The Mystery of the Missing Eyebrows (1921)

Stephen Rudd
R.H. Gore Book Co.

Ask anyone older than you and they'll agree: you are a lazy, spoiled, and wholly unremarkable waste of flesh and consciousness.  You have no respect for anything, your music is horrible, and if left to your own devices, you would probably die from some fatal combination of sloth and stupidity.  That's why this country is going to  hell in a foreign-made hand-basket.  It's also why so many people over the age of 65 don't want to pay school taxes anymore.  What's the point?  You'll probably just find a way to divert the money towards dope, spray paint, and cell phones with even more perplexing and terrifying powers.   That money could be much better spent buying a new alarm system.  Or maybe a moat filled with Shakespeare, Bibles, and Algebra books to keep you the hell out.

People have looked to each new generation with disappointment for many decades now.  Americans always claim they want a better life for their children, but in truth I think most people look forward to lording their superior intelligence, ethics, and tenacity over their hapless progeny.  This is especially true in the wake of the "Greatest Generation."  By the time he was 17, your grandfather knew how to replace the engine on a B-23 bomber.  Now you're a hero for knowing all the best places to hide in Call of Duty. 

One reason previous generations were so much hardier is the absolutely punishing fiction they were forced to read as children.  More people have heard of "Horatio Alger" than have read his books, obviously, and that's probably for the best.  Alger and his many imitators churned out volume upon volume of stories about boys absolutely thrilled to be putting in 16-hour days sorting rocks and cockleburs out of Poison Ivy patches.  Just reading about their exploits makes you feel tired and scratchy. 

Such is the case in The Mystery of the Missing Eyebrows by Stephen Rudd.  Published in 1921, the book was the first installment in what was to be "The Newspaper Boys" series.
"Stephen Rudd" was the pseudonym for R.H. Gore, the publisher of the local newspaper in Terre Haute, Indiana, who no doubt saw this series as an excellent opportunity to recruit new paperboys and/or keep the current ones focused on their duties.  The Mystery of the Missing Eyebrows is a mystery, of course, but more than this, it is also the story of just how much labor-value could be extracted from your average 14 year-old boy in the teens and twenties.

The adventure begins when our hero Renfro Horn notices some strange happenings in the woods near the old shack where "Captain Pete" lives.  Captain Pete is one of those colorful relics of an earlier economic order who somehow makes a living killing rabbits and selling them to the townsfolk, families that knowingly--indeed happily--send their children over to Captain Pete's old shack in the middle of a remote forest to fetch a stewin' rabbit for dinner.  It was a simpler time then, clearly.

At any rate, while on his way to Pete's to "grab a rabbit," Renfro notices a light burning in a supposedly vacant house.  A mystery!   Realizing that he will need to perform continuing surveillance on both the house and the surrounding woods, Renfro decides the best strategy is to become a paperboy and take the route closest to the mysterious old house.   Now you might think, lazy shit that you are, that you could simply hang around during your free time to search for clues--but Renfro has the fortitude to understand that only the daily discipline of a paper route will give him a chance to discover just who is skulking around the old house in the woods. 

But as it turns out, Renfro's new paper route is actually the most notoriously difficult slog in the city, so hard that the other paperboys have taken to calling it "Old Grief."  Why so hard?  "Old Grief" is a horror trail of reluctant subscribers, poor people, and deadbeats, all living in homes that are inconveniently dispersed along the edge of town.  No one wants "Old Grief"--which is precisely why a new paperboy must start there to prove himself worthy of a better route. 

But like his many cousins in "can-do" fiction of the era, Renfro doesn't mind; in fact, he looks forward to the challenge, determined to make "Old Grief" profitable while also figuring out just what is going on in the woods. 

The plot thickens, as they say, when the daughter of a local judge is mysteriously kidnapped from her family home (also, fortuitously, on Renfro's route, and very close to the mysterious old house with its unknown occupant.  Coincidence?).  After the police have left the scene, Renfro begins his own investigation and discovers the eponymous "missing eyebrows."  I've reproduced the illustration of this moment in the story as it is a wonderful example of popular surrealism--a well-dressed lad scraping perfectly intact eyebrows off a window pane to save as a clue. It is also a great example of the weird rules these stories follow.  I submit that if a small girl was kidnapped in your neighborhood and the very next day you discovered an uncannily preserved pair of eyebrows adhering to the girl's window, you would probably freak out--and you most certainly wouldn't risk 3 to 5 years in the Big House by tampering with the evidence chain.

Renfro's theory is that the kidnapper had been spying through the window before taking the little girl,  As it was a terribly cold evening that night, the kidnapper's eyebrows stuck to the frozen glass.  All Renfro needs to do, clearly, is look around town for some strange man with no eyebrows.

Renfro solves the mystery, of course, but this becomes secondary to the book's primary function: instructing young boys in the art of effective newspaper distribution.   So, even as Renfro pokes around for more clues and evidence, he must continue to build his subscriber base and chase down slackers who refuse to pay for their papers.  A typical day for Renfro involves getting up before dawn to go to the printers and retrieve his stack of papers, making his deliveries along the 2-hour trek that is "Old Grief," keeping a look-out for eyebrowless thugs, going to school, picking up the afternoon edition, spending another 2 hours on "Old Grief," stopping by the homes of new prospects and convincing them to take the paper, looking for more clues, going home to supper, doing homework, and then going to bed. Not only does Renfro survive this grueling ordeal, he does so with an almost sickening enthusiasm.  Even in the deepest snows of an Indiana winter, he can't wait to pop out of bed at 5 in the morning and start his route, all on the off-chance that he might glimpse a relevant clue for his case.  In fact, Renfro is so unbelievably driven that he decides to not only solve the case of the "missing eyebrows," but to also win the newspaper's big "turkey contest" by getting the most new subscribers.   Which of course he does, handily, thereby earning the respect of his boss and fellow paperboys.

After Renfro solves his case, we are left to anticipate the next installment. Sadly, however, it seems there was never another book in "The Newspaper Boy" series.  Perhaps author Rudd/Gore had imparted all the wisdom he possessed about managing a successful paper route and therefore couldn't justify additional entries.  Or maybe this book was such a bomb that finances precluded any more titles (Renfro's zeal for throwing newspapers, after all, had to compete with more timely series like "The Motion Picture Chums" and "The Radio Boys").  What is odd about the demise of the series, however, is that the publisher promised Missing Eyebrows was to be the first in a series of 12 stories, all of which already had very specific titles.  In the closing fly pages of the book, plot summaries appear for the next 6 editions--each slightly less detailed than the one before it, suggesting author Rudd had some larger vision for Renfro's character arc--even if he had only worked out the plot details for the next two or three books.

A blog entry on juvenile fiction of this era supplies some interesting information in this regard.  Apparently there are a great many such "phantom titles" (books planned and announced in a series but never actually published) in kid fiction from this era, non-existent books that nevertheless become the Holy Grail of collectors who haven't yet figured out certain titles never actually made it to print.

If nothing else, The Mystery of the Missing Eyebrows has taught me an important lesson:  the newspaper is without a doubt the most inefficient and ridiculous medium of communication ever devised.  I know there are many nostalgic for the feel of newsprint in the morning, but really, after reading about these poor kids forced to walk ass-deep through snow at 6 in the morning while in dangerous proximity to demented, well-armed sea captains living in the woods,  I'm ready to go completely digital on the news front. 

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