It would have worked, too!
As the back cover of Meddling Kids says, in 1977 the Blyton Summer Detective Club unmasked the Sleepy Lake monster, a low-life fortune hunter who put on a funny suit to scare people away while he searched the grounds of the Deboën mansion for the gold hoard that was rumored to be hidden there. The four kids (plus dog) set up a clever trap, caught the bad guy, unmasked him, and got their story in the local paper. Another triumph for the teens of the BSDC!
Except that wasn’t the whole story, was it? Why did the kids never return to Blyton Hills after that summer? What did they see, what did they hear, on that night on the island in the middle of Sleepy Lake? Thirteen years later, when Meddling Kids takes place, why is Kerri bouncing through a series of dead-end jobs far below her scientific ability? Why does she wake up screaming? Why has Andy (Andrea, but nobody calls her that on pain of, well, pain) been in an out of several jails? Why did the armed forces teach her special skills and then tell her to stay away? Why does Nate keep checking himself into insane asylums? Why did Peter—golden youth, movie star—die? And how does Nate keep conversing with him? At least Tim the dog, a descendant of the teen detectives’ original dog Sean, has his feet on the ground.
Andy gets the gang back together, by hook and not a little bit of crook, to go back and face what happened to them in the night that seems both a lifetime ago and only just the other day. Meddling Kids is darkly hilarious, in bits both big and small. Kerri and Andy arrive at Nate’s latest asylum. “They switched to the nonsmoking parlor, where they could smoke and be alone.” (p. 60) The two young women explain their plan for going back to Oregon, and Nate is full of enthusiasm until, nearing the stairwell, they encounter a nurse who reminds them that just because Nate committed himself doesn’t mean he can uncommit. The kinetic slapstick of how they spring Nate would do the show to which Meddling Kids is an homage proud. There’s a contraption, a surprise or two, and a key role for the dog. It’s no Shaggy-dog story, though, and some of the things that happen in the first scenes in the asylum prove crucial much, much later in the book. Cantero slides them past readers as natural parts of the adventure; when they turn up again, readers feel they’ve been there all along.
He gets the creepy bits, too: the increasing prevalence of NO VACANCY signs as they draw closer to the rural, isolated part of Oregon where Sleepy Lake lies dreaming, as if the land all around is conspiring to have them arrive late at night and with no more shelter than their old Chevy Vega can offer. He gets the nightmares that the characters, especially Kerri, are prone to, how real they seem, so that to a reader they seem like a scene in the novel until, sweet blessed relief, the waking world returns. It was just a dream, wasn’t it?
There’s just the right balance of science and supernatural in the story, too. Fans of Lovecraft will have noticed several of the signs that something terrible lurking down below the mines near Sleepy Lake. But Kerri’s knowledge of biology, geology and obscure disasters point toward rational explanations of all the events that have left them so unsettled. It’s hard to know where to turn, and events in Blyton Hills move too fast for them to have much time to reflect. The town changed while they were away, and not for the better. Unraveling the secrets of Blyton Hills, unraveling their own secrets, both will require facing some unpleasant truths, and maybe some worse things.
Meddling Kids never takes itself too seriously, even as the four intrepid detectives deal with what they would call some serious shit. Well, Andy would call it that; Kerri would find a scientific term; Peter would deliver a sardonic comment from his ambiguous afterlife. Nate would attempt a joke and Tim would greet it all with enthusiasm. The book’s winks at its source include naming one of Sleepy Lake’s tributaries the Zoinx River. I found the connections charming, though they might strike another reader as too clever by half. Two small tics annoyed me from time to time. First, Cantero often slips into script-format dialogue, using the speaker’s name and a colon with no quotation marks. I found it jarring in a prose story. Second, every now and then he calls attention to the book as a book, saying, for example, that one event followed another no more than two blank lines later. He’s got a good illusion going; I didn’t see the need to break it gratuitously.
Those are minor tics, though. Meddling Kids doesn’t stop, it plows the four into one desperate situation after another, with the merest of breathers for them to share knowledge, hatch a plan and, they think, add an ally or two. They look for answers in the old mines, they investigate the Deboën mansion, where they think they see a sinister figure in its topmost tower. And then things start to really get out of hand.
But this is no Saturday morning cartoon. Cantero has already killed one of the gang before the book even starts. Their problems are real, and the odds that the villain is just an old guy in a mask are about as likely as Peter returning unharmed after all these years. The investigators have a plan. But now that they are grown, will they be the ones who have to say, “Well it would have worked…”? Only one way to find out.