In the first book of the Hobtown Mystery Stories series The Case of the Missing Men, members of the Teen Detective Club, an afterschool program at the local high school, get involved with a series of disappearances and discover a wider conspiratorial mystery that points to a secret history of their hometown.
The book pulled from the genre pioneered by the Hardy Boys and perfected by Scooby-Doo and the gang in which teenagers solve mysteries. This has also been embraced by David Lynch, who centered all of Blue Velvet around a teenage investigator to disturbing effect and crafted a few storylines on Twin Peaks to follow the same trajectory.
The Hobtown stories fit somewhere comfortably between all of those while clearing out a space of their own that distinguishes them as highly original while still maintaining the links that provide their thematic cred. Hobtown has a noticeable kinship with Twin Peaks in that it’s a town where there’s something weird settled into the air and stories concern themselves with getting to the core of what sets that tone within mythology that manifests in its own terms, ultimately refusing to be derivative of anything remotely familiar despite its genre borrowings.
In this second book, The Cursed Hermit, two members of the Teen Detective Club are the focus — Brennan and Pauline — as they are sent to a private school called Knotty Pines for an extra credit program during Christmas break. That there’s something suspicious going on there is obvious pretty much from the moment they get there — no snooping around required. As helmed by two crabby and conservative teachers, the school’s purpose seems to be a finishing school for young gentlemen and ladies of the most antiquated kind.
Long out-dated instruction on gender roles is the focus of the school and our Teen Detectives find that suspicious enough, but soon other things begin to happen, notably a sudden alteration to the behavior of their fellow students that make them suspect brainwashing, but also some freakish hallucinatory experiences for Pauline that seem to be messages from elsewhere designed to enlist her in a much larger effort to undo whatever is going on at Knotty Pines.
Anyone who has ever gone to some kind of private school with a provincial view of how life should be lived, typically catering to elite families with a historical pedigree in the area, will especially appreciate this tale. It’s the kind of experience that is seldom accessed by people outside those tight circles, but The Cursed Hermit does well in capturing the effort to mix class protectionism and social engineering through education that these schools specialize in. They’re all about order and tradition, as well as power, and here it also becomes about bowing to the perversions of the past, as well — at any cost.
Thankfully, you don’t need to have read the first book in order to follow this second entry. The previous adventure is referred to, but The Cursed Hermit stands on its own. At the same time, the series seems like it’s building to more intricate truths about Hobtown that will become more clear — or maybe less clear, depending on what Bertin and Forbes hope to achieve. If it’s anything like the work by Lynch that seems to have influenced it so strongly, it should understand that the more you spell out the core of a mystery, the less alluring you make all that came before it. It’s a creative tactic that too many don’t seem to comprehend as audiences crave “the big reveal” and use it as a mark of a successful story. I think the Hobtown series might be above all that, though.