With Squirrel, Will Travel…
I first found The Adventures of the Black Hand Gang in my primary school library. I ended up loaning it so often it might as well have been in my own private library.
The book was a collection of four stories starring the members of the Black Hand Gang: Frank, Angela, Ralph and Ketih W.S. (With Squirrel… of course), in which the four kids (plus squirrel) would foil some sort of criminal plot, out-thinking all adult masterminds and constabulary in the process.
It’s a familiar trope of children’s fiction: kids are smart, grown-ups are dumb. Enid Blyton built quite a hefty portfolio based on that very idea, despite the weird name.
The difference with this book was the execution of the stories: each spread had a page of text on the left, leading the story onwards, ending with a question, and on the right page was a picture, or smaller panels, in which the answer could be found.
The beauty of the picture was the simple yet detailed style contained so much information you could easily look through the image countless times and find little elements that you missed the hundred times before. Even when you well aware of the solution to the puzzle, this element added to the re-readability of the book.
As wikipedia now tells me, The stories were created by Hans Jurgen Press and were originally published in the German newspaper Stern, an image per week.. Press is also credited as a co-creator of the wimmelbild: “a genre of illustration deliberately overcrowded with detail, to pleasure children on their search for a certain item.”
I take it before Press came along, they published books featuring a tall thin guy with glasses and a striped jumper, standing in the middle of a empty page. They were called ”There’s Wally!”
I now own two copies of the Black Hand Gang book. I found one recently. The other may have been de-spined by the kids. And opening it up, I can’t help but be sucked into the illustrations with a burst of nostalgia. It’s also funny to see not only the anachronistic panoramas of the carefree lives of children running around bustling cities (and occasionally countryside) playing detectives, but also the obvious non-Australian design of the city’s features. There’s horse and carts, box brownie cameras and everyone smokes. There’s weird-shaped number plates, cable cars and strange currency (English pounds, which obviously would have replaced the original German currency).
It truly is another world, and one I love to occasionally visit.
The Mysterious House
1. A Sure Sign
The Black Hand Gang had been sitting up in their clubroom, as quiet as mice for an hour while they did their homework.
Ralph chewed his pen and gazed fixedly out of the grimy window. There was a sudden, sharp snap. Keith W.S. cracked a nut for his squirrel and spat the shell into an empty jam jar. Ralph frowned.
‘How do you spell “pane”?’ he whispered. ’It depends whether you’re looking through it or feeling it inside you,’ Angela replied, laughing. ’Looking through it, of course, a window-pane like that one there …. Hey, what’s that? No, there can’t be!’
Ralph scrubbed at the dirt on the window.
‘What can’t there be?’ asked Frank.
‘Anyone living in that house over there,’ Ralph answered.
‘It’s been empty for three years.’
They all crowded round the window.
‘We all know that only a couple of rats live there,’ said Keith W.S. ‘Look, the doors and windows are all barred shut.’
‘Let me have a look,’ said Angela, pressing her nose to the pane. After a few seconds she said, ‘I think Ralph’s right. There really is someone in the house.’
How did she guess there was someone in the mysterious house?
It turns out the author’s son, Julian Press, has also released several books in the same vein. I have yet to find/buy a copy of his work, but from what I’ve seen on Amazon, there’s a stunning similarity in style, even down to the addition of the companion animal (in this case a cockatoo).
And if there are people out there still jonesing for a fix of sleuthing, I can recommend “The Mystery Squad” range of books by Martin Waddell, in which you solve the mystery through reading the text and looking through the images. While not in the same style as Black Hand Gang, they were enjoyed when I was a kid. Once again, kids (teenagers this time) outwitted stupid adults and foiled plots.
Oh the old days, when plot-foiling was a full-time gig for kids, rather than stranger danger, ADHD and tamper-evident packaging.
And you could own a squirrel.
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