a nasty, brutish, and short man.” That’s for the adults.
Now in this book Steve spends much of his time attempting to imitate his beloved book-based heroes, only to find himself failing at almost every turn. Tightening your muscles when you’re tied with ropes so they’ll slip off when the villains leave? Doesn’t really work. Throwing a punch? Not as easy as it sounds. Eventually we get the feeling that the author of these Bailey Brothers books must be a bit of a lazy lou since half the time the boys are rescued at the last minute by their day anyway. Barnett has managed to capture the feel of the old time boys’ adventure novel but has done so without sacrificing our modern logic and sensibilities. It’s sort of what M.T. Anderson keeps trying to do with his Whales on Stilts series without ever quite getting it right. Barnett walks the line and he walks it well.
When Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians came out I found it pandering. Which was an odd reaction because if there’s anything that doesn’t pander to librarians, it’s calling them evil in the title of a book. Still, I wasn’t buying it. Put the word “librarian” in a title and it’s like my fellow brethren are instantaneously hypnotized into buying the book. “I don’t know what it was about that story. I just had to get forty copies for my branch!” The best case example of this is The Boy Who Was Raised by Librarians. Shameless doesn’t even begin to cover it. So I’m giving an extra 25 points to this book for not saying “library” or “librarian” anywhere in the title. Granted the cover image shows special ops rappelling into a reference section, but that’s forgivable. And Barnett does lay it on pretty thick when he turns librarians to a covert operation that puts the CIA, the FBI, and M5 to shame. Clearly Mr. Barnett has never had the pleasure of watching a room full of MLIS degrees debate the relative merits of doing storytimes in the morning verses doing them in the afternoons of a given weekday. Trust me, we’ve bigger fish to fry than mere international intrigue. Anyway, Barnett protects himself from accusations of true pandering when he makes fun of READ posters. We’ll give him credit there.
The book has the most obvious similarities to The Hardy Boys, of course. Steve’s beloved Bailey Brothers are essentially Frank and Joe renamed Shawn and Kevin. But as for this book itself, I saw hints of other boy detective novels lurking in the corners. For example, early in the story Steve listens as his mother’s new boyfriend, a cop, recounts a crime happening in town that has the police stumped. The chapter ends with Steve saying, “I’m not sure the thief is even a human.” Now if that isn’t Encyclopedia Brown all over, I don’t know what is. You half expect to see at the bottom of the page the sentences, “Why was Steve so sure the thief wasn’t a human being? Turn to the back of the book for the answer!” Instead, Steve gives his reasons and, as with the rest of the book, your expectations are upset. Instead of praising him for his ingenuity, Rick the cop just guffaws at what, ultimately, is the correct solution. Steve is simultaneously under and over estimated throughout this book. Usually you get only one or another when you read a mystery novel for kids. Spices things up a bit when you get both (and a variety of different kinds of detective tales as well). Plus I love that rather than tiptoe around the issue of how unlikely it would be for adults to take a kid like this seriously, Barnett rams into the issue with gusto and devil take the consequences.
Pairing illustrator Adam Rex with Barnett seems obvious now and, let’s face it, probably seemed obvious right from the start to everyone involved with this project. He’s precisely the kind of man you want working on a book of this sort. Rex’s pen-and-ink drawings can be cartoonish one moment and then drawing beautifully incomprehensible technical diagrams (knot-tying, anyone?) the next. The man has range and range is what you want when you hope to mix realism with outright goofiness. Plus Rex is funny in his own right without distracting from Barnett’s humor. When you see that picture of Steve standing in the doorway of a rough bar in a ridiculous sailor costume, the outfit is funny but even funnier are the tough guys who have also stopped to stare at him. The captions on the photos, besides adding a nice retro feel, are the icing on the cake.
I’m immature enough that I was pleased with myself when I guessed the villain correctly, long before the end of the book. I am also thirty-one, so I probably shouldn’t feel as good about that as I do. Still, if you’re in the neighborhood for a great new mystery series with a tongue stuck so far into its cheek that it’s practically coming out its ear, this is it. Modern to its core but still a good mystery and action adventure novel, this is one of the smartest little books I’ve seen in a long time. 21st century kids are gonna adore it. Guaranteed.
Copy: ARC sent from publisher.
Notes on the Cover: Brilliant. You want more than that? Very well. It’s very very brilliant. Mondo brilliant. Smart as all get out. What more can I say?
- A nationwide tour with Jon Scieszka, David Shannon, Mac Barnett, and Adam Rex? Great. Now I have to live secure in the knowledge that somehow, somewhere, someone is having way more fun than me. You can follow their tour on the road here. And Re: The guys – Woof. You know what I mean.
- Be sure to check out this profile on the dynamic duo of Adam Rex and Mac Barnett over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
- There a Brixton Brothers Detective Agency website out there. One assumes it’ll bulk up in the coming months.
- Not sure what you think? Read chapter one.
- Still wavering in your appreciation? Read chapter two.
- Learn more about Mr. Barnett, including his fantastic dislike of those big Cadbury Creme Eggs with the fake yolk on the inside. I mean seriously, whose idea was that? I could understand it if you were trying to convince kids that raw egg was a fun treat and the chocolate was sort of a starter-egg, but ick!
- And appropos of nothing, is it bad that I kept thinking about this as I read the book?
First and foremost, Barrett breaks the bad news to the librarian community himself.
Having some time to kill he then discusses his best trait (my sources are currently getting the word on whether or not this is true) . . .
. . . . his favorite movie . . .
. . . and then eventually he considers getting around to talking about the book itself.
Phew! But even THAT is not all. Oh no. You see, at the past ALA there was a release party for this book that I was unable to attend. Fortunately Joyce Valenza of Neverending Search was there and even more fortunately she shot some video of what went down. Craziness, it was. Sheer craziness.
Thanks to Joyce for the link.