When I was a kid both of my parents worked, so my sister and I were latch-key kids before it was cool. In the mornings on her way to the bus stop my mom would drop my sister and I off at the home of an older Polish lady down the street, who would feed us breakfast and send us off to walk to block or so to school from her house. Eli Whitney Elementary School didn’t have a cafeteria nor did it provide lunches for the students, so everyone had an hour to walk home to get lunch and come back. We went to our babysitter’s, and she would feed us. She’d had like six or seven kids of her own, and the youngest was a senior in high school when we first started being watched by her; I guess she liked having kids around. Anyway, in the summer time we would spend the days with her–she watched General Hospital, One Life to Live, and Dark Shadows–and sometimes she would go to Goldblatt’s, a department store that seemed a million miles away to us as kids, and do her shopping. Whenever she went–and sometimes we went with our mom–Mom would give my sister and I a couple of bucks to spend. The real treasure of Goldblatt’s was the bargain basement, where they remaindered stuff, and there was always this enormous table filled with books for kids, marked down to 39 cents.
It was on this table that I discovered some of the lesser Grosset & Dunlap series for kids, and particularly the Ken Holt, Biff Brewster, and Rick Brant series (they also had copies of the Chip Hilton sports stories by Clair Bee; I would buy one or two of those because my parents were trying to make me more boyish than I was, and it always pleased them when I showed an interest in something more masculine than usual). I remember the very first two Ken Holts I bought off that table: The Secret of Skeleton Island and The Mystery of the Plumed Serpent. (I would also get The Rocket’s Shadow and The Egyptian Cat Mystery in the Rick Brant series, as well as the first three Biff Brewsters: Brazilian Gold Mine Mystery, The Mystery of the Chinese Ring, and Hawaiian Sea Hunt Mystery.)
And Ken Holt very rapidly became my favorite, above even the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.
The phone booth was hot and stuffy, and Ken Holt wiped the moisture off his forehead for the third time. He opened the door slightly to get some fresh air an just then the phone came alive.
“Here’s your party,” the operator intoned.
“Hello,” Ken said loudly. “Hello.”
“Global News,” came the answer. “Granger speaking.”
“This is Ken Holt, Mr. Granger. I’m out at school.”
“What’s up, Ken?” Granger asked. “Need some money?”
“It’s not that. I just wanted to know if my father had come in.”
“Your father?” There was a pause before Granger continued. “Why, kid? He’s not expected so far as the office knows. He’s still in France.”
“I got a letter from him last week saying he’d be in on the eighteenth and that he’d call me. I haven’t heard from him since. And today’s the twentieth.”
Some hundred miles of telephone carried Granger’s booming laugh from the busy offices of an international news agency to the quiet corridor of Galeton Preparatory School.
“That’s pretty good,” Granger said, after he had stopped laughing. “He’s only two days overdue and you’re worried. He‘s famous for that, son. We’ve lost track of him for weeks, but finally he’d let us know where he was or what he was doing. Forget it. He’ll turn up when he gets good and ready.”
Ken blinked a little to get the perspiration out of his eyes. He moved a little closer to the mouthpiece as if that would help Granger understand better.
“But you see, Mr. Granger, Dad wrote me that he’d be in on the eighteenth. He’s never missed a date with me.”
The Secret of Skeleton Island opens with Ken, as you can see, worried about his father, who’s two days overdue for a meeting–and Richard Holt, who tends to disappear or vanish while chasing a story, has never once in his life stood up Ken or been late without letting him know ahead of time–not an easy task, either, in times when operators had to place your phone calls for you and you either sent telegrams or wrote letters.
Having loved those first two Ken Holt novels I’d read, the next time I went to Goldblatt’s I got a few more: The Riddle of the Stone Elephant, The Clue of the Marked Claw, The Secret of Hangman’s Inn, and The Mystery of Gallows Cliff. But after that, they became much harder to find; we’d moved out to Bolingbrook by then, and they had already lapsed out of print (hence the Goldblatt’s sale table), and it took years for me to start collecting them again–in the wake of Katrina and my discovery of eBay. I still don’t have a complete set–and some of the copies I acquired were not in the best shape–and the ones I am missing are generally so rare that they command prices I am not willing to pay. But the quality of the series never let up, even in the later books–and the writing was always stellar.
Ken Holt also was responsible for me having a weird bonding moment with James Ellroy; during his Grand Master interview at the Edgar symposium, he mentioned reading the kids’ series when he was growing up, and preferring the Ken Holt over the rest–and asked, “Does anyone here remember the Ken Holt mysteries?” and I raised my hand, to which he replied something along the lines of, “Ah, only the gentleman right here in the sweater. You, sir, have excellent taste.” He also pointed at me with his index finger, cocked his thumb like he was pulling a trigger, and winked.
Strange, yes–but even with what little Ellroy I’ve read, I can actually see the influence. The Holt novels were pretty hard-boiled for kids’ books; and one of the things I loved about them (just like The Three Investigators) was that Ken actually solved the mysteries; and unlike the Hardy Boys, Ken and his best buddy Sandy frequently were involved in fisticuffs; threatened by criminals with guns or knives; and were often placed into incredibly dangerous situations where they literally had to, by use of their wits and whatever else might be handy, escape with their lives (there’s a particular scene in The Riddle of the Stone Elephant that has always stayed with me; they walked into a set up where the floor of an old shack collapsed beneath their weight, sending them plummeting down an old well; and they had to climb the slick walls of the well to get out; this scene, and its aftermath, had this weirdly homoerotic flavor to it that I remember to this day–and will inevitably write about it, I’m sure).
Shortly after this opening, Ken gets permission from the headmaster to head into New York and nose around his father’s apartment, to see if he can find out any clues to where his father is or what may have happened to him. As he waits at the train station (a six hour ride into the city; still not sure if he’s on Long Island or really far upstate, but my guess is, given speed and so forth, most likely Long Island) he is offered a ride by two men who purport to be from Global News; it isn’t until Ken is in the car with them that he realizes they are liars, and undoubtedly connected to whatever happened to his father–and they plan on using HIM as leverage against his dad. Ken has to figure out how to escape–and manages to do so near the town of Brentwood, running away and dodging into the only lighted building on the town’s main street, the offices of the Brentwood Advance, which is how he encounters the Allen family. He tells Pop, Bert and Sandy Allen–enormous beings with red hair, whom he convinces of the veracity of his story and they get on board with helping him. Sandy is his own age, and all the Allens:
Ken swung around quickly toward the direction of the new voice and saw two replicas of the man before him. They were much younger, one of them looked about Ken’s age, the second a bit older. They too were huge. There was no doubt in his mind that this trio was a father and two sons. Actually, the only difference between them was that the sons had flaming red hair and the father’s was beginning to gray. Ken almost felt like a pygmy surrounded by these three towering figures.
The Allens listen to his story, check it out, and believe hi–and the next morning he and Sandy go out to start looking into the case. The action comes fast and furious after this–there’s one particularly harrowing scene where the boys, captured by the bad guys, are duct-taped to chairs. Ken manages to break an alarm clock, and gripping a jagged edge of glass in his teeth, saws at the tape holding down one of Sandy’s arms (this feat is repeated in The Riddle of the Stone Elephant, only instead of a piece of glass he uses the jagged edges of a can lid, removed by an opener).
The adventure is pretty amazing; the boys wind up escaping the bad guys onto one of the freighters that the bad guys are using as part of their scheme, and find their way back to Skeleton Island, where the adventure also continues. So much action–and it’s all so well-written you feel like you’re a part of it, right there with Ken and Sandy as they basically use the combination of their wits and their brawn to get away and break the case wide open, rescuing Richard Holt and…in a lovely happy ending, it’s decided that Ken will finish his term at the boarding school and move in with the Allens.
It’s a great set-up for a series, and it’s mystifying to me that it never achieved the heights of popularity that the Hardy Boys did. Every one of the books is good–I can’t think of a single clunker in the entire series–and the typical masculinity based boys’ story (9-12 year olds aren’t, apparently, old enough to care about girls yet) sees neither Ken nor Sandy ever have a date or a girlfriend, or even anything remotely close to a romantic interest; in fact, the friendship bond between Ken and Sandy eventually grows so strong they are practically a couple–and that homoerotic undercurrent to the series (which, frankly, also existed in the Rick Brant series) was also an enormous part of its appeal to me. I wanted a “best friend” like Rick or Sandy; and the frequent references to how “big” and “muscular” Sandy is…well, yes.
Perhaps someday I will do an essay about the homoerotic undertones in both this series and the Rick Brant series.
You know, in my free time.