Rereading: THE MYSTERY OF BURNT HILL by Keith Robertson

Keith Robertson was and is one of my favorite writers of novels for young readers. He wrote dozens of books, and produced two series, one telling the humorous adventures of Henry Reed, the other featuring teenagers Neil and Swede and their Carson Street Detective Agency. This is the first of those. It’s an extremely rare book, I’ve searched for a copy for about fifty years with no luck, and finally recently got one on eBay. It was expensive, but worth it to me, first because I really wanted to reread it, second because it’s the only Keith Robertson book not in my collection. I found it in early December, the seller raises funds through eBay to support Mare’s Rest, a sanctuary for retired thoroughbred brood mares, which I thought was a worthy cause, but I hesitated to write about the book here because I knew interested readers wouldn’t be able to find it. I even considered scanning the entire book and offering to readers. Fortunately, this week someone sent me a link to a scan of the book on the Internet Archive, which I will share at the end of this post. Finally you can read the book yourself in pdf form if you like, and I highly recommend it.

Neil and Swede live in a small town in west central New Jersey, an area Robertson often wrote about once he moved there, I think in the late 1940s. As the book opens, their “detective agency” has yet to receive a single case, but the boys have fun in their headquarters over the garage. Neil has trained several pigeons to carry messages, using invisible ink to keep them secret from Neil’s sister Eileen. They also enjoy fishing, and a hike to a remote lake brings them to the area of Burnt Hill, several miles from town, where they meet elderly Clara Hankin, who lives alone in her ramshackle farmhouse, the last survivor of her family. She gets on well enough to impress the boys with her skills as a gardener, hunter and homemaker, but Clara is obviously just getting by financially. While they visit, Clara offers to give them an old desk she doesn’t want that’s in the way in her barn, and the boys decide it would be just right for their detective agency office. They come back with a friend who has a truck to get it another day. Neil and Swede have plans to paint the desk green, but when Neil’s mother sees it, she tells them it’s a valuable antique that should be restored and refinished. The boys agree, taking it to a furniture repair shop in town owned by Clem Auerbach. A plan is made to restore the desk and sell it at an antique show, giving most of the proceeds to Mrs. Hankin.

Clem Auerbach has a shifty reputation, though he’s good with furniture, and Neil and Swede decide to keep checking up on him. While spying on him in the shop, they see him find a secret drawer in the desk containing an old notebook. Thus begins the mystery and the adventure that will put their lives in danger and take them to unexpected places and discoveries, making for a great read. The Carson Street Detective Agency has its first case, and it’s a dangerous one.

Here’s the link if you’d like to read the book in digital form:

The Mystery of Burnt Hill at Internet Archive

The rest of the series is equally good, here are my reviews and possible ways to buy them, though the second and third books are also rare and also available at Internet Archive:

Three Stuffed Owls

The Crow and the Castle

The Money Machine

Amazon links:

Three Stuffed Owls by Keith Robertson

The Crow and the Castle by Keith Robertson

The Money Machine by Keith Robertson

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