If you would like to chuckle at some delightful auto-biographical data and general ranting about these kids today, start at Section A. If you would like to skip that crap and get down to business, turn to Section B.
Is there any story more infuriating or delicious than Frank R. Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger?” You know, the one about the ancient kingdom where the commoner has the audacity to fall for the king’s daughter, and the monarch – a real barbarian – devises the punishment of setting the prisoner before two doors: behind one is a beautiful lady, and if the man picks her, he gets to marry her. But behind the other door is a humongous and very hungry tiger, and if the man picks that door – it’s dinnertime!
The story gets really good when the man catches his girlfriend – you know, the princess – pointing to one of the doors and indicating he should pick it! Now, does she love her bf so much that she would save his life and watch him marry some bimbo? Or is she truly her father’s daughter, so barbaric that she thinks watching Tony the Tiger rend her beloved’s flesh would be gggggrrrrrreeeeaaattt!
You can bet my junior high school English class had a field day arguing about this ending. Our arguments revealed so much about our emerging selves: did we fall in line with the romantics or with the cynics? I can only imagine how modern day young readers – and they are a dwindling lot – would deal with such open-ended nonsense! They would clamor for an ending! They would prefer the ending involve the tiger making man meat of the prisoner. Or most likely: they would claim that their Manx cat mauled their textbook and they were unable to do the homework. In reality, they were on their Xbox, playing Halo 5: Guardians and dealing with some real life-or-death dilemmas.
Kids today have drunk the Kool-Aid that tells them that books can’t provide the interactive adventures that a computer can. Lovers of reading know that this is utter bullshit. I used to paste these book labels on every volume in my personal library that contained this wisdom by Emily Dickinson: “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.”
But for every one of us who embraces the vicarious thrill of entering the page and living through one or more characters, there are dozens, hundreds, thousands – oh Lord, the number grows exponentially every day – who think, “It’s too hard!” They prefer the visual stimulus of a computer game. Why use your imagination when immersion into a fantasy world is just a thumb’s press away?
It’s not like authors haven’t tried to create a more interactive experience on the printed page. One of these days I’ll write an article about the murder dossiers that Dennis Wheatley put together. They reduced the mystery to pure puzzle, allowing readers to pull out and examine actual physical clues and documents, read transcripts of interviews with suspects, and take a shot at solving the case.
In the 1970’s – 80’s, a guy named Edward Packard came up with a simplified interactive experience for kids. He liked to make up bedtime stories for his daughters, and one night he came up short: he had his characters trapped on an island and, with no more plot in his head, he asked his girls what they thought happened next. They came up with a different idea apiece, so Packard expanded both concepts – and then he wondered if he could get this down on paper. Thus, the Choose Your Own Adventure series was born. Nearly two hundred titles exploded out of his fertile imagination, and they ran the gamut from adventure to science fiction to fantasy.
But there was only one whodunit!
I can sort of understand this. Sci fi and fantasy adventures are sprawling, with people hopping from planet to planet, backward and forward in time and space – or bouncing around from Fluffyleaf Forest to Trollhaven and back to The Sorcerer’s Stair. A mystery is denser and requires careful structuring. The more intricate the mystery, the more structure it requires: the interweaving of clues, the timetable of alibis, the false solutions! Then, too, we’re dealing with younger readers here, and your average mystery deals in death and the adult motives that lead to murder.
Thus Packard turned to the classic whodunit genre once and only once, perhaps out of pity for those of us who, between nine and twelve, began to feel vaguely dissatisfied at the machinations of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. (Their prey were smugglers and counterfeiters, with nary a murder in sight.) Now, I who, thanks to my enlightened mother, had graduated to Agatha Christie at the age of eleven, had no need to seek out a child’s version of same. A number of years ago, however, the sole Choose Your Own Adventure mystery title – Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? – fell into my lap, and out of curiosity, I decided to read it today.
If you would like to read a summary of the plot of this novel, go to Section C.
If you would like to ponder a commentary on the author’s use of classic mystery tropes, skip to Section D.
If you have entered this blog post and realized this topic is not for you, move to Section H.
A young detective (who could be anywhere from a child to a young adult) is hired by millionaire Harlowe Thrombey to dine at his mansion. Thrombey fears that his wife Jane or another of his relatives is trying to kill him. It comes as no surprise when Thrombey collapses in the billiard room, a victim of arsenical poisoning. A bottle of poison is missing from the greenhouse. Some of the suspects appear to alibi each other while others are clearly lying. Trails lead to promising clues and dead ends. A mysterious and dangerous underworld figure seems to be involved. The young PI finds himself competing to solve the case before the buffoonish Police Inspector Prufrock or the intrepid girl detective, Jenny Mudge. Can he spot the clues and reach the solution first . . . and survive in the process? It’s all up to the choices you make!!!!
I say you because, this being an interactive adventure, the story is narrated in the awkward second person. That puts you right in the shoes of our hero, and it is easy to identify with the detective . . . as long as you are a clean-cut teenage boy who thinks a girl should stay at home and not try her hand at sleuthing. Relax, ladies: the emerging women’s lib movement is on full display here, as Jenny Mudge is a worthy rival. On one strand, she leads the hero astray, and in several endings she beats him to the punch with the solution. For the most part, the reader would do well to follow Jenny around!
Inspector Prufrock vs. You
I spend a lot of time talking to my students about the physical structure of the mystery. The classic British-style whodunit is rather circular in shape: you tend to have a single location and a closed circle of suspects. The detective gathers information and ruminates about it. Some revelations send him forward; others prove to be a dead end. Everyone is stuck in the permutations of the case, suffering from grief and a pervading mutual suspicion. A lot of that stasis is the result of characters lying, often for more or less innocuous reasons. Ultimately, the cloud is lifted and the detective creates another circle – in the library or the study or the scene of the crime – and leads the suspects through his ratiocinative process until he springs the final trap for the killer.
The private eye novel is much more linear: the PI is presented with a problem, whether in his office or in his client’s home, and this sets him off on a journey of discovery. Each piece of good information propels him forward. Sometimes he hits a dead end or gets knocked out with a lead pipe, but that only deters him temporarily. The most complex PI novels lay out a convoluted journey that sometimes doubles back on itself, but we still get the sense of a line that the PI travels until he finds himself face to face with the truth (and sometimes the truth is holding a gun to his head.)
I prefer the British style of mystery, so it’s gratifying how many of the classic mystery tropes Packard uses here: the country estate, the closed circle of suspects comprised of the typical rich family with their servants, the air of suspicion and accusation, the rivalry between the sleuth and the established police, the false solutions. One of the many endings included here actually takes place in the library where the protagonist gathers the suspects and reveals the killer.
Still, the author tries to have it both ways in order to appeal to every type of mystery lover. Plus, the structure of constantly having to make choices about where to go and who to see makes the story feel more linear and places it firmly in Sam Spade territory. This is compounded by one plot sub-strand that involves an underworld criminal type. (If you play your cards right – that is, pick the right pages – you can pretty much go through the entire mystery without meeting this guy.)
I haven’t read any other Choose Your Own Adventure books, so I don’t know if all roads eventually lead back to Rome. But Packard guarantees that no matter what path you follow, you’ll pretty much get the same information. Each of the endings poses a variation of the same solution; the main difference is whether you solve the case or one of your rivals does. And there are a couple of paths you can take that prove to be fatal for our hero.
If you would like to read my opinion of this novel and decide whether it is worth seeking out, move to Section E.
If you would like to read my opinion in the form of a poem, hurry to Section F.
If you’ve got a good sense that this is not the book for you, you’ll find the ending spoiled for you in Section G.
If you could care less how I felt, hie you hence to Section H.
I read this one quickly with a bemused smile, but I wouldn’t advise you to spend the time unless this drops into your lap like it did mine. The sleuthing our detective engages in is mundane at best. No clever deductions lead him to the truth; mostly, it’s just plodding around and getting lucky. There’s really no way to match wits with the detective and solve the case ahead of time. Also, you need to beware: there are a few false endings that occur early in the novel, and they reveal the solution before you’ve gotten very far!
What I do find exciting about the book is that here we have a modern children’s author introducing young readers to a variety of genres, and he thinks it worth the time to include a classic-style mystery in the mix. In the right setting then, Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? might be seen as a gateway drug to the woozy pleasures of grown-up detective fiction. I can only hope a bunch of kids have picked this one up and found themselves addicted to the hard stuff!
- Today’s kids won’t like Harlowe Thrombey.
- There are no spies, no single zombie.
- And though he drops dead on the floor,
- There’s not a single drop of gore.
- I wouldn’t call this book “fair play.”
- No clever clueing comes our way.
- And though the writing has no spark,
- I think it’s quite a clever lark.
- It reads real quick, so try your luck.
- But for goodness sake – don’t spend more than a buck!
SECTION G – SPOILER – DON’T READ THIS IF YOU WANT TO READ THE BOOK!
It turns out that Thrombey’s niece was in cahoots with his doctor, who it is lightly implied is her lover. (Guess you can have a dude drop dead in a children’s book, but God forbid two characters engage in any hanky-panky!) The doc stole the arsenic earlier and then established an alibi with the nephew. The niece poisoned the brandy and set up a recording of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to make it seem she had remained in the music room. Her mistake was that she was a beginning piano player, and the recording was too good!
And that’s how I made ten million dollars.
Thanks for reading!