A year ago, I reviewed The Clue of the Phantom Car (1953) and The Mystery of the Invisible Enemy (1959) by "Bruce Campbell," a penname of Sam and Beryl Epstein, who cemented their legacy as the pioneers of the present-days Young Adult genre with the acclaimed Ken Holt series – which tended to be darker and more intricately plotted than most juvenile mystery series of the period. What's not as well known is that Ken Holt has a predecessor, Roger Baxter, who appeared in a couple of novels during the late 1940s.
The series comprises of three novels, Stranger at the Inlet (1946), The Secret of Baldhead Mountain (1946) and The Riddle of the Hidden Pesos (1948), which were published under two different names, "Charles Strong" and "Martin Colt." A very short-lived series, but as highly regarded by fans as the more well-known Holt series. And not without reason!
Roger Baxter is the 14-year-old protagonist of the series who lives with his 12-year-old brother, Bill, in the small, coastal town of Seaview and they were obviously the prototypes for Ken Holt and Sandy Allen.
Roger is, very much like Ken, the meticulous, rationally-minded thinker of the two. However, the difference between Ken and Sandy, who are the same age, is due to intelligence, while the difference between Roger and Bill is clearly age, because Roger has already began to mature and Bill is still in the phase between childhood and adolescence – which can make him a little bit naive at times. Roger and Bill are two very well-drawn, believable child characters on par with the children and teenagers found in the work of Gladys Mitchell.
The story opens during the summer holiday and the boys are planning to make a windmill on top of the empty cottage, owned by their parents, which they have come to regard "more or less as their private property." Unfortunately, their mother informs them the cottage has been rented for two months to a man, Robert "Slim" Warner, who wants a quiet place to recuperate from an operation. Luckily, Slim has no problem with Roger and Bill mounting a windmill on the roof of the cottage to generate electricity for the cottage. However, they soon begin to pick up hints and clues that Slim is not who he says he is.
Slim says he came to Seaview to convalesce, but carried around heavy bag, two at a time, without any trouble or pain. He drives "an old wreck of a car," but the motor in it "sounds almost brand-new." A power generator was delivered to the cottage, but Roger knows he never send the telegram to ask for it. And then there's the mysterious, late-night visitor to the cottage and they boys overheard them talking about Smugglers' Island.
An answer to all of these questions come, roughly, a quarter into the story, which plunges Roger and Bill head first into an exciting adventure that involves an elaborate smuggling operation – who use the peaceful, out-of-the-way seaside town as a clearing point. But this is all I can say about the plot without giving away too much.
What I can say about the story is that plot has a lot of nuts and bolts, which makes it a younger relative of Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode. The early chapter detailing how Roger, Bill and Slim build the windmill on top of the cottage reads like a partial instruction manual and they learn how to operate "a six-volt radio." As well as getting a crash course in Morse code. A combination of the two is put to ingenious use when they find themselves in a tight corner towards the end of their adventure. Obviously, a book that was written for young boys and teenagers.
The sole weakness of this excellently written novel is that the chase was more exciting, and fun, than the eventual capture of the culprits, which hardly came as a surprise. Something that enervates most juvenile mysteries for older readers.
Nonetheless, Stranger at the Inlet is a beautifully written, characterized and adventurous mystery novel with an equally beautiful, well-imagined backdrop. The writers evidently knew and respected their young audience, which they would come to perfect in the Ken Holt series when their plots became really trick and far more serious – fraught with very real, dangerous situations and consequences. So these two series are without question a cut above other juvenile series and can be enjoyed by young and old alike. Just for that, they deserve to be rediscovered.