Agaton Sax and the Scotland Yard Mystery
Learning the ropes by reading the jokes: how parody introduces kids to classics
We were raised by Puffins. With three TV channels and no internet, for long stretches of our lives reading was the best (and sometimes, the only) way to pass the time. In X Libris we return to the books that made us.
Agaton Sax and the Scotland Yard Mystery (Nils-Olof Franzén, English publication 1969)
The Scotland Yard Secret Code Register of Current Criminals has been stolen, and Inspector Lispington must summon Swedish master-detective (and Editor-in-Chief of the Bykoping Post) Agaton Sax, who will need all his cunning and brilliance to penetrate the criminal network masterminded by the faceless Boss.
The obsessions of childhood are fleeting, but all-consuming while they last. I fell into the Agaton Sax books and didn’t come up for air until I had read all of them. And yet no one else on The Metropolitan had ever heard of them (no doubt because of the brilliance of Sax’s disguises). There was a whole series of books. They were illustrated by Quentin Blake and read aloud on Jackanory by Kenneth Williams (what higher praise can there be?). There was even an animated series, for crying out loud. And yet Sax seems, now, to have quite disappeared. This seems rather unfair.
Agaton Sax is a round little man in moustaches and a bowler hat who nonetheless strikes terror into the hearts of Europe’s criminal gangs with his mastery of disguise, ventriloquism, detection, newspaper editing and anything else the plot might require. You’d think such a delightfully silly creation would have a more lasting legacy.
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The books were written in Swedish and translated (splendidly) into English by Franzén himself. We were surrounded by translated European children’s books in the ‘70s: classics like Spyri and Kästner, bandes desinée from Hergé and Goscinny & Uderzo (all hail the translators of Asterix, Derek Hockridge and Althea Bell, who managed to make it funny all over again in a different language). And of course, there was the humane genius of Tove Jansson.
Among these, Agaton Sax books stand out because they give a foreign view of England, particularly of the great tradition of English detectives. Sax’s detection is Holmesian, pondering problems over a pipe (one for every day of the week); his Scotland Yard contact, Inspector Lispington, is a Lestrade analogue, and the Boss in The Scotland Yard Mystery sits at the heart of his criminal web like an arachnid Moriarty.
All those translated works gave us windows into other worlds and ways of life, but the view of our own culture from without translated our own accepted customs and traditions and made us see them anew. What is implicit and understood is revealed as obtuse and inexplicable. This is particularly resonant for children, for whom all these ingrained habits and references are relatively new and frequently puzzling anyway.
The Agaton Sax books are parody. They’re still pretty funny and there are several places in which Franzén pulls off what’s essentially visual comedy in prose, in his (at least) second language, which is truly admirable.
More importantly, they are, like all good spoofs, loving parodies. It’s only possible to write a good parody if you know the subject you’re playing with really well and, preferably, really like it too. This is why parodies of ‘genre’ fiction written by literary snobs never work; they don’t actually like what they’re parodying. Similarly, satire only ever really works from a place of clear-eyed understanding and recognition; loathing other people begins with loathing oneself.
The Scotland Yard Mystery contains clear references not only to Sherlockian plot points but also to Conan Doyle’s structure and set dressing. Just off the top of my head, we have a deserted suburban house straight out of The Engineer’s Thumb; sinister, gnomic messages as in The Dancing Men; and a Balkan hostage like The Greek Interpreter. Franzén knows his Conan Doyle, and he also knows the genre Conan Doyle helped perfect: the pulp detective story, with all its disguises and reveals, perilous traps and unlikely escapes (in this case a working galleon from a pirate movie that hoves over the horizon, broadsides blazing, at a crucial moment).
Because Franzén knows his sources so well, he is able to do the comedy within the structure of an actual detective story. There are clues and puzzles with which the reader can engage as they read, there is a plot behind all the silliness, although it’s pretty silly itself, of course.
What I liked as a child about Agaton Sax is largely what I was going to like about the actual Sherlock Holmes, when I finally met him; not just the intricate train of deduction but also Conan Doyle’s sense of humour, and, more importantly, his use of the sinisterly ridiculous, the unnervingly bizarre, the odd and easily overlooked details that unravel in tales of horror and mystery.
I discovered these things not through the originals, but through parody. This happens a lot as a child. You are surrounded by references to and transfigurations of originals you have never encountered. You learn that detectives wear deerstalker hats and vampires wear nineteenth century opera cloaks before you ever see Rathbone or Lugosi; you know that the villain will tie the heroine to the train tracks and that with one bound Jack will be free, without ever having seen The Perils of Pauline or similar Republic serials.
These are precisely the unconscious tropes that translation reveals as strange, and they are strange to a child. You’re learning the tropes even as you’re learning the jokes about the tropes, the jokes that ought to rely on you knowing the tropes in the first place. You begin to discern the lineaments of the original in the degraded forms of its descendents, like a palaeontologist discovering dinosaur behaviour while watching chickens, terrible lizards by way of ludicrous birds.
This is why parodies like Agaton Sax are important. Not only do they introduce children to these cultural tropes and traditions, they introduce them to the originals too, watered down wine for palates not yet quite ready for the heady true brew. And a loving, exciting parody like Agaton Sax all the more so, since it cultivates appreciation even as it mocks, showing how enjoyable the original could be even as it points out its foibles. With a wink it places into our hands one end of a scarlet thread that will, in time, lead us through the foggy and fearsome streets of London, on to Scotland Yard and to mystery, to mischief and murder and great, and lasting, excitement.
For more comedy for kids, crack open the Crack-a-joke Book:
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