The Little Detective: Case Updates

Last week I decided I would take a short break from reading mystery fiction to (briefly) explore some other interests. Well, I didn’t end up reading as widely as I hoped although I did start to work my way through my hefty backlog of Doctor Who audio dramas but here I am back and raring to talk mysteries again.

Today’s post however won’t be about books but rather about the ways I have been able to share my enjoyment of mysteries with my daughter over the past few weeks.

Now, let me start by saying that I do not force mystery stories onto my daughter! I occasionally will point out one when we are looking for a new book but I let her tell me what she wants to read. Lately however she has been showing a growing interest in detective stories.

Part of the reason for that was the Outfoxed board game I blogged about recently which continues to be a hit with her but I think the biggest leap forward came courtesy of a Netflix TV show – The InBESTigators.

The InBESTigators is an Australian children’s television show about a group of elementary-aged kids who decide to start an investigation agency after solving a case at their school.

Each episode contains two short cases, recounted in the form of vlogs made after the cases are solved. One or two of the team will recount what happened and there are lots of short cutaways to show the things they remember and to bring the action to life.

The cases are, of course, entirely of the sort of crimes that would be appropriate for that age group. Missing backpacks, stolen snacks and so on. Many hinge on a central problem of how or why things happened in a particular way. As viewers find out, not everything is a case of someone acting with bad intent – often a particular set of strange circumstances will create the impression something has happened.

To give an example of a case – the first one involves a tin of money disappearing from a shelf behind where one of the InBESTigators is standing. No one else is in the room, the child placed the money on the shelf themselves and they could see that nobody entered.

The result is a surprisingly charming series, helped by the energy, colorful personalities and likeability of the four young leads. The decision to use lots of very short sequences gives the episodes a frantic feel that was more comfortable for my daughter than me but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stories generally involved some pretty sound logical reasoning.

Now, obviously these cases are not going to challenge a teen or adult viewer but as an introduction to the idea of mystery stories as a game that you can play it is hard to beat.

So, this past weekend was Father’s Day and my wife and kid decided that they wanted to give me a day that had a detective theme. They set up a game for us to play where we would work as a team to crack a case – the theft of some valuable jewels.

The game was, of course, mostly set up at my daughter’s level. Suspects were crossed off when they told us they had an alibi and we worked out by process of elimination who was the guilty party.

To obtain clues we had to do games, find items around the house and solve some puzzles. It was a lot of fun made all the sweeter when we were rewarded with snacks for a job well done and my daughter is keen to don her fedora again to repeat the experience soon.

As Father’s Days go it was pretty special and I feel very grateful for the love and attention shown to me!

Outfoxed: A Cooperative Whodunit Game

Details

Ages 5+
2-4 Players (Cooperative)
20 minutes

The Blurb

Mrs. Plumpert’s prized pot pie has gone missing and now it’s a chicken chase to crack the case! Move around the board gathering clues and then use the special evidence scanner to rule out suspects. You’ll have to work together because the guilty fox is high-tailing it towards the exit! Will you halt the hungry hooligan before it flies the coop… or will you be Outfoxed?


Well, this wasn’t exactly what I had planned last week when I said to be prepared for something a little different this weekend. Actually, as I noted on Twitter I have no memory at all of what I had planned but all my ideas had to be shelved after what has been a really busy week.

We are still currently in the working from home phase which we have been balancing with frequent meetings and the need to entertain our five year old. Throw in the really frustrating mix of our AC unit breaking and really warm weather and it has not been the most comfortable week! Hence no Wednesday or Friday reviews.

Fortunately we were able to get our AC unit and furnace replaced. While that means I have to be a bit better behaved when it comes to expanding my TBR pile in the coming months, fortunately I had a whole set of books on their way before that and, it turns out (because I ordered it at the start of the stay at home order), a whodunnit board game that we could play as a family.

There is also an instruction booklet that is not shown.

While I normally would grumble at a game taking over a month to arrive, in this case the timing could hardly have been better. As it happens my daughter had recently discovered a children’s book series with animal detectives (The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake) and so the idea of a mystery game was enthusiastically embraced.

This game is also animal-themed as the players each play as detective chickens while the culprit is one of sixteen fox suspects. The players work together to identify clues that will enable them to identify and whittle down the suspects. The problem is that while they work to do that the thieving fox is making their way to their den along with their loot.

In terms of gameplay this feels like a blend of a sort of cooperative version of Clue and Guess Who. Players decide whether they will be looking for clues or identifying suspects on each turn. Then they need to roll three dice and get each of the sides showing a symbol matching their goal. If they fail to do this within three rolls the fox gets to move instead of the players.

The clues that are uncovered each show a different item of clothing that the different foxes are wearing in their suspect card pictures. Any individual item is held or worn by three or four foxes so the key is in balancing looking for suspects and new clues.

When a clue is uncovered it is placed into the viewer shown below. Each clue has a hole cut into it in a different place around its edge. When aligned with the window, if a green dot shows through then the guilty party holds or is wearing that item. If not, the guilty fox will not be. It is a clever mechanic that works well and keeps you from accidentally seeing the guilty party.

My daughter did raise the concern that the fox may have changed their clothing to avoid suspicion. She also wondered if all of the foxes may have been working together in some sort of conspiracy. She really enjoyed the story of the game and quickly understood the object of the game and the rules.

So, I love that this game has a luck component that allows adults and children to play together (though their role will be to support the young players in gathering evidence). Younger children could easily play with an older sibling and each feel that they contributed to the solutions. I also think that it teaches coordination of activities and deductive reasoning skills well to young ones.

The game pieces feel durable and the instructions are reasonably easy to follow. I enjoyed the theming of the game as much as my daughter and the twenty minute set up and play time is about perfect for a five year old’s attention span. There are also suggestions of ways that the players can adjust the rules to make the game more challenging.

Having had this for several days now, my daughter shows no sign of losing interest in the game yet and so I feel pretty good about this purchase. To my delight she is showing interest in other detective stories and I am looking into some series I might be able to shake with her (I may, for instance, return to the Miss Mallard mysteries or try the Cam Jansen books).

Do you have any favorite mystery stories or series that you might recommend to a 5 or 6 year old? If so I’d love to hear any suggestions.

The Mystery of the Screaming Clock by Robert Arthur

Book Details

Originally Published in 1964 (this date may well be wrong – Google has it as 1968 but the copyright page of my copy says 64 while Goodreads says 65).

Three Investigators #9
Preceded by The Mystery of the Silver Spider
Followed by The Mystery of the Moaning Cave

The Blurb

The alarm clock went off with the bloodcurdling scream of a woman in mortal terror! Who could have made such a clock – and why?

The Three Investigators immediately set out to discover where the mysterious clock came from. When they come across a run-down house in Hollywood, they find an entire room full of dreadful clocks – and time is running out!

The Verdict

To my delight this book held up to my memories of it. It’s a strong case with a great treasure hunt component.


My Thoughts

Today’s post will likely feel a little different from my usual style, being as much about the impact this book (and the series) had on me as about its individual or distinctive features.

I was prompted to pick up a copy of this book off my shelf by a conversation I had with some of my colleagues during an online meeting. As an icebreaker we each presented a book that meant a lot to us as a child – my own choice was C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe which was the first book I recall setting out to read entirely by myself.

After the meeting was over though I started thinking about the mystery fiction I had read during those formative, preteen years. In particular, I thought about The Five Find-Outers, The Secret Seven, Joe and Frank Hardy and The Three Investigators. Of those I have the most fond memories of The Three Investigators.

Part of it was, I suspect, that I identified strongly with Jupiter Jones who, like me, was a bit of a know-it-all and somewhat big-boned. I felt far more affinity for Jupiter – a boy who used his brains and reasoning – than the impossibly clean-cut and athletic Hardy brothers or the prim types that filled Enid Blyton’s stories.

The reason I am writing about this title – the ninth in the Three Investigators series – is that it is one of the first I remember reading. I first picked up a copy of this book at a store somewhere in the vicinity of the world’s largest pear drop at Oswaldtwistle Mills in Lancashire (my memory is that it was in a gift shop associated with it but I cannot understand why they would have been selling it). I can only assume it was second-hand as my copy was one of the earlier editions presented by Alfred Hitchcock – a fact that led me to erroneously believe that he had actually written these until I was well into my teen years.

This is a pile of regularly-sized pear drops. The world’s largest pear drop is similar but bigger.
Image by Katie Hopkins – this has been cropped slightly. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

I enjoyed those first few volumes enough that I went on to pick up most of those early titles in the series although I was a little baffled by the sudden replacement of Alfred Hitchcock by some interloper by the name of Hector Sebastian. The Paragraph Paperback edition I read recently had been rewritten to feature Mr. Sebastian.

This particular installment in the series involves our intrepid trio of investigating chums finding a strange alarm clock that has been sold to Jupiter’s Uncle Titus as part of a box of junk. The alarm clock gives out a strong shriek when it goes off, leading Jupiter to think that there is a mystery there to be solved. He wants to find out who created the clock and why.

I noted in my response to JJ’s review of this story, this is one of the stories I remember best from the series. In my comment I speculated that this may be as much to do with the setting in which I bought and read it as the material itself – a trip to visit my grandparents. I do however recall shivering at the thought of a screaming alarm clock which perfectly hit the sort of creepy notes that were one of the chief appeals of the series to me (Whispering Mummy and Talking Skull are the other ones I clearly remember).

It soon transpires that this case will take the form of a sort of treasure hunt as the trio work with a teenaged boy to decipher clues that have been left for them. This device is quite a lot of fun, particularly as the clues involve a mix of general knowledge and lateral thinking, making them fair and accessible for an inquisitive preteen.

There is also a pretty surprising amount of action, some of which must have been quite gritty for a book aimed at this audience. Arthur puts several of the boys in pretty serious physical danger at points. While my adult self was confident that the trio would emerge unscathed, I am pretty sure that preteen Aidan would have been firmly perched on the edge of his seat.

Another aspect of this book I recall really finding interesting was the depiction of an aspect of the entertainment industry. In this case it was the idea of having an expert screamer for a radio series. Radio was an obsession of mine at that age (and I still love it) and so that idea really appealed to me.

What I think pleased me most in revisiting the story nearly twenty-five years after first reading it was that I felt it held up pretty well. There are a few far-fetched elements but Arthur pulls everything together very well towards the end, providing a logical explanation and making sense of what has happened and why.

Rereading it took me back to staying in my grandparents’ home in Preston, reading this on a very rainy afternoon while eating Eccles cakes and laying on their sofa. It is funny how a book from childhood can be bound up with so many other memories…

This leads me to wonder if you have any similar titles from childhood (or later) that are so tightly associated with a place or time. I’d love to read some of your own special titles.