The Peeping Duck Gang Investigates the Case of the Phantom of the Opera (1990)
by Keith Brumpton
In the same vein as the Zach, Christian, and Stine books, this is one of a series of childrens' early chapter books featuring a team of child investigators Solving Many Crimes. I suppose it's the easiest thing in the world to borrow from classic stories for those sorts of things, and children are perennially interested in their own perceived genius and investigative skills, so it works out great for everybody in the end.
The thing that distinguishes this book is that it is bonkers. Brumpton's not even trying to adhere to the story or make anybody learn anything except how to read. He does what he wants. He's a sort of young-adult-literature maverick.
Unlike the other, similar books I've read for this project, this is actually the first of the series, meaning less time will be spent wondering what the hell they're referring to when they talk about previous adventures. The basic setup, however, is very familiar: boy (Howard), girl (Nina), and lovable animal sidekick (in this case a cowardly dog named Bob) are out to solve mysteries.
The most noticeable thing about this book is that it is hella British. American readers may find themselves confused by unfamiliar brand names (Hob-Nobs and Frosties, for example), colloquial terms and asides ("faintheart" or "barmy"), or just different ideas about humor and storytelling. It's not an enormous problem for an adult reader by any means, but if your American, you may find your kid confused if you drop this on them after they've been used to fare grown closer to home.
The second most noticeable thing is that the book is jammed full of illustrations, presumably penned by Brumpton himself. They are rustic, random, silly, and kind of totally charming.
The prologue explains that the Peeping Duck Gang is so named because Howard, who is of Chinese descent, suggested that they name it the "Peking Duck Gang" after his father's restaurant, but his accent was so thick that Nina misunderstood him. Everyone has a good chuckle over this benign racism baked directly into the setting of the entire series. Sigh.
The story opens when young Howard discovers a story in the local paper claiming that a sixteenth opera singer has been kidnapped from the local opera house. Great Scott, sixteen singers? The opera house is described as somewhat provincial, but that's still pretty much all of a big fat cast. Naturally, Howard calls Nina because this could be their First Big Case.
There is a small aside wherein Howard retells a few local ghost stories for comparison and spooky mood-setting; they're extremely silly and obviously intended to be seen through by even the most credulous child, but again they have a certain sort of charm. Brumpton seems perfectly happy to poke fun at everyone and everything.
Brumpton switches from present tense (as the narrator) to past tense (in the story itself) a little too often for my taste; it's vaguely annoying, and probably not teaching the tykes to mind their tenses too well. Nevertheless, Howard and Nina, with Bob in tow, are off to investigate the Grand Opera Building on Nile Street.
Once they arrive, the sobbing Miss Chappell (a name that might be a callback to Christine or to her religious tendencies), a mountainous stereotype of an opera singer, explains that eighteen out of the opera company's original twenty members have been kidnapped (I assume this is a mistake, or else two more people have gone missing in the time it took Howard and Nina to get their shit together and get to Nile Street). Only she (whom the children privately assume is too fat to be easily kidnapped, because why not assume fat people are always comic relief) and Mr. Rudge, currently wandering the theatre disconsolately somewhere, remain.
I kind of love Brumpton's ability to also mock himself even when he totally doesn't have to. On page 23:
"By the time the dressing room was once more illuminated, Miss Chappell had disappeared! The Phantom had struck again! Right beneath their noses! So many exclamation marks!"
It sounds like something I would have written to mock someone. And I'm a narcissist, so that is attractive to me.
Brumpton's aside with facts about Mozart is not attractive to me, mostly because it's inaccurate and contains a lot of made-up facts that might confuse child readers. Oh, they'll get turned around eventually, I assume, and some of them have a grain of truth to them (such as the assertion that Mozart wrote his requiem for his deceased hamster Haydn), but in general they are the sorts of things that would have gotten me (as a child who believed books were truth-tellers) into trouble. In a book that seems designed to be used as a learning or teaching tool for young children, it bothered me.
Oddly enough, there is a break and a recap of the story so far in the middle of the proceedings here. Again, I think this is because this may be intended to be a book used in school reading lessons, and as such read in small chunks.
The Next Chapter:
I am not responsible for what will be happening with chapter names from here on out. Brumpton is at least as much here to entertain himself as anyone else.
Nina and Howard split up, of course, because that's what you do when investigating kidnappings and/or hauntings, and Nina follows some ghostly singing she hears down into a sewer, where she runs into the Phantom. He is extremely creepy - the description includes mention of the exposed parts of his face seeming greenish, dry and spotty - and obviously dangerou, and he immediately kidnaps her.
The best part of this chapter is a random interjection at the bottom of page 31, which states that "Mendehlsson the rook was the Phantom's only real friend," accompanied by a drawing of a somewhat vacant-looking blackbird.
That's too delightful. I kind of want Mendehlsson the Rook to be my Phantom Project mascot now, even though his name is totally misspelled.
Chapter 4: Sandwich Break:
Nothing happens in this chapter except that Howard, who thinks Nina might have gotten bored and gone home, goes to get a sandwich for lunch while he waits for her.
The humor in this book treads a very fine line. It would be incredibly annoying were it not for the fact that it is intended for children around age seven or so. And it apparently has some kind of freakish book charisma that makes me not want to hate it (except when the humor relies on painful stereotypes, anyway, then I definitely hate it).
Chapter 5: In the Phantom's Lair:
The Phantom, it turns out, lives in the sewers, which are not romantically glossed over as they are in many versions (interestingly, the version of the story I can remember that was most blatant about sewer involvement was the also thoroughly British 1962 Fisher/Lom film). Were this not a childrens' book, there would be the usual creepy rape overtones inherent in the Phantom dragging Nina off, but luckily it is and there aren't.
The Phantom's business card is lovingly drawn out here. "Phantom Entreprises: New Operas, Chanderliers Dropped by Request, Sopranos Kidnapped, Sewers Renovated."
The Phantom has, of course, kidnapped all eighteen missing singers and chained them up in his living room. It turns out that this is because he wants to listen to Mozart's operas in the "perfect acoustic setting" - i.e., the sewers - and he doesn't want any of the regurgitated pre-recorded crap. Completely ridiculous, of course, but in a way that recalls the original's dedication to music as a pure artform and mode of expression.
While we still haven't seen the Phantom's face, Miss Chappell whispers to Nina here that she heard he was mutilated in an accident at a record-pressing plant. Well, hello, there, holla to the 1974 de Palma/Finley film! Fancy meeting you here! I'm tickled whenever someone uses that film as source material, partly because I love its bananatown self and partly because I love it when someone else does.
Of course, since realistic plots are not exactly our problem in this book, Nina conceives a plan to spring them and, after the Phantom has left, has all eighteen opera singers inhale at once, which creates such a gale that the key is sucked off the table across the room and flies into her hands. Opera Powers!
Chapter 7: A Surprise Awaits the Phantom:
The singers plus Nina all escape and try to ambush the Phantom, but he's a slippery customer and escapes, and then they all run around in the sewers, Lloyd-Webber-style, looking for him for a while.
Justice is eventually served, however, when the Phantom clumsily falls into the orchestra pit and is apprehended, unconscious, by Howard and the police he has called to search for Nina. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the Phantom is the never-seen-and-only-mentioned-once Mr. Rudge - Mr. G. Rudge in fact, get it? - and everyone is shocked and appalled and chastises him severely.
Eh, it's not winning any awards, but goddamn, I don't know what it is about this book. Somehow, despite the silliness, the lack of polish, the occasional mockery of real-life groups, and the preponderance of things that should have annoyed me to death, I still kind of like it.
Maybe I'm just mellowing in my old age.