The Grown-Up Detective Agency

by Brendan Patrick Hennessy profile

Part of the Bell Park series
Post-Teen Mystery, humor

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Number of Reviews: 6
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Are you there, future me? It's me, former you!, January 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I'll start by discussing a comment I saw on a forum about Matthews and Linehan and how I don't want to be that sort of person. M&L were the folks who created Father Ted, a universal character we probably wouldn't like in person but who showed our faults so well and let us laugh at them. The commenter said "Well, M&L never got close to that afterwards." Someone pointed out that The IT Crowd was very, very, good indeed, and the commenter said "Well, fair enough, but it's still not quite Father Ted."

Whether or not FT is better than IT Crowd, or however BPH's (I hope that's not too familiar. I know I hate, for instance, being abbreviated to Schultz. But I find Hennessy as misspellable as most people find Schultz, as my brain WILL insert that third E) works stack up to M&L, I want to relate this story: Small Child in Woods felt dang-near perfect to me. It had universal appeal and weird humor and made many people laugh. Someone had to do it, and I'm glad they did it well. Cow Farming Activities on the Former West, the second part of You Will Select a Decision, was almost as good. And the rest of the author's stuff? Well, it doesn't hit the sweet spot of SCiW for me, and he shouldn't try to, and when I make time for his stuff, it's always worth it. But I wouldn't want him to deliberately try for another flashy thunderbolt like SCiW. He owes me nothing.

Also, I'm hacked off he didn't publish the "promised" sequel It Is Good To Be Skateboarding Champion of the World. I had an idea that was just a bit of verbal gymnastics to make the reader laugh, and it still does, but each work of his reminds me I would love to read that apocryphal book some day. Curse the author for following their own vision, said the guy who knows his own stuff is probably more niche-y!

All this was no excuse for whiffing on Birdland, Known Unknowns, and BOAT PROM. And GUDA is one of many IFComp entries already that make me say, hey, I need to check stuff from this author's past, too. It may be the only one with a link in the introduction giving a brief overview, which I appreciated. But it was also sort of shocking to think, wait, did he really write Bell Park: Youth Detective that long ago? Wow.

Yes, it was nine years ago, and Bell is nine years older. She's a private detective now. I didn't recognize Cassidy, who's come to Bell with a missing persons report. More specifically, her fiance has gone missing. Checking back at BPYD, she doesn't get a ton of billing there. Drifting away from best friends is like that, I suppose, and with GUDA, it's pretty inevitable they would've broken up, as they show themselves to be very different people. Eventually you grow, and you realize how you were sorted into social groups at 12 was just a good guess, or it was the least awful of the available options, and you get to see what (hopefully) works even better.

All this navel-gazing aside, what sticks out about the start is: there is banging from inside of a locker in Bell's office. Is it an animal? How does Cassidy pretend it's not there? Is Bell some sort of criminal? You make allowances for friends' eccentricities of course, especially if you spent time being weird or outcast together, but, um, well, if it gets too obvious...

No, it's just that Bell is hiding her nine-years-ago self in that locker and doesn't want to have to explain things. And she doesn't, immediately, but it's tough to cover things up forever, and this is one of the many humorous threads that recur throughout the story. There are some leads in finding Cassidy's fiance, and you follow them all across a neat map of Toronto. Below the map are names, and a red arrow appears where they are on the map. This apparently was a big hit for people with an attachment to Toronto, and while it stirred up no memories in me, it's really well done and gives me some idea of how big the city is, and I was able to compare it to, say, a similar map of Chicago. I also like how the current characters in the scene have head shots–Bell-21 and Bell-12 on the left, and the person or people they're talking to on the right. The transitions worked technically, and the pictures are well imagined and drawn.

The Bells go to various places, visiting and revisiting them, and they meet casts of weird characters, even Bridget, whom Bell has broken up with. As someone not acquainted with Birdland, I didn't know Bridget in any way, but I still found her effective as a character. It's pretty obvious something is up, and I enjoyed Bell-12's reactions to a grownup she knew (Cassidy) and one she didn't (Bridget). Naturally Bell-12 starts bugging Bell-21 as to why they broke up. Through this all I had an occasional worry: is the time paradox going to blow up in our faces and make this whole story unbelievable?

Well, I don't know if it's ever resolved fully satisfactorily, but up until then there's a lot of fun to keep things going. Bell-12 has a lot of questions, which Bell-21 avoids, until Bell-12 keeps on asking. You have some agency in how much you tell Bell-12. But this certainly brought back how I would discuss things with Andrew-12 or Andrew-22. There's a lot to unpack, and I forgot how much there is to unpack even in the last ten years! It can blur together a bit. Bell-12 is decidedly more caustic than Andrew-12, asking the sort of questions I wished I'd asked, and having a mentor in Bell-21 who gave more good-faith answers than many people older than me.

The interesting characters about Toronto didn't land so well. I'm the sort of person who's not particularly interested in interesting characters, or if I think they are getting too obtrusive, I'm inclined to think "Stop showing off, already!" I can only take so much per day. Nevertheless, there's some good stuff in there with Bell-21 and a woman dressed like a cat, who seems like a potential villain, and having to return to the place that serves wings (Bell-12 and Bell-21 both hate to be caught dead there, for different reasons) provides character development. Bell-12 bugging Bell-21 about why Bell-21 broke up with Bridget is well done, even if the "aha, you're remembering what you liked about them" angle seemed a bit forced. A lot of good jokes and observations come out of this, well beyond narrative threads funneled into "Look! Bell realised that adults are weird and insecure and annoying but they have a good reason to be and are worth putting up with, even the obnoxious ones! And, um, yeah, humor, too!"

So it's a good sign that what to me were the less interesting parts turned out to be worthwhile, and I think the author had a strong idea of pacing–there's a shaggy dog story here, but it doesn't get too shaggy, although the reason for the fiance's disappearance didn't resonate with me. You have to deal with people you don't like, and it's tricky to pay attention to them the right amount without being fully transactional, which Bell-12 doesn't understand. Then you have to be annoying sometimes to get what you want, too, and Bell-12 encourages that (with Bell-21 ceding a few points) without getting too in-your-face. There's a lot to work with, telling one's younger self everything's not black and white, but also hearing your younger self remind you that intuition matters--presumably, you have more data to check your intuition at 21 than 12. There's knowing we can veer from certain big questions as we get older because focusing on some side issues is very interesting indeed, and if we can't do everything, we don't have to. And there's also poking oneself to realize, yes, there are definite dark and light greys where it's best to put nuances aside temporarily so, ahem, You Will Select a Decision to push ahead expediently and meaningfully.

I can't say I've run into an Andrew-12, but I did finally join my high school's graduating class's Facebook group, and it was like I was speaking to my old self, with things I remembered and people I remembered and may or may not have wanted to deal with. It was awkward, but I settled some things. GUDA brought back that, and new ways to look at things, and people and ideas and fears I'd forgotten, and I'm glad I was at least somewhat prepared for that.

Perhaps I'll be more prepared to replay GUDA once I've read the BPH works I've missed, especially Birdland. But I definitely found Birdland et. al aren't critical to appreciating GUDA, though, and even if GUDA didn't hit all the notes for me, it feels like it should hit a lot of really good ones for others who may or may not be familiar with BPH's works.