In August 1922, two adventurous boys spending two weeks in the country find themselves embroiled in a mystery involving an unpleasant neighbor, his stepdaughter and a pair of mysterious strangers.
The Mill Creek Irregulars: Special Detectives by August Derleth is a 1959 book that follows the adventures of Steve Grendon and Simoleon “Sim” Jones in Sac Prairie, Wisconsin and the outlying countryside (a fictionalized version of Derleth’s home town of Sauk City). Steve is invited to stay with his Great Uncle Joe and Great Aunt Lou about six or seven miles out in the country and invites Sim along.
They don’t set out to investigate anything; they just plan to relax and have fun (primarily by fishing as far as Sim is concerned). However, during a visit to Steve’s aunt and uncle, Gus Elker, the justice of the peace, says he believes something’s going on at the nearby farm of Jake Riley; and Lou observes that she hasn’t seen Riley’s stepdaughter, Molly Burns, for quite a spell.
What’s more, Molly will come into an inheritance on her upcoming 18th birthday.
The adults realize that Steve and Sim, being relatively unknown to Jake Riley, would be the best people to keep an eye on his place without making him unduly suspicious (Gus isn’t quite sure what steps he can take in his official capacity). Steve— a fan of Sherlock Holmes and detective stories in general— and Sim agree to look into the matter (Sim more reluctantly than Steve). In honor of the Baker Street Irregulars, they name themselves the Mill Creek Irregulars.
On their own and in conjunction with Steve’s various relatives (Steve’s grandfather becomes an honorary Irregular), they discover that Jake Riley is keeping very close tabs on Molly, who is definitely afraid of something and seems unwilling to take independent action, even when Jake goes into the general store without her.
But that’s not the only mystery. Steve and Sim also observe two strangers in blue serge suits keeping an eye on the Riley farm and asking questions about other residents of the community. Yet they don’t seem particularly interested in either Jake or Molly.
The boys decide they need to know more about Jake Riley, so Sim, who owns a fingerprint kit, purchases a package Jake had handled at the store in order to obtain his fingerprint.
Once they have it, however, they’re reluctant to bring it to Mike Kurth, the village marshal, because kids have generally played practical jokes on him.
He’s also particularly hard to convince about anything, according to Steve.
They realize their friend Pete Bandheim is the perfect person to approach Mike because Pete appears to be guileless. Pete spins a yarn about his father’s barber shop having been robbed, adding that he got fingerprints from the “robbery” (of hair tonic).
The report Mike gets back (and which Pete managed to glimpse) reveals that Jake Riley has a past criminal record, but Pete’s yarn leads to more complications. Mike decides to keep a weather eye on the barber shop in case the “criminal” returns and the boys are also worried that he’ll connect the Jacob Riley of the fingerprint report with the Jake Riley out in the country, go after him and ruin their plans.
On top of that, the men in the blue serge suits know Steve and Sim have been spying on the Riley farm with their telescope and Steve makes the mistake of getting Jake Riley’s attention at the general store.
With Molly’s birthday fast approaching, Sim and Steve realize they need to act soon to determine whether she really is a prisoner in her own home and how to get her away from Jake without him being able to come after her. But the wild cards in their plan include the two mysterious strangers, the excessively vigilant Mike Kurth and Jake Riley’s own unpredictability.
I first read The Mill Creek Irregulars: Special Detectives in the summer of 2009, while relaxing on a lounge chair with a large lake in front of me. That’s the perfect environment in which to read this story. The setting is very bucolic and though the story takes place two decades into the 20th century, it has one foot in the 19th (Joe and Lou’s house has no electricity on the second floor and people are as likely to drive horse-drawn wagons as they are cars).
Derleth also makes Sac Prairie and environs come alive, describing, through Steve’s first-person narration, the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside. Here’s a passage from pages 72-73:
We went on along the ridge… High overhead a pair of redtail hawks wheeled and soared, moving up, up with the currents of air, sometimes screaming. In the south, a long, disorderly file of crows was heading in toward the river bottoms, cawing to one another in that kind of talk crows always make. Ovenbirds sang in the deep woods, and veeries, and a wood thrush was beginning to spill his lyric songs in the shadowed places deep in the wooded valleys. A south wind kept the insects away, and the smell of the woods… filled all the air with the wild sweetness and pungence of places where men seldom walked and the trees were left to grow undisturbed for scores of years.
Derleth also populates the book with a memorable cast of characters (with the exception of a few “walk-ons” like Steve’s unnamed sister).
Steve appears to be a bit overweight, but describes it as muscle. He’s also somewhat impulsive, sometimes blurting out things he shouldn’t or drawing unnecessary attention to himself (like he did with Jake Riley).
Sim looks on the dark side of everything. He also doesn’t like having his plans changed. He’s upset when Steve shows up early for their planned fishing trip; more upset when Steve says he’s come to invite him to the country (and has to be convinced there’s good fishing at the millpond); annoyed when Joe shows up hours late to take them to the country and convinced they’ll never get a chance to fish at the millpond when they lose the opportunity to do so their first day.
Pete, according to Steve, is “sharp as a needle”, though he kept that trait hidden. As Steve says of Pete, “He liked to pretend he was so dumb he didn’t know enough to come in out of the rain. He would let his mouth hang open and little, and get a sort of glazed look in his eyes, when he was busing talking somebody out on a limb so he could saw it off.”
Both Steve and Pete have elements of their characters that remind me of Jupiter Jones of the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators mystery series (1964-1987). Jupe is the stocky leader (like Steve) and often “plays dumb”, like Pete, using the skills he acquired as a child actor.
That’s not to say that Three Investigators creator Robert Arthur modeled Jupe after a combination of Steve and Pete. After all, the rotund Nero Wolfe had been solving crimes since the 30s and any number of boys (real and fictional) have “played dumb” to outfox an adversary. Off the top of my head, I recall Alexander Bumstead doing it in one of the Blondie movies of the 1940s.
For the record, Pete Crenshaw of The Three Investigators is, like Sim, sometimes reluctant to do any investigating. However, he’s less pessimistic, overall.
And none of the boys remind me of the studious third investigator, Bob Andrews.
For their part, Steve and Sim have been compared to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
The Mill Creek Irregulars: Special Detectives is the second adventure involving Steve and Sim, but unlike the case with The Three Investigators (or Brains Benton or Rick Brant or Ken Holt or The Hardy Boys or Jerry Todd or other such titles), the 10 books featuring Steve and Sim (and sometimes Pete) don’t have an “umbrella title” on the front cover. Still, even though the word “Irregulars” is only part of the titles of two of the books, the books are referred to as the Mill Creek Irregulars series.
I’ve never read (or even seen) any of the other nine books in the series (except images of the covers online), but as I said before, this one is the type to be read while looking out at a lake (or any other bucolic setting) during the summer.
Copyright 2016, Patrick Keating.