What would happen to a boy detective like Encyclopedia Brown after he went off to college? Especially if his beloved younger sister, who never got to solve mysteries herself, commits suicide? He might end up like Billy Argo, the title character in Joe Meno's charming new novel, The Boy Detective Fails. At age 30, a still-numb Billy leaves a mental hospital after a 10-year stay, moves to a halfway house in Gotham, N.J. (sharing a hallway with some of his old nemeses), takes a dead-end phone-sales job, pops his anti-depression and antianxiety pills, and investigates the hard-to-crack case of Lost Innocence.
''Why is a mystery so terrifying to us as adults?'' inquires Meno in his characteristically delicate blend of whimsy and edginess. ''Is it because we have learned the answer to everything...is that there is never a secret passageway, a hidden treasure, or a note written in code to save us from our darkest moments?'' As Billy begins to piece together clues about his sister's death, a flirtation with a pickpocket named Penny Maple hints at how he might manage to break through the haze of his ennui.
Although his plotting gets a little unruly at times, Meno (Hairstyles of the Damned) packs his novel with delightful subtext, often literally: A yarn about Billy's sailor brother runs in code at the bottom of the pages, yielding an e-mail address (and the chance to win a prize shipped directly to readers).