Thursday, January 26, 2012

Hidden Classic #5: Trouble In Bugland

Ask anyone to name a famous private detective, and their first response will undoubtedly be "Sherlock Holmes." More tributes, sequels, spinoffs, and parodies have been written based on the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle than on any other mystery and detective writer. Personally, I'm a big fan, and I look forward to any twist that a current author cares to put on the stories I have loved since I was about ten years old.

Which brings us to Trouble in Bugland: A Collection of Inspector Mantis Mysteries by William Kotzwinkle. Kotzwinkle keeps the basics: the Victorian setting; the fast-paced action; the master detective with a brilliant mind and finely-tuned deductive reasoning; and the ever-faithful and valuable sidekick. There is, however, one major change from the original: all of the characters are...insects.

This creative choice adds many twists to the tales that Doyle fans know so well. The brilliant detective is a praying mantis with super-sensitive antennae and an iron grip. His partner is a grasshopper who is an accomplished long-jumper (and it is he, not his mentor, who is the accomplished violinist). A bookworm absorbs top-secret naval plans when he mistakenly ingests a coded message. Butterflies are kidnapped, their wings are stripped for their "jewels," and their bodies are tapped for the poisons they excrete in self-defense.

The best part of this book is that the stories are delightful both for readers new to Holmesiana (or to detective stories in general) and for fans of Holmes who will appreciate the full range of the cleverness and humor that Kotzwinkle brings to these stories. He never talks down to his readers, yet the stories remain accessible to a wide audience. And I can't wrap up this review without mentioning the spectacular color plates and pen-and-ink drawings throughout. "Profusely illustrated by Joe Servello," promises the cover, and it does not lie. Nearly every page features beautifully detailed examples of insects, all amusingly rigged out in Victorian costume.

This book is tragically out of print, as happens with many wonderful children's books, but it is available at a few libraries, and used copies are readily available for purchase online, most for under $10. If you or anyone you know loves good detective stories, Sherlock Holmes stories in particular, or even stories about bugs, don't miss this one!

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