It’s a safe bet that you’ve noticed the marked trend toward all things nostalgia in pop culture – particularly on screens both large and small. 1980’s-centric projects like “Stranger Things” and “It” and “The Goldbergs” – all of which capitalize on the nostalgic ruminations of various fandoms – are front and center in our entertainment landscape. In a lot of ways, it makes perfect sense. It’s not at all unusual to look back fondly on the more pleasant and enduring parts of our childhood and adolescence. While there are, of course, a multitude of literary options churning these same waters, one in particular caught my eye this year, in part because of its talented author and in part because of its wry title, Meddling Kids. Edgar Cantero’s sophomore effort is a rollicking and energetic rumination on the question of what life might be like for that infamous sort of adolescent detective – think The Famous Five, Nancy Drew, the Scooby Doo crew, etc – when adulthood comes knocking. Throw in a healthy dose of Lovecraftian horror and Cantero’s particularly cinematic prose style and you’ve got a book built for movie lovers that really couldn’t be more relevant.
What is Meddling Kids exactly? If, like me, you grew up on a steady diet of Saturday morning cartoons starring talking dogs, conspicuously munchy dog-owners, and their mystery-solving friends, the title phrase is an immediately recognizable one. Meddling Kids centers on the Blyton Summer Detective Club – a precocious group of pre-teens who spent their summers solving mysteries in the fictional and idyllic community of Blyton Falls (an obvious homage to Enid Blyton, author of the The Famous Five series). The novel imagines the kids as adults left damaged and wayward by a final case that crept under their collective skin and never quite dislodged. The Detective Club comes back together and returns to Blyton Mills to find the community not quite as idyllic as they remember, and the mystery distinctly and horrifyingly far from being solved. What follows are a series of clever homages to, and inversions of, the tropes of all those teen detective stories as well as some well-crafted odes to creations of H.P. Lovecraft. It’s an energetic head kick of a novel, equal parts goofy nostalgic fun and edge-of-your seat thriller. That’s a tough line to walk and Cantero makes it look easy.
What makes Meddling Kids work as well as it does, and the reason it can wear its nostalgia so prominently on its sleeve without pandering, is that Cantero is a doubtless a fan of this very specific genre, and he’s writing for other fans. Much like Ernest Cline’s pop-culture extravaganza Ready Player One, it’s clear from the opening moments that Cantero knows his intended audience and knows it well, precisely because he was once sitting among us. There’s a charming earnestness to the raucous adventure and good-natured skewering of the conceits that define Meddling Kids. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Cantero is a daring wordsmith whose structural tricks would be maddening if he didn’t pull them off so well. But more importantly, Cantero’s allusions to the Hardy Boys and the Famous Five and Scooby Doo et al. ring true in various small ways that make it clear he’s a long-time fan of the genre. It’s wonderfully trope-y, fun, and pulp-fueled – your inner child will feel right at home. It’s also bittersweet and dark and with bits of trauma creeping in from around the edges.
It’s this precise juxtaposition – the Saturday morning cartoon nostalgia set against an increasingly dark subtext – that makes Meddling Kids such a brilliant read. For every moment of wildly careening fun, there’s a jagged reminder that when the adventure began, these were kids who thrust themselves into a terrifying situation which they had no real means to comprehend. All that initial elation and fun came with a heavy toll and the care-free adventures of childhood invariably and unrelentingly give way to the realities and emotional weight of adulthood. At its heart, Meddling Kids is lively reminder that even in the darkest grown-up realities, the wonder of childhood can still break through.