I Know Humor is Intensely Subjective

… but this effort just wasn’t funny (to me)

By Jeff Salter

I’m starting this book review with a lot of general observations about what’s funny and what’s not… and why. And I want to qualify why I even came across this book. So you’ll have to read a few paragraphs before you get to my review of the text.

As we all should realize, humor is extremely subjective. I’ve had relatives or friends recommend films, shows, or books with the exhortation that I’ll surely die laughing (as they did). Then I’ll watch (or read) the whatever and I’m thinking, “Huh? That’s not funny… it’s just stupid.”

The way I react to potentially funny material is sometimes quite dependent on my frame of mind at that point. Some supposedly humorous material has not EVER been funny to me, but I think other bits WOULD HAVE (or COULD have) been funny to me, if I’d been in a better mood.


I often speak in the context of movies, because I feel they may be more universal that books. So let me offer this comparison. When Mel Brooks presented his spoof of the Frankenstein movies in his film, “Young Frankenstein”… I found most of those scenes humorous and the entire film quite enjoyable. In other words, that send-off WAS funny. But when Mike Myers did his Austin Powers spoofs of the James Bond (and other British spies) movies, I thought they were silly, overdone, and tiresome. I don’t recall chuckling as much as I remember groaning. And, duplicating the lesson that Jerry Lewis seemingly never learned, Myers figured if it wasn’t funny the first time, surely you’ll laugh when he does the same gag seven more times in the same movie. Nope. Still NOT funny.

Stay with me… I’m getting to the review soon.

Why this book?

The only reason I even stumbled across this book is because someone on a FB site I visit – which deals with several of the famous children’s series like Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Dana Girls, Penny Parker, etc. – recommended it. It’s clearly aimed as a send-off of the Hardy Boys, even down to the Bailey Brothers Detective Handbook. [Yes, the Hardy Boys series had one of those.]

To more fully understand my point-of-view (about this spoof) you need to realize that I’m a big fan of all four of those juvenile series just mentioned above. In their ORIGINAL text — not the overhauls which began in 1959. I’ve read most of the titles – the earliest in each series – fleshed out by Leslie MacFarlane and Mildred Wirt Benson, the two talented ghost writers who began each of those two mega-selling series (HB & ND). Not only am I a fan of those old books, but I’ve been recently re-reading the original versions. Yes, they’re aimed at juvenile readers… yes, the plots are typically thin… yes, adults are unbelievably tolerant and attentive and cooperative with their juvenile detective “hunches.” And, yes… the siblings DO “get along” constantly with hardly a whisper of friction between them.

No, there’s not much actual suspense (since we know the heroes / heroines will emerge from their calamity with hardly more than bumps and bruises). No, those juvenile characters almost never do any school work, hardly ever do any household chores (yet always have money to burn). And no, they don’t appear to have any significant romantic entanglements.

Brixton Brothers

So you can see there are quite a few areas – in the HB / ND / DG / PP universe for a clever writer to spoof. Which leads us to the Brixton Brothers series and The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity.

But there’s a difference between far-fetched plots (used by the famous juvenile series I’ve cited) and totally preposterous gimmicks (tossed together like a bizarre salad by author Mac Barnett).

The unlikely “hero” of this tale is Steve Brixton… a 12-year-old nerd who lives and breathes the 59 volume series, the Bailey Brothers. Author Barnett DOES cleverly weave in allusions to the Hardy Boys throughout the story… and character Steve calls on his recollection of various Bailey Brothers cases to work his way out of trouble (again and again).

Steve and his friend Dana are the dynamic duo who keep stumbling into awful situations… and none of them are remotely believable. Witness the scene in the public library where numerous villains open fire with live ammo but nobody in the surrounding buildings seem to notice. Steve is kidnapped repeatedly, except when he’s in a boat being rammed by a larger boat.

Over the course of three (?) days, Steve becomes the chief suspect of a major theft and is wanted by the local police, is believed by the federal government to be an unspecified treasonous threat, is believed by those gun-wielding librarians to be a private detective, and has a lengthy school assignment due on Monday. Among those other entities actively looking for Steve, there’s a mysterious Mr. E.

As part of Steve’s undercover research, he dons a sailor’s costume, glues a fake mustache to his upper lip, and saunters into a rowdy waterfront bar looking for clues. He’s 12 years old. Think he convinces anybody? He orders milk. Are you laughing yet?

All these preposterous situations are simply goofy and there’s no actual suspense. Just the awareness that this silly (but courageous) boy will fall out of that particular trouble and into some new trouble.

Somewhere among all the other chaos, is a mystery that seems central to all these otherwise disparate goings-on: a missing library book. [Note, if the book was so valuable, why was it on the open shelves?] Somewhere in the story a valuable quilt becomes a plot thread… but, frankly, I got confused. After all, it’s a maguffin quilt.

In addition to his onerous school assignment due on Monday, Steve’s homelife is disrupted by his mother’s new romantic interest, Rick (who happens to work on the local police force).

A little silliness can be funny, but too much silliness can be merely tiresome. This story has stereotyped villains – many of which Steve compares to the fictional villains in the Bailey Brothers Detective Handbook – and nearly everybody in town seems to be involved in the multi-layered plot.

There’s a potentially amusing thread late in the book after Steve bites his tongue during their daring escape from the boat collision. For the next two or three chapters, Steve speaks with a lisp. But, like most of Jerry Lewis’s movie gags, author Barnett milks it at least a chapter too long.

There are digs a-plenty of the foibles of the Hardy Boys and some are cleverly done. One that was mildly amusing the first few times (but soon became tiresome) was when Steve refers to his pal (Dana) as his “chum.” That word is terribly over-used in the HB books, as well as the ND series. And Dana properly replies (each time), “Don’t call me chum.”

In a good screwball comedy, there are almost always at least a few “normal” people — the proverbial “straight” characters against whom the screwball players interact. But when almost none of the characters are normal and almost everybody is kooky… there’s no level playing field for the screwball farce to play upon. So it’s all a jumble.

When we reach the end of the book, Steve is presented (by the library) with a $2 million fine, because of damages to that missing book. Then, with a flick of the wrist, a librarian tears up the fine… all forgiven (as thanks for his detective work). I forgot to laugh.


If the public librarians fire weapons at Steve, is his school teacher actually the kindly individual she seems to be?


Author Barnett obviously has a thorough knowledge of the real-world Hardy Boys canon – both its positives and its literary weaknesses – and I assume Barnett must love those books as much as I do (maybe more). He cleverly works his own story alongside the time-honored elements of the Hardy Boys universe. The problem – from my subjective point of view – is that Barnett couldn’t quite find the balance among a silly spoof, an affectionate homage, and an overdone lampoon. I would’ve far preferred an affectionate homage.

[JLS # 599]


About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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8 Responses to I Know Humor is Intensely Subjective

  1. Grant at Tame Your Book! says:

    I appreciate your opinion of Barnett’s book, Jeff. For a different perspective of this author’s work, his sense of humor, and source of inspiration, check out his TED Talk on “Why a good book is a secret door.” I run hot and cold on his work, but found the TED Talk hilarious.

    Here’s a snippet of his introduction, “Hi everybody. So my name is Mac. My job is that I lie to children, but they’re honest lies. I write children’s books, and there’s a quote from Pablo Picasso, ‘We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth or at least the truth given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.’”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Patricia Kiyono says:

    As you say, humor is subjective. It appears that the entire series has plenty of fans, based on the reviews I read. A few called out the disturbing presence of guns – that would bother me too, but those reviews were in the minority. I certainly wouldn’t want to encourage my grandkids to read this book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      It’s certainly possible I could pick up this same title — or one of the series follow-ups — a few months from now and find myself chuckling at the clever way this author weaves in his allusions to the Hardy Boys. Possible. But not likely.


  3. First off, I could not agree with you more about the humor of Young “Frahnkenschteen” and Austin Powers. I have watched the first a number of times and have only seen clips of the Powers movies, and based on those, I have no desire to see any more.
    And you are spot-on about Jerry Lewis, who could be terribly amusing when he was subtler.
    There is the clip of the last, and terrible, “Dirty Harry” movie. A young Jim Carey is a strung-out rock star who is doing a music video. It is cheesy and Halloweenish. He complains to the director,(a new-to-Hollywood Liam Neeson, who must have badly needed rent money at the time). Carey complains that the video is a rip-off of a horror film. Neeson comes back with, “It’s not a rip-off, it’s a HOMAGE!”
    I use that line a lot.
    There is a definite difference.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Elaine Cantrell says:

    Is this book popular with the young people? I haven’t heard of it myself, and I don’t think I’d enjoy it.


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