Sunday, January 27, 2013

Choose Your Own Adventure #9: Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?

Last time I tried an eighties gamebook I ended up dead at the hands of a living stereotype. Other highlights included nearly being killed by a gully, thinking ordinary table salt was some sort of dangerous chemical and being oblivious enough to get lassoed. Suffice it to say, this failure was so complete that I've decided to try something a lot easier for my next foray into the world of thirty-year-old books intended for children.

Note I said "easier" and not "less messed up." Here we have a cover that promises killing and features illustrations of booze, smoking, a corpse, Pete Rose hair and some sort of ghoul/vampire hybrid. Again, this series was aimed at ten year-olds. We're a long way from "Johnny and His Two Fathers Go to the Diversity Picnic" or whatever b.s. is produced for today's kids. The incredible thing is the series got even more extreme and insane as it went. By the time it reached triple digits there were probably titles like "Escape From the Catholic Confessional" and "You Participate in a Gang Rape." I exaggerate, but only just.

Anyway, all we have to do is make choices. No rolling dice, no putting points into skills that fail when faced with a tube full of salt, just make a choice and turn a page. Let's do this thing.

We start with some straightforward exposition introducing the "you" that the reader will portray in this story. Specifically, you've got mad mystery solving skillz. When "Aunt Marinda" was the victim of a home invasion (!) in furtherance of burglary (!!) (in a rare show of restraint for these books she isn't murdered or worse) your sharp eyes notice a "beer bottle." (!!!) Said bottle contains the prints of the criminal and leads to his capture. Man, this is like C.S.I. Miami. It is fun to imagine some guy drinking a beer, dropping it right in front of a window and then deciding to try some of the old B&E immediately afterward.

...and that's the end of that chapter.

After solving the case of the Pre-Gaming Sleep Bandit you're feeling your oats and decide to become a detective, full-time. Forget school, it means nothing to the mystery solving community. The result is a transformation into a pint-size Sherlock Holmes, presumably minus the pit-fighting and cocaine addiction. You've got "quite a reputation" and it attracts the attention of a One Percenter named Harlowe Thrombey. The massive spoiler in the book's title takes a lot of the drama out of our interaction with this "plastics" magnate. He says his "life is in danger." Well, duh. Clearly the only one you can trust in such a situation is a child who found a beer bottle, once. 

Consider the options and it gets even more laughable. You are wealthy and in fear of your life. Do you use your massive fortune to flee the country? Hire bodyguards? No. Instead ask a pre-teen trouble shooter to do some pro bono work on your behalf. He wants you to come by at 5 pm to, I guess, get his back. "I hear you have sharp eyes," as Thrombey puts it. If the murder weapon is a partially concealed Night Train bottle, you're in good hands.

Amusingly enough you get the choice to blow off this Captain of Industry and instead "call back in a day or so." This is great. "Yeah, life in danger. Whatever, Uncle Pennybags. How about I stop by in a few days, if I'm in the neighborhood and I feel like it. Oh, and never call here again, all right?" *Click*

Predictably my heartless refusal to aid a desperate man leads to his "poisoning," a fact I learn from his lawyer who calls the next day. Man, Kiddie Detective Agency should hire a secretary or something to handle all this nonsense. Anyway, the facts include a Greenhouse break-in, a bottle of Arsenic and a bottle of Brandy. You have to admit this sort of case is right in your wheelhouse, what with the bottles and unlawful entry. Your trust in an eleven year-old was well-placed, sir.

We meet some suspects and get some additional information on times and so on, but all this is getting in the way of solving a case the way they do on the moron box: beating up suspects, acting like a Big Man, swearing, putting on military body armor and waving around huge, impractical guns, dropping your pants, that sort of thing. You're offered a chance to compare notes with a police inspector, but you think he's a "bumbling idiot." Man, this sort of intolerance is what happens when you make books that actually entertain kids instead of being packed with marxist drivel. 

Al Presidente??? Que???

Passing on a chance to hang out with someone my character considers to be less than competent I head over to the Thrombey estate. I ask some questions to the maid, who takes being interrogated by someone half a decade away from a driver's license in stride. Her alibi seems to check out, so you talk with a girl named Jenny whose pet theory is that Harlowe committed suicide (!) because he was "tired of living" (!!) and that this would show up his wife (!!!) who didn't take his morbid fear of death seriously. 

Yes, this is a children's book with the stones to address murder, suicide, loveless marriages and death paranoia. Is it any wonder people still remember these books fondly?

I'm given a choice to take her "false or possibly real suicide to show up wife and screw over heirs" theory seriously and decide to do so. "As a detective you must consider all possibilities" counsels the book. We must carefully consider the possibility of self-negation as a final middle-finger to the meaninglessness of live and the lie of love. So I go see his doctor, who I'm guessing was also the "candy man" for this guy, if you know what I'm saying.

Translation: Bruce Lee Battles the Venal Ghoul Monsters.

Dr. Bloom is dismissive of your "suicide" theory and even admits the victim's delusional fear of being murdered was actually fully justified, in light of recent events. Hard to argue with that one. It might seem like time wasted, but I have a feeling I just made a connection for some of those prescription pleasure pills when my character hits his teenage years, realizes there's no future in amateur sleuthing and becomes a pathetic junkie and human derelict.

Back at Thrombey manner the police are on the scene. Inspector Prufrock announces he's "solved the murder!" Well, that is his job and all. We get a "the butler did it" solution that's so lame we don't even consider it, unlike the more plausible "existential surrender in the face of nothingness" theory that proved so fruitless. Either way, the butler has already escaped. Maybe next time cuff him first, then declare victory. 

This inspired you to invent "roof hits."

An indeterminate amount of time passes and it's back to the house. It looks empty, but someone is waiting to get the drop on the underage fixer. Here you get a gun to the back (!!!) and  a towel wrapped around your head (!!!!) before being tied to a chair.  The unseen attacker is going through the desk in the room while you're tied to a chair. The book lets you remove the blindfold, i.e. the towel, and the reward is being pistol-whipped. You wake up in the hospital. Better tell that doctor from earlier to start filling that "prescription" right away. 

In a funny bit the E.R. doctor hands you a threatening letter that was found on your unconscious body. Drop the case or die is the gist of it. Maybe not the best thing to show someone who is recovering from a serious concussion. You're not about to be dissuaded by something as feckless as a death threat delivered after a head-busting. "In this business you have to take chances." Chances like running around right after getting a serious head injury.

 I'll be fine, it's really nothing.

Time to investigate the sketchy niece's "dentist" alibi. False pretenses are used over the phone to obtain the information, and compared to suicide, pistol-whippings, poison and being wrapped in a towel this bit of deviance barely registers. 

We then reach the crowning glory of the book, a page with nothing but "What should I do next?" followed by several conditional choices. This is awesome, and I say that in all sincerity. In total there's 13 possible choices here and depending on what you've done so far some of them are probably very logical solutions. In my case I wasted time facing the horrific nothingness of life's absurdity, talking to a quack doctor and getting beat down. Still, there is hope. The last choice is "If you're absolutely sure you have the case wrapped up." 

Yeah, I'm sure of that. Neat little package.

You turn to that page and are declared the winner, without even saying who you turn in, or why, or on what evidence. Just an arbitrary "instant win" button. We'll say that I turned in Jenny, who obviously was trying to derail my case by introducing massive existential despair and/or getting me hooked on pills and Inspector Prufrock who probably did the pistol-whipping and whose apparent ineptitude was just a cover for an insane criminal genius.  

In another ending the ghoul/vampire "lets you have it."

Overall this book is great stuff for what it is. There's a lot of depth and character I largely ignored and if you play the ending straight you probably have to really use your head and put clues together. On the other hand, murder, suicide, confrontation with existential oblivion, alcoholism, break-ins, drug abuse, head injuries, smoking, ghouls, shootings...enjoy your nightmares, kids!

Aaron Zehner's first novel The Foolchild Invention is available in e-book format at and Barnes & Noble.

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