James Budd #1: The Mystery of the Madman at Cornwall Crag By Dale Carlson

Background: The only reason why I even know about this short-lived series is because in the mid-1980s it was advertised in the back of Golden’s Trixie Belden paperbacks (presumably because both series involve a sidekick named Honey):

Meet cool, dashing, athletic James Budd, sixteen-year-old supersleuth with a taste for adventure. In his specially equipped red Firebird, with his beautiful friend and partner Honey Mack at his side, James is ready to handle intrigue, crime and trouble wherever he finds them. And find them he does…

With titles like The Secret of Operation Brain and The Mystery of Galaxy Games, I was expecting a sci fi-oriented series, a Hardy Boy in space or something. I could not have been more wrong.

James Budd


The Plot: Honestly, just pondering the plot is giving me a headache. But look! There is a map in the front of the book! I love books that come with maps of the fictional towns in which they are set!


(Click to enlarge)

James Budd is the adopted son of private detective Sam Starr; he and his high school chums are all geniuses at physics and karate and stuff, so the endlessly indulgent Chief of Police in King’s Rock, Nebraska lets them solve all of the various crimes around town. We learn that

James was dark and clean-cut, with a strong jaw, wide dark eyes, and black hair. He was not violent by nature, but he was a stubborn fighter for what he felt was right. He knew basic judo and karate, the arts of un-armed self-defense… He was also an all-round athlete and a straight-A student, and he liked to dress well.

And Honey is not only the prettiest girl in her class

She was also the fastest runner, the fastest- and best- driver, and, best of all, James was occasionally heard to say, “She’s my girl.”

Drive as hard as you can, ladies, it’s all meaningless without the attention of a 16 year old male clotheshorse. Ugh.

The book opens with James and Honey being summoned to the town cemetery, (“Call Chief Adams re: coffins”) to investigate a grave robbery. I dunno, maybe the police department is short-staffed. Honey is mostly concerned about James walking on graves because “The dead will rise and haunt you!”

They go back to James’s house where they receive a telephone call from a lady-farmer complaining that someone has stolen her rabbits. Then they get a call from Mrs. Evans, the housekeeper of Stanley Parker, “late of the Vietnam war and an assortment of mental institutions”:

After his time in the navy, serving in the Mekong Delta, he had spent a number of years in mental institutions. He suffered from “attacks” of madness, it was said, especially when the moon was full.

Stanley lives in the remote mansion that he brought back from Cornwall, England stone by stone, along with Mrs. Evans, his gardener Mr. Painter, and Mrs. Evans’s daughter Liz, who stumbles back into the house after receiving a deft karate-chop to the neck. Don’t worry, she’s fine:

Her brown eyes flashed at James, and her slim, curving figure moved provocatively about the kitchen as if she hadn’t just been unconscious at all.

“Will you be back?” asked Liz

“Of course we will,” Honey said sweetly, deftly coming between James and the girl with a look that said, We’ll protect you with everything we’ve got, but your hand will come off at the wrist if you touch him.

“That’s my girl,” said James, enjoying the display hugely, and sweeping Honey out of the kitchen, back through the great hall, and out the front door to the waiting Firebird.

Just, eww.

I’m not even sure what mystery we’re supposed to be solving at this point. Liz’s spells of unconsciousness? Stanley Parker’s lunar PTSD? Grave robbing? We never even hear about the missing rabbits again, so I’m only giving the Starr Agency one star on Yelp for customer service.

James and Honey are speeding off in the Firebird for… actually, they never tell us where they’re going. But the brake lines have been cut! And the emergency brake doesn’t work! Good thing James’s chum Charlie has installed a super-secret super-emergency brake which Honey discovers at the last minute! They take the car to Charlie’s… to get fixed? They don’t say. They never mention the brake-tampering again, and continue to drive their bitchin’ Firebird around for the rest of the book. It is yet another mystery that remains unsolved, as James instead delivers a nifty piece of period product-placement:

James’s favorite part of the Apple II was the modem and its CompuServe connection. With CompuServe, Charlie could do everything from tracking the stock market to getting the news off of the Associated Press wire. He used it mostly for electronic mail- it gave him access to everyone else on the service and all their information.

The next day James gathers his gang at the Kawabata farm, “where he and Honey and their friends learned martial arts and meditation”, in order to locate the missing Stanley Parker. Wait, is he missing? I guess he went missing at some point.

The gang is totally boring, save

a tall, beautiful black girl named Kathy Howard. Kathy had three passions in life: being gorgeous, falling in love often, and astrophysics. Kathy’s idea of heaven was to be up in a NASA Spacelab, along with five men, wearing something chic in a spacesuit.

I would much rather read that series.

James learns that Liz has been fencing stolen goods with Ratso Jones and The Rat Gang, a band of delinquent Archies from the wrong side of the tracks. James and Honey see a ghost on the moors (of Nebraska???), a woman in an old-fashioned cloak who asks him

“If you will tell me first who or what a James Budd is?”

Ghost-lady, that is a riddle that has no answer. It turns out to be Stanley’s old girlfriend who is haunting the grounds of Cornwall Crag until he recovers from his madness and they can be reunited. Except then two chapters later it is mentioned that she has been a regular visitor. Also: not a ghost.

In the basement of Cornwall Crag, James and Charlie find the corpses from the robbed graves. Are we still working on that mystery? I guess so. Seems like they might want to alert the police and county medical examiner, but no, Charlie just announces that

“I’ll have to do some tests in my lab. I’ve got a couple of samples here. I’ll have to do some scrapings out of the coffins at the graveyard.”

Charlie’s a DIY kind of guy.

Stanley Parker reappears at some point and joins a search-and-rescue team to find a boy that has gone missing in a boating accident, which he does and then revives him with CPR:

“Cry, child. Cry away the terror, and gasp in the oxygen for the heart and brain.”

James goes to The Ratso Gang’s hideout and karate-kicks them in their necks:

Karate Chop!

At some point everyone is captured in a giant net and ends up in the basement at Cornwall Crag again (I can’t even bring myself to look up how at this point), and Mrs. Evans cackles evilly while she explains her and Mr. Painter’s plan to forge Stanley’s will and then embolism all of them to death. Everyone escapes onto the roof, and I guess it all turns out okay since James and Honey are next seen getting their new assignment from Sam Starr.

Also Liz will be living with Stanley and his Ghost Girlfriend while her parents are in jail.

I can’t even blame all of the confusion only on the terrible writing, since it seems to be a deliberate stylistic choice on the part of the author: nearly every chapter ends with James and/or Honey in a life-or-death situation, while the next chapter picks up with them sitting around eating cake and being all like “It’s a good thing we got out of that life-or-death situation!”

There are a lot of plot holes in this book, and it also seems to be the victim of poor editing: towards the end there are repeated references to Mrs. Walker’s involvement with “a hanged man”, an incident that doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the book.

Sign It Was Written In 1984 Department: “Mr. Torello had sold Charlie his used Apple II computer for a reasonable price. Included with the 64k computer, keyboard, and display monitor, were two disc drives, a printer and a modem.”

Surprisingly No Cease-and-Desist From Ian Fleming’s Estate Department: “Budd, James Budd.”

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3 Responses to James Budd #1: The Mystery of the Madman at Cornwall Crag By Dale Carlson

  1. Pingback: A Wild Heart By Dale Carlson | Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989

  2. Brent Ward says:

    I have all 4 books….found them in a big rubbermaid tub not long ago. As an elementary school boy, it’s amazing how good you think this writing is at the time…. I found myself laughing along as I read your review.

    • mondomolly says:

      At some point I probably will find the rest of them. I have actually heard some good things about Carlson’s “sister” series, The Jenny Dean Science Fiction Mystery series, but yeah… this one is so weird! I still love the map of KIng’s Rock, though 😉 Thanks for commenting!

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