Bad Machinery: The Case Of The Good Boy by John Allison is the second volume in the web comic series about the middle grade sleuths of Griswald's Grammar School in Tackleford, England (available March 12, 2014).
I have a huge weakness for John Allison’s Bad Machinery series. While I love most of his work, there’s something about his tales of two rival teams of young adolescent sleuths that makes them very dear to my heart. The girls’ team consists of the responsible, if poor, Shauna; her best friend, the irrepressible Lottie, and Mildred, the rebellious product of an extremely left-wing upbringing. On the boys’ team, you have quiet, handsome Jack; sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued policeman’s son, Linton, and sensible, resourceful Sonny, who is also Mildred’s cousin. Jack and Shauna are sort of dating, but careful to keep it quiet, partly in case anyone on their teams should take umbrage, and partly to avoid teasing from their wider social circles. Goodness knows, Sonny gets enough teasing just as a result of being related to Mildred:
Linton: Are you coming down to the park tonight?
Sonny: No, I'm busy.
Linton: Is it Naturecraft Folk? Leaf touching? A big night of leaf touching.
Sonny: We don't touch leaves.
Linton: NOT EVER?
Sonny: My cousin is coming round. I have to be in.
Linton: A play date! A play date with MILDRED! A tea party with hair brushing and teddies and pony stories!
Sonny (deadpan): Sometimes the pony stories are so good that we don't even get round to the hair brushing.
Jack: Are we going to solve a mystery soon? Other than the mystery of why Linton isn't going to have any friends soon. Because that's not really a mystery.
After the events of the stellar first volume, The Case Of The Team Spirit, things have quieted down a bit in Tackleford. The greatest excitement for our intrepid sleuths is the carnival that’s come to town. Mildred is determined to win the grand prize in one of the carnival games: an enchanted pencil that is supposed to make anything it writes or draws come true. She’s very recently fallen in love with Lottie’s dog, Pepper, and wants the pencil to help her get a dog of her own (as, realistically, her parents will probably not take kindly to the idea). Through the liberal application of money and the judicious use of her throwing elbow, she finally manages to win the rigged game.
Next day at school, she and the girls are trying out their hand at drawing dogs when they’re interrupted by the fire alarm. Returning to class, they find the pencil missing, which leads to a fight that threatens to ruin their friendship completely. The boys, however, have more serious problems, as Jack finds himself the recurring target of a bully. His friends and older sister feel helpless to intervene, but Jack is determined not to get any outside assistance anyway. Instead, he learns that several babies have gone missing while under admittedly questionable care, so immerses himself in solving this less difficult (to him) problem.
While the girls deal with dog-like animals that suddenly appear in Tackleford, looking suspiciously like the awkward drawings they’d made with the enchanted pencil, the boys set about trying to figure out the truth behind the babies’ disappearances. They consider laying a trap for the abductor, which they’ve come to believe is a beast of some sort:
Jack: Okay, to lure this beast, we need a baby or a… toddler.
Linton: Right right, we'll just go down the supermarket and get one… wait. Sonny!
Sonny: WHAT? No!
Linton: Sonny, we'd just be borrowing your [little] sister. We wouldn't let the beast get her.
Sonny: No! No no no no no no! NO!
Jack: We just want to get the beast out into the open, then we'd…
Linton: We'd chuck her over a fence so she'd be safe.
Sonny (as he stomps off): CHUCK HER OVER A FENCE?
Linton (to Jack): He just has to get used to the idea.
Jack: It'll be a lot harder to “chuck her over a fence” when she's 47, Linton.
Of course, the two teams’ investigations soon converge. Friendships are tested and strengthened, and magical pencils and missing babies sought after. John Allison handles it all with a deft touch and a dry humor that accepts the not-quite-natural as a matter of course, helped in large part by the fact that adolescence is often a time when things don’t seem to make much sense, but are assimilated into everyday life anyway. I think that’s why, in large part, I enjoy this series so much: because it mixes the magical with the mundane, and mischief with mystery so well. Every new installment of the Bad Machinery series is a delight, and The Case Of The Good Boy is no different.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
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