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The Boy Detective Fails

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"In the twilight of a childhood full of wonder, Billy Argo, boy detective, is brokenhearted to find that his younger sister and crime-solving partner, Caroline, has committed suicide. Ten years later, Billy, age thirty, returns from an extended stay at St Vitus' Hospital for the Mentally Ill to discover a world full of unimaginable strangeness: office buildings vanish without reason, small animals turn up without their heads, and cruel villains ride city buses to complete their evil schemes."

Lost within this unwelcoming place, Billy finds the companionship of two lonely children, Effie and Gus Mumford - one a science fair genius, the other a charming, silent bully. With a nearly forgotten bravery, Billy confronts the monotony of his job in telephone sales, the awkward beauty of a desperate pickpocket named Penny Maple, and the seemingly impossible solution to the mystery of his sister's death. Along the path laden with hidden clues and codes that dare to be deciphered, the boy detective may learn the greatest secret of all: the necessity of the unknown.

320 pages, Paperback

First published September 1, 2006

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About the author

Joe Meno

53 books456 followers
Joe Meno is a fiction writer and playwright who lives in Chicago. A winner of the Nelson Algren Literary Award, the Great Lakes Book Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Society of Midland Author's Fiction Prize, and a finalist for the Story Prize, he is the author of seven novels and two short story collections. He is also the editor of Chicago Noir: The Classics. A long-time contributor to the seminal culture magazine, Punk Planet, his other non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times and Chicago magazine. He is a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 454 reviews
Profile Image for Dan Schwent.
2,895 reviews10.5k followers
March 3, 2015
When he was a youngster, Billy Argo was the best teenage sleuth Gotham City, New Jersey, had ever seen. That is, until his sister killed herself, sending Billy to the mental institution for a decade. Now that he's out, the boy detective has one last mystery to solve...

Back when I was a lad, sometime around the time the dog was first domesticated, I was a big fan of kid's mysteries like the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and the stupendous Encyclopedia Brown. They were soon lost to the sands of time as I gravitated toward more adult fare. Never did I ponder what might have happened to Encyclopedia Brown when he grew up.

The Boy Detective Fails is a quirky little book, written in the style of the mysteries I mentioned above, but with much more adult themes. In some ways, it reminds me of Sarah Gran's Claire DeWitt books, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead and Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway. Adulthood was not kind to the boy detective, not even after he gets out of the mental institution.

The mystery that seems to plague the boy detective is what caused his sister's suicide. On some level, though, I think the real mystery Billy Argo has to solve is the mystery of adulthood and finding his place in a world that no longer welcomes him as it once did. Even his old foes like Von Golum find themselves without purpose besides tormenting the other denizens of the group home they share.

Joe Meno does a great job using the style of the books he's drawn his inspiration from. Once Billy befriends the Mumford kids and becomes entwined with Penny Maple, the book is very hard to put down.

The post-modern quirks might irk some readers but I thought they were used well within the context of the story and didn't feel like gimmicky crap. Speaking of quirkiness, I kept imagine Jim Dale narrating this ala Pushing Daisies.

The Boy Detective Fails is a charming, poignant tale that should appeal to fans of the children's mysteries of yesteryear. It's an easy four star read.
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,633 reviews5,003 followers
April 4, 2017
the book fails too.

or maybe i did - i was only able to get to page 212. 212 often very excruciating pages.

so the Boy Detective lives in a postmodern world of amazing crimes that can be solved by boy detectives to much public acclaim, featuring villains without faces (or memories), buildings that disappear, a shadowy conspiracy, adorable but lonely children whose pet cat has been beheaded, a sister who has inexplicably committed suicide, etc etc. The Boy Detective Fails is many different things: a comic told in prose; an empathetic deconstruction of what "mental illness" really means; a Kafkaesque office comedy; a surreal love letter to 50s adventure serials; an actual puzzle box; an elegy to lost youth; and most of all, a forlorn mystery that is concerned with big questions such as Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People, Why Do People Go Away, Why Do People Change, Why Do I Feel So Alone. the novel is jaunty and wistful and creative and haunting. it should have been perfect for me.

sadly i must report that all of the jaunty wistfulness, all of the haunting creativity, all of the quaintness and wittiness and sweetness... just drove me right up the wall. it was all so precious and cutesy. so twee. so saccharine. sugar overload!

it also has no internal logic. i get that this is not intended to be a remotely realistic novel, obviously. but even unreal narratives, even works that are the great-grandchildren of the postmodernist novels of olden times, need to make some sort of sense between the pages. even if it is its own kind of sense. but The Boy Detective Fails reads more like a collection of dreamy, half-baked non sequiturs rather than something that has been carefully put together to create a certain kind of world. the result for me was a sad recognition of the book's superficiality - one that i was at first loath to see because the author's good intentions are quite clear. but there is no there there. which unfortunately belies the seriousness of what Meno is trying to say and explore.

still, the book has a whole lot of heart. an extra star for that.

Profile Image for Oriana.
Author 2 books3,261 followers
November 15, 2013
I... well, I have to admit that I don't exactly know what to say here. This book was so good. So... so haunting and lush and aching and gorgeous and atmospheric and devastating and suddenly, at times, shockingly sweet and wonderful and redemptive and pure.

I don't want to tell you about the plot, except to say that it provided the perfect shadowy structure on which to hang these beautiful, amazing, outsidery characters. And I don't want to tell you about the characters, because they're too lovely for me to tarnish by synopsizing them here. And I know, I know, that everyone thinks I'm too gush-y, too overly adulatory and all-forgiving and consistently amazed, to be taken seriously when I give a glowingly exuberant recommendation.

So what do I do? I want to write something that makes everyone dive for this book immediately. But I want to do it without giving anything away, without cheapening the staggering inventiveness, the like-nothing-else-ever-ity of The Boy Detective Fails.

I actually finished the book days ago and have been trying to come up with a way to do this review ever since. I haven't come up with it yet. Maybe at some point I will, and then I'll update this to say the cleverest, spot-on-est things, the secret magic words that will make you all click open a new tab and buy this book right now, so you can shudder too, and gasp too, and fall in love with it too.

Until then, I guess you'll have to take my wide-eyed, hyperbolic but earnest word for it.
Profile Image for David Katzman.
Author 3 books446 followers
March 22, 2013
Wow. I loved this book. The Boy Detective Fails is one of those books that makes a writer go, “Dang, I wish I’d written that.” Or even thought of the premise.

Call it fantastical allegory, magical realism, a fairytale…the core premise of this mythical work is: What happens when real tragedy is injected into the cartoony world of a “boy detective”? When innocence meets evil, can it grow up or does it remain stunted and childish?

I was reminded of Chris Ware while reading TBDF. Ware has a character who is a fat, stupid Superman who does selfish ignorant things. A failed Superman. In Ware’s case, the hero fails because he’s an asshole. In Meno’s case, our hero is still a good guy…but what difference does it make when evil still overwhelms all good intentions?

I love the technique at work here of applying realistic flaws to a cartoon world. It punctures myths of purity, often with humor, allows for social commentary, and provides tremendous imaginative potential. The writing in TBDF is clean, precise and detailed, much as you would expect from a book influenced by Encyclopedia Brown, Scooby Doo, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and comic book TV shows like the original Batman from the sixties.

The given for cartoon worlds is that when bad things happen, they’re always temporary. Everything will return back to normal. Bad guys are caught. Property is returned. The injured parties are healed. And nothing ever changes our heroes. Little kids are kept happy because they love repetition, but at a certain age they grow out of these shows when they realize how boring the format is—because nothing changes. (Or else they just start watching sitcoms instead.) Meno decides to examine what happens when unalterably grim things do happen, and the characters are permanently affected. A boy detective leaves his crime-fighting cohorts (his sister Caroline and their friend Fenton) to go off to college and study criminology. While he’s away, Caroline commits suicide and Fenton over-eats until he becomes dangerously obese. Because he can’t deal with Caroline’s suicide, the boy detective spends ten years drugged up in a mental hospital. Upon his release, he moves into a group home and takes a telemarketing job selling artificial wigs and mustaches. His experience working the graveyard shift reminds me of the brilliant novella Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West, with our protagonist speaking to the most hopeless, loneliest people on Earth and finding no way to console them…except to sell them mustaches. The boy detective frequently pops Ativan because he can’t keep his shit together. Villains make buildings in his small town vanish, and no one can do anything about it.

Despite the grim realities in the boy detective’s world, one of the advantages of using an allegorical style is that a dark reality doesn’t have to be dreary. TBDF is written with the spunk and verve of a cheery, childhood favorite. And that ironic technique also provides a lot of humor—like meeting the Hardy Boys, who are now working at a movie theater and trolling for prescription drugs.

So in the end, what does the book tell us about evil? Well, as you might imagine, I was a little put-off by the non-ambiguity of this term at first. Are we talking about evil as in, mmmhhh…I don’t know…Satan? No, not really. It seems to stand for ”the bad stuff.” Cruelty. Pain. Meanness. I’m okay with that. Within the context of this allegorical story, I was able to accept the directness of that term because it’s right for the genre. Within cartoon worlds, good and evil are white and black. And evil is usually inexplicable. There is no explanation for Skeletor. So Meno is caught in a bit of a conundrum here—how to stay true to his genre and still provide an honest answer. In the real world, I believe power (the desire for it, to sustain it, to prevent its loss, or to experience some modicum of it briefly) is usually the reason for evil. And Meno demonstrated in the story of a secondary character, the young Gus Mumford, how being an ignored and powerless kid often turns you into a powerful bully. But really, The Boy Detective Fails isn’t so much about what causes evil after all. Let that be a black box for now. Evil happens, and we need to move on, and make the best lives we can for ourselves despite cruel intentions. This book is actually about what happens after shit happens. The recovery. Accept the way life is and keep going. Evil may be inexplicable, but an explanation isn’t necessary. It is what it is. Best not to get yourself jacked up on pharmaceuticals because you can’t deal with it. Be yourself. Find someone else as like-minded as you can, and be in love for a while. And if that doesn’t work out…keep trying. In a cartoon world, evil exists because the hero needs someone to make him look heroic. He needs a yang to his yin. In the end, the boy detective learns he doesn’t need a villain to be a good guy. He just needs to care about someone.

On a final note, I had the pleasure of seeing a theatrical adaption of this novel several years ago performed by The House Theatre Company, one of the best troupes in Chicago. I love most House shows, and yet I thought this was one of their best. Meno’s story gave them impeccable details from which they created a rich visual fantasy.

If you were thinking about trying a book by Meno, this would be a great first choice.
Profile Image for Matt.
47 reviews3 followers
June 8, 2008
I gave up on this one after encountering this on page 30: 'Chapter 32.' I suppose I envisioned a story about Enyclopedia Brown in adulthood, but instead was beaten back by the prospect of 300-odd pages of arch, hollow quirkiness, one-sentence chapters, affected post-modern formatting for the sake of being cool, etc.

I should have known: on the acknowledgments page, under 'What I Listened to While Writing This Book' is listed Belle and Sebastian. Back to the library with thee!
Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 12 books1,268 followers
March 27, 2008
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)

So for today's review to make sense, I need to explain something to those who are reading it from outside of Chicago; that although our literary community here is a large and thriving one, with hundreds of published writers and hundreds of others who perform live on stages each week, there are perhaps only two handfuls of authors in the city now who have achieved legitimate national mainstream success, the kind of success where you can mention them to random people in other cities and they'll say, "Oh, I've heard of him. He's good." And these 10 or 15 writers tend to be revered by much of the rest of the community, for choosing to stay in Chicago and continuing to support the local scene here, instead of running off to Brooklyn like every writer and their hipster f--king uncle seems to have done by now; and this is especially true when they double as a professor at one of the local colleges as well, which most of these 10 or 15 most famous Chicago authors do, building these little undergraduate armies that not only adore them but almost worship them outright.

And thus do we come to Chicago author Joe Meno, a guy around my age and on the staff of Columbia College's well-known fiction program (a school also well-known for their film and photography programs), whose huge and surprising national success now has mostly come from his long-time association with Punk Planet (both the magazine and now the publishing company). And the reason I know that Meno has this entire small army of ultra-passionate fans is because of publishing here at the site last year an only so-so review of his first novel, 2004's maudlin indie-rock memoir Hairstyles of the Damned, which happened to also be the high-profile kickoff of Punk Planet as a small press; although none of his fans were outright rude or mean to me after I posted that mediocre review, I did certainly hear from a whole sh-tload of them, on a regular basis that has never stopped to this day, with most of them very patiently explaining over and over how I really owe it to myself to just read some of his newer work. "Seriously," the average email or comment would go, "just sit down and read some of his newer work. Seriously. You'll see then why everyone goes so nuts for him."

Okay, so this week I finally did; I finally got my hands on his latest novel, 2006's The Boy Detective Fails, also on the now-proven Punk Planet imprint (who also this year put out Elizabeth Crane's newest book, speaking of revered Chicago authors with national followings). And hey, guess what, Meno fans, you're right, you're right! This is an astounding novel, I have to admit, something that immediately rockets Meno past the "snotty college DJ with a book in him" level of his first manuscript and into the stratum of "an American version of Haruki Murakami" (or if you will, a more accessible Mark Danielewski), a dense and trippy story that is metaphorical, emotional, naked and layered all at once, the sure sign of a mature writer coming into his own for the first time. In fact, after finishing it, I had to ask myself why Meno didn't just start his career in novels with a story like this in the first place, instead of the semi-hacky material of Hairstyles, material that had already been mined to death by such writers as Nick Hornby, Chuck Klosterman and a million 19-year-old zinesters? If you've got this kind of novel in you, why not just start with this novel?

But then I remembered -- maybe Meno didn't have this kind of novel in him when he wrote Hairstyles, that maybe it took the writing of Hairstyles to be able to put together a novel like Boy Detective. And this of course gets into a subject I've talked about here at CCLaP many times before, one of the reasons that we long-term fans of certain artists become long-term fans to begin with; and that's the pleasures and frustrations of watching a certain artist over the course of their entire career, to watch them both grow and falter as a person and as a creative professional, and to see where the things from earlier in their lives take them later in life. Because make no mistake; when I say that this novel is "Murakamiesque," I mean that impossibly weird, unexplainable things happen on nearly every page, but with Meno confidently steamrolling ahead with the prose as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening at all. There's a difference between that and simply writing a story where weird stuff happens; to reach the kind of level that Murakami and Meno do, you have to write that story in a mature and steady hand, to be completely confident that your story is quite off the tracks altogether of mainstream normalcy but that you yourself are on the right track anyway.

In this case, Meno starts with what would've been a cutesy but otherwise empty Clown Girl style gimmicky literary trick; he envisions a world where such child detectives as Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew actually exist, and as adults have to a fault become overwhelmingly neurotic, barely functioning messes. Our hero Billy Argo, for example, is clearly a stand-in for Brown himself, a precociously intelligent child and cardigan-wearing Modernist poster-boy during his youth, who needs only to stare at random strangers through his magnifying glass to get them to blurt out embarrassing truths about themselves. As a middle-aged adult, though, we learn that Argo has been in and out of mental institutions for decades, with permanent bald spots on the sides of his scalp from all the electroshock treatments he's received, basically hanging up both the detective work and his entire life after the suicide of his beloved sister, fellow crime-fighter during their youths who became an aimless goth after Billy left for university. He spent a decade in a voluntary drug haze within a safely confined state institution because of all this; but now the government money for such programs have dried up, meaning that Billy himself is now dried out, sober and ejected from the hospital and suddenly in the glaring sun of a general population he barely understands anymore, an ugly and obscenity-filled world that is a far cry from his glittering early-'60s youth.

Yeah, I know what a lot of you are saying at this point -- "Zuh? Wha? Come again?" And believe me, this is just the set-up I'm talking about; within the first 50 pages, all of the things I've described have already taken place, leading Billy on a new contemporary quest to understand himself and his sister's death, precisely through a weirder and weirder story involving a halfway house, a mute child bully, gaping underground caverns that might or might not actually exist, and the most unreliable narrator this side of American Freaking Psycho. But just like Murakami (and you know what I mean if you're a fan), Meno manages to pull all these disparate elements together, and in a way that seems effortless too, and deliver a story with a lot of raw and true emotional wallop at its center while still couched in a dreamlike fairytale narrative structure. It's a difficult thing to describe, fans of these stories will tell you, and almost impossible to actually describe where the line lays between these kinds of projects and unintelligible artsy messes; you just know it when you see it, I guess, and here Meno definitely has "it."

Like I said, I think a lot of it has to do with the author themselves getting to a point of real maturity in their careers, a point where they truly understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and are able to veer off suddenly from the norm without worrying fatally that they're heading down the wrong road. This is always where a good writer becomes a great one, after all, is the moment they step off that highway the rest of us are on and say, "You know, I think I'm going to create this brand-new road out of thin air, and I invite the rest of you to drive down it too once I'm finished building it." That's what makes a great artist great; they can imagine this new nonexistent road where none of the rest of us can, when all the rest of us are happy to keep driving down that boring ol' concrete road that everyone else is driving down. Or if you want to put it in even simpler terms in this case, let's say it like this -- that when you compare the two books directly, Hairstyles seems like the one that everyone wanted Meno to write and expected out of him, while Boy Detective is the one that no one but Meno himself could've envisioned beforehand. And it's precisely because of this that Boy Detective is so great, and Hairstyles so mediocre.

This only comes from being a more and more mature artist, and that in turn only comes from being a prolific artist, of simply writing and writing and writing if you're for example a writer, of just picking up that pen and starting the next novel as soon as the previous one is finished. It's a great thing to watch in Meno, to watch him grow as an artist like that, to actually follow through on the raw promise displayed in his earlier flawed work; it's always fantastic, I think, to watch a good writer become a great one right in front of you, and I'm sure is a big part of what inspires such a passionate audience around Meno's work in the first place. I'm happy that all of them bugged me so much over the last six months, and goaded me into reading Boy Detective and changing my opinion about his work; oh, that all of us could be as lucky as Meno, I suppose, and have the kind of passionate and proactive group of fans that he does. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to reading yet more of this intriguing author's work.
Profile Image for Imogen.
Author 6 books1,230 followers
January 13, 2009
I can't believe I never wrote a review of this! This book haunts me, I swear to god. Before I read this one, Joe Meno was just this guy who wrote some sweet short stories and a popcorn book about being a teenage punker. The Boy Detective Fails, though, is some next level. Y'know? It shouldn't work- it should be precious and cloying and teenage writing excercisey, instead of maybe the best book since 2000. Which I guess probably it is.

It's a cultural moment, for starters: do kids in 2009 read Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew books? I bet some of 'em do, I don't know. I guess nobody else really did in 1987, when I was reading them, which is why it feels like something so personal to revisit: I never really talked to anybody about Nancy Drew, y'know? I consumed about a gross of garage sale Hardy Boys books in first grade, but so quickly that I definitely didn't discuss them with anybody. They felt totally disposable, or more specifically inconsequential- like something that yes I enjoyed but so who cared. I felt affectionate toward them and a little bit embarrassed FOR them because of how outdated they were.

Which is kind of the crux of this, right? "But so who cared," "I felt affectionate toward their outdatedness." It's dressed up in a cartoon of pathos, and if the core of it weren't so, ah, gravityful? Full of gravity? Dense with ... something? I don't know, I guess just that this would be a pretty easy concept to do a bad job with, and to pull it off at all is pretty amazing; to pull it off this well, to sustain the a tone this sad for so long, it's a goddam feat.

So yeah. I consistently sell copies of this from the staff-recommends shelf at my store, and people consistently DON'T sell them back to the store. I think I saw a used one once. Everybody reads this and then holds onto it and then replaces their sad heart with it. Amazering.
Profile Image for Mir.
4,842 reviews5,003 followers
March 14, 2020
This is one of those capital-L novels about how modern life is depressing and alienating and disappointing. I was kind of afraid it would be, but I've liked other things from Akashic press, so...

Anyway, the writing seemed fine if this sounds like your sort of thing.
Profile Image for Toby.
829 reviews328 followers
November 26, 2013
“Where do you go when you die? Ha ha. Go on, go on and tell her, Billy."

Billy smiles. "You become a little voice in someone's ear telling them that things will be alright.”

A deep melancholy permeates the pages of The Boy Detective Fails, a magical little book that asks questions about growing up and growing old, the death of innocence and imagination, loss and grief via the story of an adult boy detective. People reference something called Encyclopedia Brown plus the usual suspects of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, popular characters from an American childhood that seemed too Other to me as a young man in small town England. I preferred the much more English series, The Mystery Kids, myself. But anyway take those kids who had magical crime busting adventures and crush their spirit and enthusiasm and send them out to solve the mystery of death and you've got the essence of The Boy Detective Fails.

And in his straight-faced magical realist style of writing he crafted something of a Lemony Snicket for adults, something smart and haunting, laced with real pain and sorrow and wit and heart and situational humour. It's a truly surprising piece of work that deserves to be lauded and paid homage to with countless imitators who just don't have the skill to get past the original surface gimmick and imbue their novel with actual life.
4 reviews3 followers
August 24, 2007
I've given The Boy Detective Fails three stars. All three of them are for the characters and incidental events. None of them are for the book's main plot line.

I completely identified with Billy Argo, especially when he explained his fear of not knowing the right answer when it counts. I developed little fiction-crushes on Caroline and Penny. But for brevity, I'll focus mostly on the Mumford children. Their personalities and foibles are excellent, excellent writing. Effie's science projects take the poster-board and macaroni tools of elementary school science and use them to probe deeply into the human experience. It's really amazing writing. Her model rocketry experiment is the best. The idea of lonely little children shooting message-in-a-bottle model rockets into the blackness of the night and waiting for someone, anyone, to respond... Upon reading that passage I kind of just mulled over it in awe little while.

Unfortunately, for me anyway, the insight of this book, taken as a whole, is a good deal less than the sum of its parts. I don't agree with the author's decision to actually ramp up the amount of inexplicable supernatural events seen by adult Billy. It is related through the story that Child-Genius Billy unmasked lots of bogus phantoms, very much in the tradition of Scooby-Doo. I was totally hooked on the story during the first chapter. Billy, triumphant, gave me both nostalgia for all the Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins source material (of which I used to consume enormous quantities) and for my own childhood. (I was hardly a Billy-Argo-level genius, but I had a Billy-Argo-level ego.) Ah, child geniuses -- there seem to be so many more of them than there are adult geniuses. Billy's fall is basically inevitable, and I relished the dread of it.

But next, thirty year old Billy Argo emerges into a world that includes a cabal of supervillains more suited to The Tick than to Nancy Drew or even Tom Swift. Buildings mysteriously vanish, real ghosts and a sort of headless horseman make appearances. A gang of assassins uses something which is described as acid, but which leaves behind limbs that are invisible but somehow still functional. I understand what the author is trying to do. He's trying to depict the unsatisfactorily indecipherable complexity of adult life. Young Billy always unmasked the phantom. Adult Billy accosts the phantom only to find he really and truly doesn't have a face. Kid problems are easy. Adult problems are not. Okay, I get it. I just don't like the implementation. People use the supernatural when describing phenomena for which they do not understand the physics, or the immediate cause. Relying on supernatural explanations seems less common with adults than with children, not more common. Adults are usually very good at rationalizing mundane causes for odd events. Adults, more jaded, are less likely to be surprised. Magic leaves our consciousness as we grow, and that is part of our nostalgia for childhood, in my estimation. The author asserts at one point that adults fear magic, and I don't really agree with that. They sort of just become "disenchanted" (agh! bad pun). The problem for adults is another level back. We find that we can explain the "how" of something all day long, and are usually still paranoid that there is some deeper "why" floating out there beyond our understanding. I think Joe Meno chopped off his assessment of the adult thought process at least one stage too early.

If you used to be a science whiz kid, and you now lost your ability to explain the most rudimentary physics, you in the real world might be as perplexed as Billy Argo in his fictional disappearing city. You might really identify with The Boy Detective Fails. But that's not the way it works for me or anybody I know. For me the Boy Detective really did fail to identify the truth of the matter.
Profile Image for David.
652 reviews303 followers
August 5, 2020
This reads like a lost Tim Burton movie directed by Wes Anderson. Flipping through the first chapter I kept waiting for the character that Johnny Depp was going to play in the inevitable screen adaptation. Turns out it did make to the stage for a brief musical run.

It's Encyclopedia Brown all grown up. Apparently your child prodigies don't exactly navigate adulthood well. Billy Argo is 30, recently released from a mental hospital and still not quite over the mystery of why his beloved sister killed herself. He finds vague work selling hair replacement products. Wig and moustache sets with names like The Junior Executive, The Noble Hunter and The Mysterious Stranger. Past nemeses, now doddering old men like Professor Von Golum keeps forgetting that they plan on killing Billy.

Time hasn't been kind to other kid detectives. Billy runs into the Hartly boys, now working the movie theatre, their detecting days long past when it was discovered their father was running a counterfeiting ring. Frank is heavily medicated after a bad accident at the Old Mill and Joe lost his gig as a mall cop when he shot a shoplifter in the leg.

And I'd happily linger in this off kilter world as Billy navigates his own existential crisis. Cryptic letters hug page gutters to be deciphered (check the copyright page) and the books' french flaps hold a decoder ring to solve other puzzles. Chapter 14 gets stolen entirely.

But it's uneven. Horrible crimes flare up unbidden. Entire buildings and people disappear never to be explained, a little boy tortures his primary school classmates - Bobby Cohen will never walk in a straight line again. And I get it, the adult world comes with adult problems but then it swings back to a shy girl who meekly steals anything pink, blossoming love and classic unmaskings. It's too big a swing - beyond Burton's Batman appearing in the midst of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure this is Todd Phillips' Joker rearing his head.
Profile Image for Tim The Enchanter.
350 reviews175 followers
December 4, 2013
An Absurd 2 Stars

Random Ramblings


^^ That was basically what I was thinking by the end of this book. My mind was blank and I found myself absently blinking at my kindle. I couldn't tell if the book was endearing or it had a stupefying effect. After several minutes of mindless blinking, I went with stupefying.

While at times it was cute and clever, the majority of the time it was suffering from an identity crisis. One part general fiction, one part satire, one part mystery, one part fantasy, and one part absurd. The Boy Detective Fails tells the story of Billy Argo, the Boy Detective. As a child, he partook in many a wonderful adventures with his sister Caroline and his friend Fenton. As a team (well, mostly by himself) they solved many crimes with names that could have been taken from a Hardy Boys or Encyclopedia Brown tale. As the Boy Detective grows up, he leave for college. While he is gone, his sisters tries to solve crimes without him. For reasons unknown to the Boy Detective, his sister, after multiple tries, successfully commits suicide. As a result, Fenton gains 300 pounds and takes to the talk show circuit and the Boy Detective tries to follow his sisters lead. He eventually lands in a psychiatric hospital where he is released after 10 years.

The story is told within a world of magical realism where there is a faceless man and bad guy can make buildings simply disappear. The tone of the story is absurd as it is often told in the style of a Hardy Boy novel on crack. When I initially started the book, I was amused. The narrators voice felt similar to that in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. In both stories, the world is explored through the eyes of a person with mental illness. While in the Curious Incident, you were well aware that the MC's perception was skewed by his Autism, The Boy Detective does not overtly tell you that the MC is experiences the world outside of reality.

The book is written in a style of interconnecting short stories. While on there own, some of the stories were entertaining and at times endearing, the overall effect was disjointed and had a feeling of being aimless. At one time I may have been able to appreciate the method of story telling and laud the authors artistic expression. Now, I simply don't care. The book tried to be too many things and failed at most of them. This may be for some people but not for me.

I didn't despise it so I gave two stars. Being a fan of other absurd forms of entertainment such as Monty Python and Mystery Science Theatre 2000, I can't be too hard on the Boy Detective Fails.

Profile Image for Lesley.
128 reviews29 followers
October 30, 2007
I just couldn't deal with this book and I only made it about half way through. It's just too self-conscious, too cute, too gimmicky. It's got, you know, chapters containing only one sentence, and pages with all the text squeezed into the bottom righthand corner. Yeah, it comes with a decoder ring, but the content of the decoded messages, well, sucks. Boring.

This is the kind of book you might expect to end mid-sentence. I looked and it doesn't, but the final chapter is followed by an angel food cake recipe, several pencil and paper games, and a brief list of the indie rock bands the author was listening to while he wrote. Yawn. Annoying. Done.

Profile Image for Jill.
346 reviews335 followers
September 10, 2016
Growing up is a shame. Not only because we lose the halcyon days of childhood, where we know absolutely nothing about the world and yet everything makes perfect sense, but also because as adults, we become too self-aware.

In The Boy Detective Fails, Joe Meno’s adulthood shows, because everything about this book is too self-conscious. Meno knew exactly what he wanted it to be and exactly what he wanted to say, and it shows. It shows quite horribly. Now I’m not against writers endeavoring to make a point in their work. What I’m against are writers who make their points shoddily and obviously. This novel begins with a clever idea: what happens when child detectives in the style of Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown grow up? Meno’s boy detective becomes terribly depressed, unable to accept that we can’t, and shouldn’t, solve every mystery, unable to realize that getting older and dying are things we must take as they come.

It’s an interesting idea presented with an interesting plot. But I could never lose myself in the ideas because I was too distracted by the book’s tweeness. Meno recounts his tale inventively: there is a decoder included in the book for secret messages, there are multiple mini-books with separate chapters, there are entire chapters that are “lost.” Its creative narrative is indeed too creative. It’s disjointed to the point where I was not struck by any one thing, so everything rang hollow.

The beginning is very promising. The characters are all children, and Meno explains the genesis of the boy detective and his sidekicks’ crime fighting days. His description of the magic of childhood is feverish with the memories of long summer days full of carefree play. Once the boy detective ages, however, the magic disappears. I found the story repetitive and dull when they reach adulthood. Not so ironically, the shift in tone is accurate to the shift in maturity, but it doesn’t mean it’s fun to read about.

I wanted to like this book, but it was like reading a new genre: Hipster Lit. Overly self-conscious and nauseatingly precious, The Boy Detective Fails fails.
Profile Image for Jasmine.
668 reviews45 followers
January 6, 2011
It is embarrassing to admit, but chapters one through thirty have been stolen. We truly apologize for this.

There is something really special about joe meno. The first time I read him I read his short story book, you know the one with the really great cover.

And I liked it, but it felt light. I brushed this off as being because they were short stories, I figure, yeah they were likable but you can't really do anything special with a short story (now I know this is wrong based on the many other short stories that I absolutely love).

Reading this book, I realized that there was something really special about his style that created this lightness.

This is a really amazing book. It takes on deep existential issues in a way that feels completely weightless. It's a book that you come through thinking "ah so that's how it is?" but without ever feeling weighted down by. And yes there is the fact that sometimes you want to feel weighed down by a book, and if that is what you are looking for this book is not for you.

This book achieves what has been called by me and others optimistic nihilism. The world is a terrible place but that is no reason to be depressed by it.

I love this book, I'm totally super impressed.
Profile Image for Nick.
175 reviews48 followers
September 26, 2008
This book is beautifully heartbreaking. Conjurs nostalgia that may not exist. The reader is faced with the realities of growing up; be it gracefully, or wistful for those moments that we wish we could carefully place in a shoebox, hiding it in our bedroom closets, only taking it out secretly when alone. This, by far, is Meno's best work. Inventive and original, will make any adult pine for long summer days and the vanishing shadows of childhood.
Profile Image for Jeffrey.
8 reviews9 followers
September 6, 2012
Let me start by saying this: Perhaps the whitest book I've ever read in my life.

An interesting concept: What happens to all these childhood charcters, these boy detectives, when they grow up? How do they go about growing up and realizing that the world contains mysteries that just cannot be solved? And how do they live wit that knowledge?

One of my favorite aspects of this book was taking mimicky, cliche, Hardy Boys type characters and dressing them up in real life clothes (not literally, oh definitely not literally!) and seeing how the world destroys some of them and how some of them manage to "make it" in the real world.

I found the book to be decently enjoyable and fun up until about page 260 when I really, from there to the end, got roped into the characters and the story. I do not think that a lot of the writing devices were aiding the story or characters in any way. Much of it was just fun but didn't really emphasize or help the book along or show some interesting perspective on the themes of growing up, loneliness, feelings of failure, etc. that permeate this book. The only writing device that definitely worked was the oftentimes superficial characters and flat dialogue, which helped make emphatic the struggle between children's novel characters in the real world. I adore the Professor Von Golum character's appearances thoughout the story. However, the reason I would consider giving the book 4 stars because it covers one of my favorite themes in anything: redemption. For the Boy Detective and a host of other characters. There was some useless stuff in here that were distracting, like the ladies society with the ink that vaporizes people? Didn't get why that came about. But I did grown fond of these characters and of the boy detective as he struggled to make it in a world he was seperately afraid of.

Sidenote - Can anyone else easily see how this would be a play? I can definitely see that working.
Profile Image for Brian.
21 reviews4 followers
November 22, 2007
I loved everything about this book. From the characters, to the surreal plot, to the very manner of writing.

The characters are absurd portrayals of mystery clichés, but rundown from the weight of the real world. Unable to cope with their surroundings, they're constantly trying to reclaim their former glory. Their attempts are short lived, feeble, and ultimately tragic.

Depending on your point of view, the plot is either beautifully integrated or maddeningly splintered. So much of the Boy Detective's viewpoint is affected by guilt, sadness and medication that (I think) the fractured plot serves to illustrate his emotional loose ends. Mysteries are opened without ever being truly solved. The Boy Detective becomes the hero who intervenes just enough to discover the culprits, but lacks his former confidence to bring about a resolute end. Too fearful to truly solve any mysteries (lest he solve his own), the Boy Detective is perpetually torn between helping those in need and fleeing to a drug-induced haze. It's tragic and depressing, and perfect.

Lastly, Meno's style of writing was refreshing. It's hard to describe without providing specific examples (and thus ruining the surprise), but it certainly completed the package.

Warning : This book is not for everyone. Read this book if you've ever thought to yourself "I wish I could read something I haven't read before. Something really different."
Profile Image for Jessica.
109 reviews14 followers
January 29, 2009
I heard this book inspired the show "The Venture Brothers" so I picked it up because of that. Yes, I know..."Nerd!" I ended up loving it from the first word. It's darker and more bittersweet than VB, but also funny and a fantastic parody of the old tv shows and mystery books we used to love as kids.
Profile Image for tee.
239 reviews244 followers
July 16, 2010
I both loved and hated this book. Really. I could give an impassioned argument as to why it's trite and shite, but could easily put it on my favourites shelf as well, yes, it was a confusing journey for me.

So, the positives; every time I had a spare moment, I looked forward to picking it up. I was never bored whilst reading it (though where that had something to do with the lack of depth, I don't know). I certainly don't regret reading it. Meno has a unique voice, whimsical perhaps. It reminded me a lot of the tv series 'Pushing Daisies', with it's somewhat stilted prose, stiff dialogue and eccentric plot. Another similarity to 'Pushing Daisies' was Meno's use of colour, it was peppered with blues, oranges - colour was everywhere.

For how whimsical this book was, I was surprised that even though I had my trusty pencil in hand, there was only paragraph that I underlined. Here it is, for those interested:

"Why is a mystery so terrifying to us as adults? Is it because our worlds have become worlds of routine and safety and order the older we've grown? Is it because we have learned the answer to everything and the answer is that there is never a secret passageway, a hidden treasure, or a note written in code to save us from our darkest moments? Why are we struggling so hard against believing there is a world we don't know? Is it more frightening to accept our lives as they are than it is to entertain a fantasy of hope?"

I thought I'd be underlining precious sentiments every few pages at least, but for all it's whimsy, I think it lacked heart. It lacked substance. It certainly lacked depth. I didn't love any of the characters, after an entire novel they still felt like sketches, though I thought little Ellie was quite punchy - his description of her was endearing (but at the same time made me squirm a little.)

"The boy detective stares at the soft, wrinkled dollar. He stares at her small open, palm, her weirdly round face, the white patch over one eye, the smashed glasses. He thinks he is staring at the picture of how his heart must look: small and sad and mashed."

For all the ativan that this dude popped, I expected some nice raw meltdowns, some description of panic or anxiety, some insight into his depression other than him rubbing at his scarred wrists on occasion. Maybe that's what made this book sweet though, it skipped the really nasty stuff and just played with the prettier things. Maybe reading this after I read a biography of Anne Sexton's was just a little too big a jump from real mental illness to makebelieve (funnily, she was on Thorazine most of her adult life, as was the main character in this novel - how different the depth of their madness).

I think, for me, it just teetered on the edge of being too sickly-sweet. I mean, the boy detective worked at "Mammoth Life Like Mustache International" (once again, something that I could see in a Pushing Daisies episode). I both loved this (because, well who doesn't love mustaches, and the whimsyfuck side of me does love this kind of thing), but it also just pushed me that little too far.

"The boy detective says his prayers and whispers goodnight to his owl alarm clock. He does - honestly, every night. He says it like this: "Good night father, goodnight mother, goodnight bedroom, goodnight Mr Owl Alarm Clock," like it is a first, middle and last name. He switches on the light and immediately it begins snowing. A soft white haze fills the room, as Billy, thinking about the lady in pink, soon falls asleep."

This is a grown man by the way. If you liked that paragraph, if it warmed the cockles of your little hipster heart, then perhaps you'll love this book. I think I would have loved it a lot more ten or more years ago. Perhaps when I wasn't coming off an Anne Sexton comedown. It's certainly a book that I'd recommend to the happier of my friends ... wait, do I have any? I'd want my kids to read it then when they were older, and hell, I'd be pretty happy if I could write a book anywhere near this endearing.

It was an incredibly sweet book and overall, an enjoyable read. I'd read more by Meno and I think if I wasn't such a cynical, depressive fuck that feeds off miserable novels, rather than charming ones - I would have rated it higher and not whined so much. Can you imagine how adorable Joe Meno would be in real life? I bet he totally wears sweaters and owl brooches and sups at honey-sweetened warm drinks in cosy cafes. I imagine his girlfriend would be like Zooey Deschanel, and they'd have little babies that smelled like cinnamon.

Profile Image for Bethany.
606 reviews55 followers
January 2, 2013
I really hoped this book would be wonderful. The cover and a quote I had read promised much, but I try not to raise my hopes to high. Turns out, I could have let the vague expectations I squelched roam free!

I don't know what to say about this book; my thoughts are all in a tumult. All I know is that I enjoyed it a lot. Here are some things I noted while reading:

The boy detective, Billy Argo, reminded me of Adrian Monk in parts, since things like untied shoes bothered him and he was so out of touch with the modern world. The most noticeable similarity was that he was haunted by the unsolved death of a loved one too. Only in his case it was the death of his sister, not his wife.

Other than that, this book brought to mind what a sinister Ellen Raskin mystery would be like or a less brilliant, more mysterious Observatory Mansions. It reminded me of Observatory Mansions most of all, probably because of the isolation and quirkiness of the characters. That's not to say this book didn't posses its own originality; it certainly did. It can stand tall and proud on its own island of incomparability.

At first, the setting of the book seems normal. But as plot lines were introduced, I realized how fantastical it all was. The most apt word to describe the world that the boy detective and the other characters live in is 'surreal'. Even after finishing, I couldn't decide whether some of the unexplained things that happened were real or a result of Billy's prescribed drugs. The last page left me feeling happy, but with a lingering bewilderment. With the help of the book flap, I surmised a main theme of this book is 'the necessity of the unknown'. Okay, I can live with that!

And apparently, this book was turned into a musical which recently had its world premiere only a couple of hours away from where I live! A fact I found quite exciting... til I realized that the play's run had ended 8 days ago. *is ineffably bummed right now*
Profile Image for Kevin.
13 reviews
November 5, 2007
I loved this book. It was very different from any book with which I'd ever spent time. (Making reviews intimidate me.)It had the tone of The Royal Tenenbaums, quirky Belle and Sebastian songs, and a bit of Scooby Doo mysteries. I couldn't help but have Alec Baldwin narrate the story to me in my mind. I loved how I had to abandon any norms of "standard" mystery books. The characters were endearing and lovable head cases. When the book was taking me around corners that I wasn't sure I'd like, I was pleased Billy's world wasn't a complete acid bath.

I found this through goodreads. Thank you. This is my favorite book I've read this year. I checked it out from my local library, so I had to rig my own decoder ring.

This is how I imagnined Prof. Van Golum [http://www.imdb.com/gallery/ss/039655...]

Joe Meno is now on my radar and I hope to find more of his books. This was a very fun, odd, sweet, a major downer and ultimately, a terrific read.

I reread the book three months later and purchased my own copy, because I couldn't wait until the holidays.
Profile Image for Trin.
1,749 reviews549 followers
February 8, 2009
Ten years after entering a mental institution in the wake of his beloved sister’s suicide, the Boy Detective attempts, reluctantly, to reenter the world. While not the magical landscape of his childhood—which played out like the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mysteries Meno is winking at—it’s still an odd place he finds himself in, full of child geniuses and past-their-prime criminal masterminds and buildings that simply vanish.

It’s a universe that may take the reader some getting used to, too—at first I found it too precious, false. But if you wade around in its quirkiness for a while, I think you’ll find it difficult not to be seduced. Meno does a nice job blending his characters’ horrible sadness, regret, and tragedy with hope—just enough scraped from the bottom of Pandora’s jar. So ultimately, this book isn’t about failure, but about second chances.

It’s also about an odd but intelligent boy named Billy who falls in love with a troubled girl named Penny, at which point the two of them are both menaced by a villain named Dr. Hammer. Weirdest Dr. Horrible AU ever, y/y?
Profile Image for Murray Ewing.
Author 11 books19 followers
September 29, 2016
As a child, Billy Argo was the Boy Detective, solving Hardy Boys/Scooby Doo-style mysteries alongside his best friend Fenton and younger sister Caroline. But with adulthood everything’s changed — Caroline committed suicide, Billy blamed Fenton and the two don’t talk, and then Billy went into a long, deep breakdown. Now, released from psychiatric care and working in telephone sales, he returns to the mystery of why his sister took her own life.

From that setup, I was expecting something about the clash between the golden ideals of childhood (mystery! adventure!) and the difficult realities of adulthood, but Billy’s adulthood world was too surreal for that: it was as full of super-villains as his childhood was, and the characters were quirky rather than realistic. So what was the novel about instead? I’m still not sure. Some mysteries were solved, but not in any convincing way; the quirkiness began to get a bit tedious and I perhaps didn’t give the novel the attention it needed to bring out its meaning. It was okay.
Profile Image for Frankie.
97 reviews1 follower
January 10, 2022
I really liked this book. Weird fiction rocks and I am going to read more of it. I liked all the characters and I thought they were all interesting. I liked the magical realism-esque hijinks that happen in Gotham. I liked my decoder ring. I liked how the book was able to leave some things unresolved. I think the book could’ve used a little less dead girls, but hey. You win some you lose some. Will probably read this again.
Profile Image for Patrick.
501 reviews111 followers
April 22, 2008
Wow, this was great. It is kind of like a darker companion to "Confessions of a Teen Sleuth" by Chelsea Cain, which was a humorous account of Nancy Drew's life story, as told by her. This one is a thirty-year-old Encyclopedia Brown type named Billy Argo, just released from a decade stint in a psychiatric hospital following a breakdown after his younger sister's suicide. The tone is melancholy and surreal, almost like the comic and violent Edward Gorey, and uses subtly outdated 1950's-era language which was funny and added to the idea of this being a continuation of the hero's earlier adventures (the book starts at chapter 33 or something). The heavily medicated Boy Detective, back in reality and unsure of himself, runs into old friends and enemies, including his arch-rival, the nefarious Professor Von Golum (who lives in Billy's group home and he keeps seeing on the bus. Awkward.), whose plans to kill Billy keep going unfulfilled due to his senility and grandpa-like tendency to fall asleep. Billy also tries to break up an all-star villains of crime convention that is straight out of "The Tick." Eventually, he develops a crush on a pick-pocket who only steals pink things, befriends some unpopular children, and half-heartedly tries to solve the mystery of his own past, present, and future, and it's all really just funny and sad and hopeful at the same time. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Kelli.
119 reviews2 followers
April 25, 2019
This review is posted on both my personal account and the account for Crossroads Public Library.

“The only thing all men have in common with one another is their inherent capacity to make mistakes. But there is wonder in the attempt, knowing we are all destined to fall short, but forgoing reason and fear time and time again so deliberately.”

This is my favorite book, but I haven't read it in six years. Not for any deliberate reason, just that it's words were imprinted on my heart and I haven't needed to revisit them in a while. But now I'm a little older, a little closer in age to Billy, and feeling just as directionless and beaten by a world that can be cruel for no reason as he did. This book hurts - but there's hope at the end.
Profile Image for Ніка Колонюк.
7 reviews1 follower
April 24, 2015
одна з найбільш несподіваних книжок, які мені доводилося читати останнім часом. сюжет настільки ж надламний, наскільки життєствердним є його розгортання. автор просто бере і так само просто проводить спантеличеного читача вузькою стежкою від народження великого болю, крізь його пережиття, і аж до катарсичного подолання. і ти такий спершу дочитуєш, бо не дочитати не можеш, а потім сидиш і думаєш: треба ж, і все це - ��ише початок чогось великого. чого справді важливого. десь глибоко у мені.
Profile Image for Thekelburrows.
677 reviews18 followers
January 5, 2016
Beautiful, emotional, and very odd.

“It is the strain of walking around the world-down the street, riding city buses and elevators, moving from place to place to place-and not knowing who might want to destroy you, who might like to fill your heart with poison, who might rob you and stab you, who might stand above you in the dark with a tarantula.”
― Joe Meno, The Boy Detective Fails
Profile Image for JSou.
136 reviews212 followers
February 14, 2011
Did anyone decode the secret messages? Will I miss something critical if I don't do it? Is it worth it? Keep in mind I've been feeling incredibly lazy lately, and it just seemed like a lot of work having to cut out a decoder ring.
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