I’m surprised to find that the Boxcar children haven’t abandoned Aunt Jane at her farmhouse and then immediately forgotten about her. Disappointingly, they are going to visit her again. Probably because now they own her home and all her land, which is bringing them in billions hundreds of dollars, and they need to keep an eye on their investment and make sure the old biddy isn’t spending all their money on late night QVC binges.
The moment that Sam and Maggie pick up the children in their BRAND NEW STATION WAGON, I know this is going to be a good book.
“Where’s the ancient horse that we were forcing to pull a wagon full of a dozen people even though he could barely walk?” the kids demand.
“Who cares?” Sam the ranch hand asks. “We have a sweet new station wagon bitches!” then he revs the engine and they Tokyo Drift into town.
A new town that the children own. And imagine who lives in said town? Mike Wood! The brat that appeared in Surprise Island for about two pages, probably solely to set the stage for this book. He takes Benny and Co. to his house, where we learn that they’re so poor everyone has to work, even the dog probably. Mrs. Wood sure does like making pies but she never has time, due to her job as a washerwoman. I’m going to be generous and assume that today’s her day off, and that’s why she is just pulling 4 pies out of the oven. I think that’s kinder than calling her a LIAR.
Mike shows the children the daily newspaper—yes the mine town has it’s own newspaper—because his brother’s picture is on the front page, standing in front of the mine. He also mentions (hilariously, to my thinking), that a picture of the mine is “almost always” on the front page. Boy! I bet that’s an exciting newspaper! Let’s take a look in at the newsroom:
“Hey, Roger, any big news today?”
“Well George, I heard they found some more uranium down at the ole uranium mine.”
“That sounds like front-page news to me!”
“Let’s drink at lunch.”
There is some heavy foreshadowing here when Mike becomes all quiet and thinky looking at the picture.
“Ehh. That short man in the picture sure looks familiar. I’ve definitely seen him somewhere before, but he doesn’t live here.”
Hey Mike. Maybe you saw him the day the picture was taken, seeing as how you were there and everything.
Luckily for us, Mike can only concentrate on one topic for five seconds or less due to the chip implanted in his brain at infancy, and controlled remotely by
the Puppetmaster Grandfather, so it’s no surprise that he loses interest immediately.
The children all go out to explore the town, where they’re surprised to learn that everyone knows who they are, mainly due to the pictures Aunt Jane has distributed everywhere. The book says in the newspaper, but how could they possibly fit in photos of the Aldens AND the mine?! Something had to end up on the cutting room floor. I prefer to think there are life-size posters of the Alden quartet plastered all over the town, emblazoned with threatening, vaguely ‘big-brother’ type messages, like “We own you,” or “You do not exist.”
Jessie buys hats and generally a fun time is had by all, but Gertrude cheerily ends the chapter by letting us know that Mike “didn’t know then that tomorrow would be so exciting.”
Turn the page.
EXCITING BECAUSE MIKE’S HOUSE BURNS DOWN.
Wow Gertrude. You’re a sick, sick woman. This is your idea of excitement? Destroying an already destitute family’s home and all their possessions. You’re dead inside Gertie. Cold and dead.
Predictably, all the kids (including Mike, because he’s dumb) are thrilled about the house burning down. What an adventure! And the fun just doesn’t stop! Mr. Carter, Grandfather’s lackey (and Jessie’s future husband I suspect–well, until she becomes frozen at fifteen forever) is there as well. Henry makes a joke about Mr. Carter always showing up at times of trouble and he smiles with a ‘twinkle in his eye’ and ominously agrees.
The group of happy, homeless people head off to have breakfast at the Uranium Mine Diner, where Mike overhears a man telling his compatriots how the ‘little boy that lives in the house set the fire, just for fun.’ Everyone gets up in arms about that, defending Mike’s honor, and we learn a valuable clue: the man who started this rumor was wearing a blue hat.
The children go with Mr. Carter up to see the mine, and supposedly inform everyone to be on the lookout for a man wearing a blue hat, because that’s pretty concrete evidence. While waiting on Mr. Carter, they explore a large empty building. For some reason, inexplicable except to further the plot, the building has absolutely no purpose. I guess we are to assume that someone erroneously built an enormous building right by the mine with no plan for it all. It’s pretty fortuitous however, since the children decide it would be the perfect place for Mrs. Wood to live and make pies. Luckily she agrees, because I don’t think these kids are above forcing someone into pie-making slavery. Benny, surprise surprise, is the one to name it: Mike’s Mother’s Place. I only mention this boring detail to point out that Benny NAMES EVERYTHING. Let’s review:
1) Benny names Watch
2) Benny names Surprise Island
3) Benny names Potato Camp
4) Benny names Snowball the horse
5) Benny names Mystery Ranch
6) Benny names Yellow Sands
7) Benny names Mike’s Mother’s Place
I’m sure there are more that I’m missing. I think we will need to revisit this theme periodically.
There’s some more boring talk about pies and empty buildings, and I’m pretty sure that Mrs. Wood wipes a tear or two. Then the night watchman (he wandered in earlier, sorry I forgot to mention it, I think I fell asleep) explains that he missed the fire because he saw a man running towards the mine and he went to check it out. That being his job and all. This obvious clue sets Mike off into a frenzy, but he insists on telling Benny alone of his suspicions. Now prepare yourself for a shock.
Mike thinks that the man in the blue hat set the fire! I know, I hardly saw it coming myself. And their daring plan of action? Look for a short man, perhaps wearing a blue hat.
They’re going to crack this case wide open.
In what I thought was days later, but apparently is just a few hours (I’m pretty sure the whole book so far has only covered about 28 hours), the crew goes to turn the empty room into the iconic pie factory it’s destined to be. I’m very disappointed to find out that Mrs. Wood’s legendary pie making skills are based on her dumping cans of fruit filling into pre-made crusts. I guess in the 40’s (50’s? 60’s?) this qualified as high-level baking skills, right up there with jello molds and pigs in a blanket.
Mike, Benny, and Mr. Carter have a boring, pointless conversation about the man in the blue hat, where Mike hypothesizes that he’s the same short stranger that was in the photo with Pat in front of the mine (see ‘foreshadowing number one’). They line up the clues thusly:
1) The man is short
2) He’s a stranger
3) He owns a blue hat
4) Spotty growled at him
5) He (along with the entire town) was present at the fire
6) He looks quote unquote ‘rough’
Well, if those clues don’t add up to ‘guilty’ I don’t know what does. BUT THEN THE PLOT THICKENS. Mike thinks really, really hard, probably causing an aneurism in his tiny, prehensile brain, and remembers saying something A YEAR AGO about not liking the three men that tried to buy Aunt Jane’s ranch. Now we have MOTIVE.
Mr. Carter sadly shakes his head. “Those are bad men,” he mutters. “They tried to buy that land for a low price knowing that it had valuable uranium on it. Making savvy business deals is what is ruining this country. Except when Grandfather does it. Then it’s just called capitalism.”
Later, when the children are pitting the dogs against each other in a ruthless dog
fight race, Spotty stops and begins digging. And he digs up a blue hat and a can of gas.
Now we know it was the man in the blue hat. Because after you commit arson you usually bury all the clues together, about a foot down under loose sand.
The boys inform Mr. Carter of this new, important break-through, and also warn him that the man in blue is probably going to blow up the mine too. They know because they’ve seen all the Austin Powers movies. And guess what? Mr. Carter looks behind the mine and there’s a bunch of wires. Now, the wires aren’t connected to anything, and may in fact have already been there, and might actually be currently in use doing mine-type things, but we don’t want to spoil this case asking sensible questions. Lets just assume—like Mr. Carter—that this means that everyone’s in danger. And to flush out the criminal we will have to be extra devious.
Devious like throwing a party. A party that involves pies and movies. And by movies I mean documentaries about monkeys. I wish I was kidding.
Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly I suppose), the movie party draws the degenerate out like a moth to a flame, and Spotty chases him down and catches him. Probably handcuffs him and reads him his rights too. If you think about it, Spotty really solved this mystery.
1) Spotty growled at the man in the blue hat
2) Spotty found the blue hat and the gas can
3) Spotty caught the man in the blue hat
4) Spotty has an IQ double that of Mike and Benny combined
Mr. Carter hints at the Boxcar Children’s next adventure by telling them that they will all be together again next summer. But sadly, he will not be there, he tells Jessie with a “funny little smile.” Keep your pants on dude! Is this even legal?!
And then Benny names their adventure Mike’s Mystery (Benny Names Things Item #8).