The Brixton Brothers, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Adam Rex, published by Simon & Schuster. The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity (2009), 179 pages. The Ghostwriter Secret (2010), 226 pages. Age/interest level: 9-13.
Steve Brixton’s #1 favorite book is whichever Bailey Brothers detective novel he happens to be reading, and his #1 ambition is to be a detective himself. He’s learning from the best, Shawn and Kevin Bailey: “two quick-thinking, hard-punching teens who never met a case they couldn’t crack, a motorcycle they couldn’t ride, or an avalanche they couldn’t cause and subsequently survive.” Someday he’ll be head of his very own Brixton Brothers Detective Agency (even though he’s an only child).
But even he is rather surprised when, while doing library research for a social studies report on “early American needlework,” the alarm system clangs, the skylight crashes, and an elite corps of Librarians rappel down from the ceiling. They hustle Steve into a rented limo and accuse him of treason. He works for Mr. E., correct? The one who stole the top-secret Maguffin Quilt, on which every American state secret since 1776 is embroidered? The one that all Librarians are sworn to protect? Naturally enough, this is all news to Steve, but when he manages to escape, it’s only to discover that the police are after him, too! In short, he has three big problems: 1) Librarians, 2) Cops, and 3) his social studies report due on Monday. Is he a real detective, as the cops and Librarians insist? Or just an ordinary kid? He’s going to have to make a decision . . . or maybe the deadly pincers of fate will make it for him!
By volume 2, Steve has taken the plunge and opened Brixton Brothers Detective Agency, and within three short chapters he’s on a case. But finding out who stole Mr. Fairview’s red diamond soon takes a back seat to discovering who kidnapped his #1 favorite author, McArthur Bart! What’s more, somebody has trashed Steve’s crime lab (i.e., bedroom)! But not to be discouraged: “Shawn and Kevin’s crime lab had been vandalized plenty of times, but that never stopped them. It only made them sleuth harder.” Sleuthing harder may just mean lying to your parents and breaking the law a little, but Steve’s intentions are admirable. Before you know it, he and his best chum, Dana (“Don’t call me chum,” says Dana), are in San Francisco questioning the police! Thrills and chills ensue, but no amount of danger will discourage the dynamic duo, who will soon be back for Brixton Brothers #3, It Happened On a Train (October 11).
The iconic Bailey Brothers books were written in the fifties. Steve lives in the present day but hangs out in the fifties—a golden age for boys, when you could pack a sandwich and a couple of Twinkies, tell your mom you’d be back in time for dinner, and disappear on your bike for a whole day with nobody worrying about you. Steve’s mother would probably worry if she knew he was headed for San Francisco on a bus to crack a crime syndicate, but since she’s a single mom who works nights there’s a lot she doesn’t know. Contemporary cultural markers intrude, such as the absence of Steve’s father and the all-too-ubiquitous presence of his mom’s obnoxious boyfriend, but Steve himself has the earnest and likeable demeanor of Beaver Cleaver. Snark and sarcasm are lost on him. When crashing a waterfront tavern, his idea of a sailor’s disguise is blue bell-bottoms, a striped shirt, and a handlebar moustache. The Bailey Brothers Detective Handbook is his constant companion, with valuable advice (that almost never works) on identifying crooks, delivering a haymaker punch, and escaping through second-story windows. As long as they don’t try this stuff at home–including lying to your parents!–boys are in good company with him. Girls, too. And the illustrations are completely ace: pen-and-ink drawings that may remind their grandmothers of Robert McCloskey.