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Freddy the Detective
Walter R. Brooks
Overlook Press, 264 pages

Freddy the Detective
Walter R. Brooks
Born in Rome, New York in 1886, Walter Rollin Brooks, grew up in the farm country of central New York. Headed for a career in medicine, he attended Rochester University (1904- 1906) and the New York Homeopathic Medical College (1906-1908). He then worked for the American Red Cross and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Married to Anne Shepard in 1909, he gradually left the medical profession. He became associate editor of Outlook in 1928, and was a staff writer for many magazines, including The New Yorker in the 1920s and 1930s. During this period he published many short stories in Esquire, Saturday Evening Post, and Good Housekeeping. It was his short story "Ed Signs the Pledge", about a talking mule, that was the basis for the famous "Mr. Ed" television series of the 1950s. Brooks is best remembered for his 26 books about a pig named Freddy who lives on Mr. Bean's farm somewhere between Rome and Syracuse, New York. The first of these was To and Again (1928), later retitled Freddy Goes to Florida, and the last Freddy and the Dragon (1958). Brooks died August 17, 1958 in Roxbury, New York.

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A review by Georges T. Dodds

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Freddy is a very intelligent, multi-talented (other books show him to be, amongst other things, a (bad) poet, a banker, newspaper editor, politician, football player, cowboy, explorer, and pilot) and resourceful talking pig who lives on Mr. Bean's farm in central New York State, along with a number of other similarly remarkable animals. The theft of a tin train from the room of Mr. Bean's adopted son Everett and Freddy's reading of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes lead him and his cynical assistant Jinx, a black cat, to investigate. Based on fiber evidence and paint traces on the window-sill Freddy concludes that the nasty Simon and his family of rats have defied their banishment to the woods to reintegrate their home under the barn. Freddy and Jinx soon discover that the rats use the train cars as armour to pilfer the feed-box. With the help of Mrs. Wiggins, the cow who provides the "common sense" in Frederick and Wiggins -- Detectives, they capture Simon, and incarcerate him in an empty horse stall. However, conditions are so good at the jail that word gets around and a barnyard crime spree ensues. Meanwhile, Freddy is off saving lost baby rabbits and capturing a pair of human burglars. In revenge, the rats frame Jinx by having him discover an apparent crow carcass before several witnesses. The literally and figuratively henpecked rooster Charles, of great oratorical skills, is elected judge. Freddy is attorney for the defense and Ferdinand the Crow, attorney for the prosecution. Freddy has had his many assistants out scouring for evidence. In cross-examining the rat "witnesses", Freddy is able to bring to light the entire conspiracy. For a children's book, the courtroom drama his handled very well, simple enough for children, but intriguing enough for adults.

I first discovered this and half-a-dozen other Freddy books at my local public library when I was 8, and devoured them at the pace of one-a-day. Some twenty years later, living for some time no more than 60 miles from the site of Mr. Bean's farm, I rediscovered the books and was once again charmed. Like much great children's literature, this and the other Freddy books can be read at many levels. They represent the culture and mores of the mid-20th century rural United States with the same superlative understanding as Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) had for turn-of-the-century rural England in his classic Wind in the Willows (1908). Set somewhere just west of Brooks' boyhood home of Rome, New York, they capture the genus loci of central New York farming country, like few, if any, other books have.

Many stories with anthropomorphized animals tend to have a moral or political agenda (e.g. George Orwell's Animal Farm) which overshadows the characters. While a few of the later Freddy books (e.g. Freddy and Simon the Dictator, 1956) tend to deal with the totalitarian regimes and cold-war tensions of their period, their topical allusions don't tend to intrude on the generally optimistic outlook of Mr. Bean's barnyard family. It is also this genuine but not sickly-sweet feeling of family which pervades the Freddy books and lends them much of their charm. In Freddy the Detective and other Freddy books, while Freddy is always loyal and honest, he is frequently just a bit lazy and sometimes attains his ends in spite of himself. Similarly, the other characters such as Mrs. Wiggins, Wogus, and Wurzburger, the three good-natured but somewhat dense cows; Hank, the old retired horse; Alice and Emma, the spinster-sister ducks and their frequently inebriated Uncle Wesley; Mr. and Mrs. Web, the barn spiders, all have their qualities, but also all have their foibles. It is this rich characterization that makes this and other Freddy books so wonderful to read. And, let's not forget that the Freddy books are also very funny. For example, in Freddy the Detective, Freddy saves a lost rabbit-child he has been hired to find without ever realizing that it is the same young rabbit he has just interrogated and sent home.

Unfortunately, it seems that this brand of wholesome humour and family values doesn't have quite the appeal it used to, and I hate to say it but the Freddy books may be a bit dated. When I first read the Freddy books, my parents had few qualms about letting me go to play in the park all day with friends, and this was some 40 years after the first Freddy book was published. Nowadays... In the late 1980's, Knopf, the original publishers of the Freddy books, reissued 8 of the original books in inexpensive paperback editions, including the wonderful illustrations by Kurt Wiese. Apparently, despite an important promotional campaign, sales were poor. Overlook Press has now begun to reissue lovely hardcover reproductions of the original Freddy books (complete with original dust jackets and end papers), and hope to, for the first time, see the entire series in print at one time. Hopefully, this title, and the other 25 Freddy books to come can bring some new readers to the "kinder, gentler" and funnier times to be had on the Bean Farm.

Copyright © 1998 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.


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