May 21, 2015
(++++) NO BULL BUT A BULLDOG
Sinbad and Me. By Kin Platt. Page Publishing. $26.99.
All those writers desperate to connect with the so-called “young adult” audience – preteens and young teenagers in particular – through hyper-“relevant” books steeped in modern concerns such as split families, gender uncertainty and perfect racial-and-ethnic balance of protagonists would do well to take a page from Kin Platt (1911-2003). Platt was preoccupied with exactly none of those oh-so-up-to-date matters when he created Sinbad and Me, the first book of a trilogy about a mystery-solving boy and his bulldog. This is actually the second book of a tetralogy if you count The Blue Man (1961), which also features Steve Forrest but unconscionably omits Sinbad. The Edgar Award-winning Sinbad and Me, now (finally!) available in a new edition, dates to 1966, with its sequels being The Mystery of the Witch Who Wouldn’t (1969) and The Ghost of Hellsfire Street (1980).
And what will modern sleuth-creating writers discover in Sinbad and Me? They will learn that complex but fair-to-the-reader plotting, amusing and well-wrought characters (even formulaic ones), and a whole series of plot twists and turns, add up to a compulsively readable book that easily outpaces most newer ones in its genre. In fact, they will learn that Sinbad and Me works despite being somewhat frozen in its time, despite some inaccuracies, despite (or perhaps because of) its clear resemblance to even earlier boy-detective books, such as those featuring the Hardy Boys. They will learn that a dog can be a full participant in a mystery/adventure while remaining 100% dog, behaving in a realistically doglike manner: “When I got back to the house I had a quick conference with man’s best friend. Sinbad hadn’t been consulted all day but he wasn’t the type to bear a grudge. He lay and listened and didn’t interrupt once.” There is nothing Scooby Doo-ish about Sinbad, no almost-speech, no taking the lead and helping the rather dim humans around him see what ought to be obvious. But Sinbad is nevertheless a full participant in this mystery/adventure, and his presence is part of what makes Sinbad and Me stand out with such distinction half a century after it was written.
Half a century does bring societal changes, of course. The underlying premise of the novel, which involves Steve being left on his own for a considerable time while his parents head out of town to help relatives, is out of place in an age like ours, where tales of hovering “helicopter parents” alternate with ones about “free-range parents” whose children sometimes get taken away by authorities because the parents allow them to (horrors!) walk home from school unsupervised. The use of printed encyclopedias and the greatest code-breaking technology ever invented – the human brain – seems impossibly quaint today, when people with half a brain or less command enough computer power to solve just about any cipher. The idea of bad guys zipping around in big stolen cars and making largely ineffectual, only semi-scary threats, seems disturbingly over-familiar, to the point of cliché. And having the bad guys use a snake as a weapon – in a scene that any herpetologist would find laughably inaccurate – scarcely increases the story’s verisimilitude.
But so what? Strict realism has never been the point of young-adult adventures. Nowadays, “coming of age” is the main thing that matters, but in Sinbad and Me, what counts is something more straightforward: solving a mystery. Yet the mystery itself is so convoluted that kids of any age (that includes the grown-up kids known as adults) will be captivated by its ins and outs. There are in fact multiple interlocking mysteries here: one involving a sunken gambling ship, another having to do with a harmless “little old lady” who has attracted the attention of some unsavory characters for no apparent reason, another about a lawyer who is a little more close-mouthed than the facts would seem to justify, another about a science teacher with a suspiciously intense interest in skin diving in a certain area, and several concomitant and highly specific mysteries of messages written in code in a cave and on a painting. What Platt does in facile style and with a fine sense of pacing is to weave all these mysteries into a single story built around 12-year-old Steve and his bulldog, with a variety of subsidiary characters to spice up the narrative (notably a sheriff who always seems to stumble upon Steve at just the wrong moment). The result is a story that remains engrossing even though the societal framework in which it is set is long gone – but great art, after all, transcends its time, and if Sinbad and Me is not exactly “great art,” that proves only that pretty doggone good art can be transcendent, too, in its own dogged way.