All is, I’m sorry to say, not quite right on the Bean Farm, that home of the loveable animals Freddy the Pig, Jinx the Cat, Charles and Henrietta the chickens, and some rather less loveable rats. (Rats.) A toy train has disappeared. Grain is vanishing. And two Terrible Robbers have arrived in the area, leaving the human sheriff and detective quite at a loss.
Fortunately, the Bean Farm has a pig named Freddy, who has carefully studied the life of that most famous of detectives: Sherlock Holmes.
In Freddy the Detective (1932), Freddy comes into his own at last, after one book where he was mostly a supporting character, and a second book where he inspired the main plot—and then vanished for most of the book. Perhaps this is because a pig journeying to Florida or a pig heading to the North Pole to enjoy the lap of luxury with Santa, plus bonus candy, is only mildly funny; most of the humor of those books came from the other animals. But a pig attempting to be Sherlock Holmes? Comedy gold. The illustrator even gives Freddy a proper little deerstalker cap.
Not that Sherlock Holmes is the only inspiration for Freddy’s actions, although this he is the only detective Freddy names. Freddy’s investigative methods may follow those of Sherlock Holmes, but his summaries and conclusions are pure Hercule Poirot, strongly suggesting that Walter Brooks had at the very least read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (I kept expecting Freddy to mention his little grey cells. Or little pig cells.) The triumphant trial scene borrows from any number of courthouse dramas. But something about having a pig as the defense attorney changes matters entirely.
And yes, trial. Freddy insists that his investigations—and subsequent prosecutions—be done legally, which means electing a judge (the animals debate for some time between choosing a wise bear who will unfortunately sleep during the trial, and a rather arrogant—dare I say, cocky?—rooster), creating a jail, and using a jury system, carefully set up with larger animals in the back, smaller animals in the front, and spiders dangling from the ceiling so that everyone can see. It works.
Alas, not everything goes smoothly in the legal world—the vain Charles the rooster is not the most reliable of judges (although he can be properly brought back in line when warned that the animals can always go with the sleepy bear for a judge, if needed). Freddy has so much to investigate that he has to hire others to do his work—others who do not always share his skills. And, alas, in a bit doubtless inspired by the Great Depression’s urban legends of hobos who would steal just to try to get three square meals a day in jail, no matter how awful chain gang work might me, and how difficult it was for anyone with a jail record to get a job at the time, the animals end up loving jail, and doing terrible things to get into jail. As a little rabbit explains:
“…And I wanted to go to jail – the animals there all have such a good time, and don’t have to work, and they play games and sing songs all day long, and other animals are sorry for them and bring them lots of good things to eat! Oh, please, Mr. Freddy, take me to the judge and get me a good long sentence.”
This frank confession stirs Freddy to make some needed changes to the prison system.
But whatever Brooks may have felt about overly kindly jails, he certainly does not hesitate to throw several barbs at the legal system, something he had perhaps witnessed either through his Red Cross or later newspaper work. He critiques courtroom speeches:
But it was a very long speech, and although beautifully worded, meant very little, so I will not give it in full.
There was some cheering at the end of Ferdinand’s speech, but it was more for the cleverness with which he had avoided the facts than because the audience agreed with him.
(Ferdinand the crow is acting as an attorney here; the thoroughly practical cows, in particular, are unimpressed with his legal jargon. )
And the animal version of the Fifth Amendment:
“You don’t have to answer that,” called Simon from under the buggy. “You don’t have to answer any question if you feel that the answer would tend to incriminate or degrade you.”
“All right, I won’t answer that,” said Zeke.
“You feel that the answer would incriminate or degrade you?” asked Freddy.
“Yes. A lot.”
“Good,” said Freddy. “Consider yourself incriminated and degraded, then. Ferdinand, do you wish to cross-examine this degraded witness?”
“No,” said Ferdinand crossly.
This makes, as you might guess, quite an impact.
But the courtroom scene is not all barbs; it’s carefully written to allow attentive young readers (or listeners; this is the sort of book that does well read out loud) to guess the truth behind the dreadful accusations. (It also contains a nice discussion of the problems with animal forensics: as Brooks points out, sniffing feathers will make anyone’s nose itch, even if this is the only way for the twelve animals to determine the truth of the alleged crime.) And for all of Brooks’ satire, in the end, the legal system works, punishing the guilty and freeing the innocent.
The focus on Freddy as main character helps the book in other ways, as well, creating, for the first time in this series, a fairly streamlined plot—if, admittedly, one with more than a few detours along the way. (As of this book, at least, I’m not convinced that Brooks was able to write a book without severe digressions.)
If some of the rat lovers among you may feel that the rats are just a little stereotypically, well, rats (not a single trace of the kindly Water Rat from Wind in the Willows here), and if I remain mildly irked by the ongoing portrayal of Charles as henpecked husband, mostly because it’s so stereotypical (for humans, not chickens), this book offers several chuckles—and a hint to where the series would be going. A considerable improvement over the first two books (which were entertaining enough as it was), this may be one of the best places to start the series.
Mari Ness now plans to hire Freddy as her attorney, should she ever be accused of the terrible and violent murder of a crow. She lives in central Florida.