Billy Argo is the Boy Detective of the surreal fantasy town of New Gotham. With his sidekick, little sister Caroline, he solves mysteries and defeats the evil schemes of local villains: he may not do things by the book but goddamnit, he gets results. Billy’s world is torn apart when Caroline commits suicide, and we rejoin Billy as he is released from a mental institution.
Now neither a detective nor a boy, Billy has a hard time readjusting to society. Horror and sadness is everywhere. The boy detective spends much of the novel in tears, and you might too. Billy’s first case as an adult is the investigation of a child’s pet rabbit that has been decapitated, and his job – arranged by the institution where he’s spent about ten years – is on the graveyard shift in a call centre, selling wigs to cancer victims. As according to the book’s bizarre internal logic, the villains that the boy detective once battled with are still around, but like him, they are pathetic, broken figures. Billy lives across the hall from his arch-enemy, Professor Von Golum, who makes half-hearted attempts to kill the boy detective but can’t remember how to get off the bus.
The boy detective’s problem is that he has never come to terms with the death of his sister – it’s the one case he’s never solved, and it confirms his own blameless fallibility. At first he theorises that his sister’s suicide is a locked-room case, then he blames his best friend for the tragedy. The boy detective relies on logic and reason, and Caroline’s death terrifies him because it ends childhood’s easy answers and opens up a world where nothing makes sense.
Why is a mystery so terrifying to us as adults? Is it because we have learned the answer to everything and that answer is that there is never a secret passageway, a hidden treasure, or a note written in code to save us from our darkest moments? Why are we struggling so hard against believing there is a world we don’t know?
Childhood is the time when our view of the world is formed, and generally the world appears to run on predictable lines. Even the bad things in life seem to be part of some essentially benign order: anyone who’s seen James Bond, Star Wars or Dangermouse will recognise the way in which Billy and his old enemies have a grudging respect for each other. Yet evil, when Billy faces it, is motiveless and unpredictable. When a bullied child finds her pet rabbit dead, it is easier for Billy to believe that the murdered bunny is part of some wider conspiracy than to simply accept that someone cut its head off purely for fun. Conspiracy, fate, religion – these are all things we use to explain life’s mystery, and they always fall short. Part of growing up is to accept that we have no idea how the universe really works and that happiness is not guaranteed. It’s hard to do. As Billy’s old friend theorises about Caroline’s suicide: ‘She couldn’t accept that it was over, you know: being kids.’ It raises questions about childhood itself – would anyone really want to be Peter Pan?
During the course of the novel Billy is valiantly trying to impose order on a chaotic world: tellingly, he suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and has to restrain himself from tying strangers’ unlaced shoes. But it’s a losing battle. The strange and unexplained events – messages written in code, Convocations of Evil, mad dreams – are mirrored by the book’s chaotic format; there’s lots of typographical explanation and Chapter Fourteen ‘has been stolen. We apologise for this.’ The themes are those of the great existentialists. Billy’s therapist says, ‘I want you to consider why you’re afraid of death. I think it is because you consider it a form of failure, a mistake, something that can somehow be avoided.’ Yet the book reads like a fairytale or a cartoon. It’s immensely gripping, with moments of great tenderness and emotion.
Despite the sadness of Billy’s world, Meno keeps the possibility of hope and love alive in the reader’s mind, and realises it with an accomplishment that could melt the cruellest heart. Indeed, I defy you to read this book’s last line without tears of joy in your eyes. In the end, Meno is saying that the fact that the world’s unsolved mysteries are what gives life its wonder: we don’t need answers, just more questions.