It’s still summer in Aldenland. I think it’s been the same summer for about 4 books now, and we’ve only made it to July. I want to say that it was the end of summer back in Mountain Top Mystery, but I can’t really remember, and honestly, continuity errors are the least of our worries these days because the mysteries are getting more and more ridic. Just wait. This book opens with the four kids and their grandfather whining about how hot it is. They’re sitting in the yard under the trees because it’s the coolest place they can find. I suspect that they’re wearing their usual color-coded wool sweaters and this is playing a large part in why they’re sweltering. I also wonder why they’re not sitting under ceiling fans like regular people do. Or installing air conditioning and a swimming pool like rich people do. I’d think it would be especially appealing to a fabulously wealthy tycoon who wants some quality time to himself without a herd of kids yammering on about how hot it is, but what do I know? Anyway, of course it’s Benny who has the brilliant plan that they should ride around in the car to cool off because no one else ever has an idea. They just sit around and wait for Benny to come up with something for them to do, passing the time by daydreaming about cooking supper (Jessie), rambling on about college (Henry), and looking for something that needs hemming (Violet). Everyone agrees that a car ride is the most brilliant idea since sliced bread. Jessie says (I shit you not), “Let’s ride until it gets cooler. The weather report says this heat is going to last for a week.” Did she just suggest that they ride around in the car for a week? I’m still reeling from her stupidity when Violet declares that this family has the BEST ideas. Seriously, Violet? You could achieve the same effect with an oscillating fan and you wouldn’t have to get into a car that surely feels like an oven inside. When Jessie chimes in to agree with her (“Things always seem to happen to this family when we don’t expect them. I was thinking I’d never feel cool again.”) I want to beat both of them with a stick for subjecting me to this inane conversation. It’s really unsurprising that Grandfather is always drunk.
Jessie doesn’t like to let Henry have too much fun, so she makes him drive slower. Good thing too, because otherwise they wouldn’t have noticed the houseboat and we wouldn’t have been subjected to this wondrous bit of literature.
Of course the Aldens have to do a full inspection before deciding that a houseboat adventure is their cup of tea. Is there room for storing milk and bread? Is the water cold enough? Done deal. Strangely out of character, Grandfather points out that none of them actually know anything about boats and maybe this might not be the safest idea. I am shocked, SHOCKED that Grandfather is concerned about such inane things such as ‘safety’ or ‘experience’ needed to pilot a boat. Luckily for all of us Henry spent some time with a ‘friend’ on his ‘boat’ and so he knows all about trimming the jib or tacking the sail or starting an engine. I don’t believe for a moment that Henry has friends, or any boat experience, and I’m even more dubious that if this was true, that his fellow Aldens wouldn’t have heard this story ad nauseam for weeks. After expressing their surprise (and underlying doubt) over his story, it is unanimously agreed that they should start out tomorrow.
A big black car almost runs Henry’s station wagon off the road. We don’t see the drivers, but I assume they have mustaches and tattoos, and have committed some sordid crime. The driver has let his hands slip from the ten-and-two positions and is lolling his left out the window as if it’s okay. He’s wearing a black ring that is described and noted and committed to Benny’s memory in such detail that you can be certain that it’s integral to the mystery.
The next day, we are treated to a long conversation about why Watch cannot accompany the family on the houseboat. I’m gratified to see this, as we haven’t heard about why Watch must stay at home in the last several books. Gertrude must have just remembered he exists. The Aldens visit the grocery store (a pre-requisite to every adventure thus far), and purchase a boat-load (haha) of accouterments, including several cans of meat. Benny doesn’t voice his excitement, but I believe we know him well enough now that it’s implied.
Benny’s big moment comes when he gets to change the name on the boat to the The James H Alden. We all know how much Benny enjoys naming things, undoubtedly this is the highlight of the summer for him. Finally on the boat and on their way, we are treated to a detailed description of Nature, and every water bird that exists. Apparently the smell of money attracts them to the Aldens. Then, disaster strikes when Jessie, startled by the Beauty of Nature drops the salt into the water. It is a total calamity. How is Jessie to feed the family without a necessary nutrient like salt?! Fortunately, there is another landing about a half an hour down the river that also has a store. I suspect that Jessie flung the salt in the river because she realized that if she didn’t, they were going to pass a grocery store and NOT BUY ANY GROCERIES. Or stop to talk to the storekeeper to let him know that rich folks were about. All of their food is in cans, so you know that it’s salty enough that they could get by for a bit, but we all know that Jessie can’t miss an opportunity to shop. Benny decides that they need the salt quick like a fox, so he runs headlong up the path and trips. Jessie’s face lights up with joy when she sees the grass stains on his clothes. LAUNDRY! She’s been without housework all day, and you know that it’s killing her.
Benny doesn’t care about the grass stains, but Violet jumps into the fray. There’s no way that she’s going to let Benny’s lack of vanity stop her from helping Jessie wash some clothes. MAYBE THERE ARE HOLES TO MEND, TOO. This fall is the gift that keeps on giving. Item: at this point, we realize that it’s quite possible that the Aldens only brought one outfit each for their houseboating adventure because Benny will have to put on his swimsuit while the girls fight over who gets to wash out grass stains in the river. While they were planning this little vacay, Jessie mentioned that they could live in swimsuits and sweaters (I KNOW. I can’t even) since there was limited storage on the houseboat, but it’s possible that they’ve actually gone on a long-ish outdoor boat trip with just one outfit apiece. This isn’t actually too far fetched as I imagine their closets look something like this, except all one solid hue (red for Benny obvi)
This laundry calamity just gets more and more exciting when Henry buys some clothesline and string (“but we ALREADY have clothesline!” the rest of the Aldens exclaim in thinly veiled anger). But Henry has a secret plan that we’ll learn right after the Aldens finish their two hour lunch.
At lunch the Aldens sit across from two men. Benny, with his flawless intuition, immediately knows that they’re ‘bad.’ Grandfather also internally hates them. Since the Aldens are on a higher plane of goodness, as the reader I can be assured that these men are probably some type of scum. This theory is solidified by Benny seeing the waitress slip an envelope to one of the strangers, while the other natters on about ‘no one finding out.’ This is the least discrete drug deal I’ve ever witnessed.
Oh, and they get into a big black car, too–big surprise.
Henry, lovable dumbass that he is, misses all the intrigue. He’s too busy planning his mysterious clothesline surprise. It’s a laundry chair that Violet can float out in the water— while scrubbing Benny’s clothes. They manage to turn washing one shirt into an entire afternoon of bustling activity.
The next day, Henry tries his hand at fishing. Predictably, he fails miserably, until Benny takes the rod, and immediately lands an enormous bass. Is it just me, or is Benny the wunderkind in this family? I’m starting to feel bad for Henry, with Benny/Wil Wheaton stealing his thunder all the time. Anyway, worn out from all the fish excitement, the family has to go into town. Benny sees the black car again, and a lady buying only one stamp. This is such an anomaly, that the children track the poor woman down to her candy shop so they can harass her at their leisure, whilst enjoying chocolates. She gives them the candy for free, probably hoping that they will GO AWAY, but she underestimates the tenacity of these kids once they sink their teeth into a “mystery.” Such as only purchasing one stamp. Maybe this is just pre-forever stamp, and she doesn’t want to bother with all those penny stamps when the postage inevitably goes up. YOU DON’T KNOW HER LIFE, BENNY. MAYBE YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO CORNER HER AND GRILL HER FOR INFORMATION.
When Benny presses about the big black car, Candy Lady gets flustered, and mutters something about ‘her boy.’ I can’t make a guess to the significance of this, as I am still dumbfounded by Benny APOLOGIZING for bothering her. All this fresh river air is making him crazy.
The next day is a red letter occasion as Jessie doesn’t have to purchase food. Instead, they stop in at an auction. It’s just a normal type auction where they are selling rare vases worth thousands of dollars, as well as cardboard boxes of old clothes for $5. Pretty typical Sotheby’s affair. Mysteriously the rare vase disappears.
I am a big fan of Grandfather’s reaction here– he books it as soon as they realize the vase is missing. You’d think this would look fishy, but the cop waves him out, ‘I’m sure you didn’t steal the vase,’ he says, ‘being that you are an old rich white man, you are above my suspicions.’
Benny spots the mysterious ‘bad’ men again, this time they are clearly the drivers of the black car, and one is wearing the heavy black ring. Everything is coming together. When the family gets back to the houseboat, it smells like cigarette smoke. All the doors and windows were locked, so this is yet another mysterious instance to be pondered. It is never suggested that the cigarette smoke could possibly originate from college-age, experimenting-with-gateway-drugs Henry, but I’ll freely admit it’s the first thing that came to my mind. It was hella crowded in that auction house. Henry could have easily slipped away for a quick smoke, and no one would have been the wiser. Of course, once Jessie smelled smoke on his best wool sweater, she would have had to wash it out in the special laundry chair, so EVERYONE WINS.
Obviously, Henry’s emancipation is not where this story is going. Only Benny notices that the ship’s clock is missing, but he keeps it to himself, namely so he can solve the mystery on his own and garner all the glory.
The next day the Aldens float by a sign (this is what, the sixth exciting sign on the river?) for the April Center–which happens to be some sort of commune run by one of Grandfather’s ‘best’ friends. Dubious, as Grandfather has never seen the April Center, and actually seems blown-away by it’s close proximity. I am guessing that the Aldens have probably only traveled about ten miles away from their actual house, so the fact that all-seeing all-knowing Grandfather, with his fancy cars and personal jets hasn’t seen this podunk roadside attraction (one that people come from ‘around the world’ to visit) stretches my credulity. Regardless, I am positive Gertrude is only beginning to crank of the ridiculosity, so I continue.
Once inside this ‘poor man’s’ Disneyland, the family is invited to take a carriage ride with Sam and Dolly, the anorexic Thoroughbred. There is a moment’s hesitation when it’s apparent that this clearly starved horse shouldn’t pull a carriage with six people, but we know from Mystery Ranch that they have little sympathy for old, broken-down horses and what they can or can’t handle. Plus, Sam assures them that Dolly is just ‘naturally thin,’ (“honestly folks, her bones are supposed to jut out like that!) and that she loves working hard in hot weather (really, he says this).
The Aldens are quickly distracted by the wonders of the doll museum (small tea sets! automated toys!) and forget all about Dolly and Sam until they see another carriage and driver that look identical. This premise–a set of identical twin men with identical twin horses used to piss me off to no end as a child. The improbability of twin horses is so low; in addition to the chances of them being identical; paired with the odds of them being owned by identical twins–I don’t know why it makes my blood boil but it does. Gertrude, if you’re not going to have any respect for basic biology and logic, you should have just made them unicorns.
Benny can tell something’s afoot with the matching drivers and their sickly horses, and he’s basically given up on any sort of sleuthing pretext, and just gone straight to asking. “What’s wrong with your horse?” he demands, “Are you in trouble with the law? Tell me everything. You don’t know how powerful my family is, but you will Sam, oh, yes, you will.”
With this kind of interrogation technique, it’s not long before we discover that Sam and Jeff are being blackmailed, independently, no doubt by men in a black car. Sam thinks Jeff has done something bad, and Jeff thinks Sam has done something bad, and both of them are paying some strangers in a car to keep them from going to the police. The obvious solution here would be to ASK YOUR STUPID BROTHER IF HE’S IN TROUBLE instead of arbitrarily paying someone off to keep quiet about something that involves literally no explanatory story, facts, or proof. From my multiple readings of this story, I can draw no other conclusion but that a stranger approached Sam, told him they would tell the police ‘what Jeff did’ unless he paid them half his salary, and then HE DID. But he never asked any questions about what this nefarious dirt entailed?? And then rinse, repeat with twin brother.
Later, back on the river, Henry manages to take some photos of men hiding in the woods, spying on them. I’d give credit to Henry here, but I’m pretty positive he was just trying to take a picture of an egret and the men happened to be in the background. When the Coast Guard drops in to give them some fish (true story), the family lays out the clues.
Thin horses. Waitress with an envelope. Sad Candy Lady. Boy with a red hat. Oh, boy with a red hat you say?! From that description alone, Mr. Coast Guard identifies him as sad Candy Lady’s son, who is probably in some sort of gang.
After a relaxing evening of fish and instant mashed potatoes, Henry accidentally tosses the house key into the river. Jessie, who missed the whole thing–probably while doing dishes–still dives in instantly at Henry’s command. Unfortunately, during the excitement, Henry threw fish heads in the emergency fire-putting-out-sand. The pull over to empty the sandbox and get new sand (this is the most scintillating story ever, I’m suddenly reminded), and OH MY GOD THE MISSING VASE IT WAS IN THE SANDBOX NO ONE SAW THIS COMING.
After this discovery, it’s just a small matter of tricking the thiefs into returning to the scene of the crime while hiding out with the policeman. Then it all falls into place. And by ‘falls into place,’ I mean, the guys in the black car get arrested, and we just assume they were also blackmailing everyone as well? Why did they steal the clock in the houseboat? Are we just never going to hear about that again? What was the waitress up to? Just don’t ask too many questions, I guess. Like those blackmailing victims. Even though I will just reiterate, this was truly the stupidest case of blackmailing I’ve ever heard of. These river people must all be on crystal meth.
Oh and Benny names the houseboat again and everyone laughs. The end.