Created by E.W. Hildick
Adult private eye fans have plenty of books to choose from, kids have THE MCGURK ORGANISATION.
It’s that simple.
Their comic adventures appeared in a long-running and popular series of books aimed squarely at 9-12 year olds, from 1973 to 1996, by British author E.W. Hildick.
JACK P. McGURK, a ten-year-old British kid obsessed with detective comics, organises his motley crew of misfit friends into a detective agency, THE McGURK ORGANISATION, whose headquarters are in his parents’ basement. The anonymous middle-class suburb where they live somewhere in England is spectacularly free of Nazi spies, bootleggers, or homicidal maniacs, so the group have to improvise. However, they rapidly discover that normal life always has problems which need a detective’s skills to solve. The first adventure, The Nose Knows (1973), for example, revolves around their search for a missing catcher’s mitt.
Jack P. McGurk: stocky, freckled, wildly red-haired and overflowing with energy. A natural leader with the soul of a poet. Not quite as clever as he thinks he is, but then again he thinks he’s a unique genius. His mind works in death-defying leaps which are as likely to be spectacularly wrong as spectacularly right. Remembers only the latter occasions.
Joey Rockaway: McGurk’s best friend and exact opposite. Small, slight, dark and bespectacled. The sort of boy who keeps his pencils exactly parallel at the edge of the desk. The perfect foil for McGurk: keeps him out of trouble with those too big to challenge and keeps his feet on the ground. Naturally, perhaps, he serves as the narrator of all the books, playing Watson to Jack’s Holmes.
Willy “The Nose” Sandowsky: a heron-like figure. Tall and skinny, with a shock of black hair and a beak-like nose. Shy and self-deprecating, but worth much more than he thinks. His freakish nose has sensory powers to match its size, and while he thinks he’s stupid, his mind is really just slow-grinding –sometimes it seizes on a piece of evidence others have missed.
Wanda Greig: the only girl in the group, who burst in by sheer force of personality. Tall, blonde, and amazonic, Wanda is actually the most combative and physically powerful member of the group. Wanda has a kind heart, and tends to end up providing a sympathetic ear–not always to her pleasure.
Gerald “Brains” Bellingham: the local nerd. Joined the group because following the events of The Case of the Invisible Dog (1977) they decided he was best where they could keep an eye on him. Small, blonde and owlishly spectacled, Brains is obsessed with electronics. Unfortunately for him, he’s born a few years too early to grow up with computers, although in his teens he probably will build one. Once you get past the unworldly exterior, he’s an eerily normal person. Determined to keep things on a logical basis, and often unhappy with McGurk’s hunches.
Mari Yoshimura: the title character in The Case of the Vanishing Ventriloquist (1985), who joined after the events in that book. She’s their resident expert on sound and voices and often serbes as a human lie detector.
What makes the McGurk organisation so unique is the sheer normality of the events they investigate. Hildick, in all his books for children, realises how a child sees deep meaning in events that seem trivial to an adult. And in their way, dealing with minor thefts, incidents of bullying, and unjust accusations by parents and teachers, the McGurk organisation do a great deal to improve the world around them. Your kid sister’s baby doll goes missing, leaving her heartbroken? Your pet cat is accused of killing the neighbours’ homing pigeons? Your brother is accused of vandalising garden ornaments? Call McGurk.
One more book has to be described.. In The Secret Scribbler (1978) the McGurkgroup encounters adult crime for the first and only time, when they stumble across evidence that the local jeweller is plotting to have his own shop robbed (for insurance, naturally). McGurk and friends show genuine caution and care for self-preservation in evidence gathering, using near-armchair detective techniques. Far more estimable than the usual let’s-break-into-the-robbers-hideout-what-spiffing-fun attitude. These are real kids, and they don’t have a major-character get out clause.
What’s in it for adults? The resonances. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books are clearly referred to in the low-key plots, group emphasis, and illustrations of evidence scatterred through the books. McGurk’s dealings with older boys, when necessary, bring to mind Philip Marlowe confronting the men from Bay City, hoping they’ll give him what he wants without asking too high a price. And the ramshackle plotline of The Case of The Phantom Frog (1979), with the fivesome babysitting a mysterious Transylvanian boy, is largely an excuse for an extended pastiche of John Dickson Carr‘s supernatural-crime books.
Where are they now? Brains has probably moved across the Atlantic for a job with Apple. Willy is having a few beers with the boys after a hard day’s work. Joey is sitting in an office working on an ulcer. Wanda is in the local ladies’ running club. And McGurk? Probably sitting in front of his word-processor, working on the latest in a series of thinly-fictionalised books about his childhood…
BY THE WAY…
There were also two “McGurk Fantasy” books: The Case of the Dragon in Distress (1991) and The Case of the Weeping Witch (1992). Hildick had Brains’ uncle acquire a set of “time travelling walkie-talkies.” The latter book focused on a character named Hester Bidgood, who subsequently followed the McGurk Organization’s example. Hildick gave her her own book: Hester Bidgood, Investigatrix of Evill Deedes (1994).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The astonishingly prolific Edmund Wallace Hildick was born in Bradford, England in 1925. After two years service in the RAF he became a school teacher in the West Riding of Yorkshire in England, which is where he started writing, hoping to appeal to the “tough working class kids similar to the ones I teach.” He succeeded, largely because he didn’t just write for those kids, but about them. Besides the McGurk Mysteries,” he wrote a slew of other series, including ones featuring the Ghost Squad, Jim Starling, Birdy Jones, and Lemon Kelly series. He eventually moved to the United States, where he became the editor of a literary magazine, but he continued churning out books for both children and adults, and became, according to Wikipedia, “one of the very few British juvenile authors of his generation to achieve success in America.” Although that success may have been fleeting–most of the books seem to have gone out of print a couple of decades later.
- “My six-year old daughter and I finished E.W. Hildick’s The Case of the Nervous Newsboy(1976) last night. This is one of the early McGurk novels.Jack McGurk heads up the McGurk Organisation, a detective agency in a small-town neighborhood. Joey narrates the story and is the group’s record-keeper. Willie has a nose that is more sensitive than anyone’s nose should be. Wanda is the bravest of them all, and also is better connected to neighborhood gossip than any of the others.
These books don’t have much danger or suspense which makes them nice for younger kids. The thing I most enjoy is the sense of imagination these detectives have. They come up with the wildest explanations for what might have happened, and then they work together to figure out why those ideas don’t match reality… It really is enjoyable to watch them sort things out.
I don’t remember if the text ever says exactly how old the kids in the McGurk Organisation are, but 10-12 seems like a good guess to me.”
— Greg Harness
- The Nose Knows (1973) | Buy this book
- Dolls in Danger (1974 ; aka “Deadline for McGurk”)
- The Case of the Condemned Cat (1975)
- The Menaced Midget (1975)
- The Case of the Nervous Newsboy (1976)
- The Great Rabbit Robbery (1976; aka “The Great Rabbit Rip-Off”)
- The Case of the Invisible Dog (1977)
- The Case of the Secret Scribbler (1978)
- The Case of the Phantom Frog (1979)
- The Case of the Treetop Treasure (1980)
- The Case of the Snowbound Spy (1980)
- The Case of the Bashful Bank Robber (1981)
- The Case of the Four Flying Fingers (1981)
- The Case of the Felon’s Fiddle (1982)
- McGurk Gets Good and Mad (1982)
- The Case of the Slingshot Sniper (1983)
- The Case of the Vanishing Ventriloquist (1985)
- The Case of the Muttering Mummy (1986)
- The Case of the Wandering Weathervanes (1988)
- The Case of the Purloined Parrot (1990)
- The Case of the Desperate Drummer (1993)
- The Case of the Fantastic Footprints (1994)
- The Case of the Absent Author (1995)
- The Case of the Wiggling Wig (1996)
All books were originally published in Britain by Hodder & Stoughton, with excellent naturalistic illustrations by Val Biro. The American editions were illustrated by Lisl Weil.
- Kiddie Pulp
Get ’em while they’re young…
Respectfully submitted by Philip Eagle, with a little colouring in by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Chaim Mattis Keller for some additional information.