Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Nostalgic for my childhood - The Adventures Of The Black Hand Gang

Reading has played an important part in my life for as long as I can remember and I want to use this ‘thread’ to discuss books that, in their own way, shaped not only my future reading habits but also my future writing habits.  

Another successful purchase from the Rothwell Juniors Bookworm Club, was “The Adventures Of The Black Hand Gang”, by H. J. Press.  My copy was published by Methuen (the 1978 reprint), translated from the German by Barbara Littlewood, having originally been published there in 1965.


Hans Jürgen Press (1926–2002) was a German illustrator and writer of children's books, many of which contain stories and puzzles in which the reader searches the illustrations for clues to the mystery.  In 1953 he began illustrating for "Sternchen", the children's supplement of German magazine Stern.  The Adventures Of The Black Hand Gang was a combination of story and illustration which appeared in weekly chapters, the solution to this week's riddle given the next week.

The Black Hand Gang made its headquarters at 49 Canal Street, “at the top of the house, up seventy-two creaking stairs” and their clubroom was called the ‘Airport’.  Meeting regularly after school, the gang is: “Frank, who played the trumpet, was the leader; then there was quick-witted Angela; Ralph, who usually wore a striped sweater; and lastly Keith W.S. and his inseparable companion , a squirrel (W.S. stands for With Squirrel).  Well known locally as amateur sleuths”, their friend is Police Sergeant Shorthouse.

The book contains four adventures - “The Mysterious House” (featuring a forger), “The Treasure In Breezy Lake” (the gang help solve a burglary), “The Smuggler’s Tunnel” (the gang go to stay with Ralph’s Uncle Paul and stumble across a drug smuggling ring) and “A Theft At The Zoo” (featuring the hunt for stolen animals).

The stories, in general, are decent little mysteries and they adhere to the idea that kids are smart and grown-ups aren’t, with the gang constantly foiling criminals and out-thinking every adult around them.  What really works, though, is the format Press devised.  On the left hand side of each spread is a page of text, carrying the story forward and dropping clues whilst on the right is picture (or combination of them), showing the reader what the gang can see and therefore inviting them into the action.  The answer is given on the next page.




The illustrations, it has to be said, are tremendous.  Beautifully crafted, with a deceptively simple style that was thoroughly detailed, they invited repeat viewing, even if you’d already ‘got’ the clue.  What I also liked about them was that they weren’t English or American - and in 70s Britain, that was unusual - the architecture and cars were all different and the number plates were especially odd.

Press was a key proponent (indeed, along with Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel, he’s regarded as a father of the ‘overcrowded’ style) of the "Wimmelbild", a genre of illustration deliberately overcrowded with detail, to please children as they search for items.

How did she guess there was someone in the mysterious house?
(from The Mysterious House)

Which shop stocked Don Carlos cigars?
(from The Mysterious House)

Which row were the suspects in?
(from The Treasure In Breezy Lake)

Which way had the smugglers gone?
(from The Smuggler’s Tunnel)

The stories are great fun and the illustrations still have the power to transport me back in time, making it lovely to revisit them as an adult (whilst trying hard not to guide Dude into finding the clues, but letting him have as much fun with finding them as I did at his age).  My copy, 35 years old this year, still stands proudly on my bookshelf, a little beaten up (at one point, we used it as an initiation to the investigators group Claire Gibson and I were going to set up during the summer of ’78) but still much loved.

In case you're interested, there's a Facebook group dedicated to the book, moderated by Gavin Worby, which can be found at this link.

16 comments:

  1. Wow. I love the way the pictures get you staring, trying to work out the answer!

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  2. They're brilliant, aren't they?

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  3. I did a google search trying to figure out the best way to describe these books I remembered reading but couldn't recall the name of. Thank you for posting this. I LOVED these books as a kid because it wasn't simply the author telling you what happened but you had the chance to actively work at solving mysteries page by page as you went on the adventure with the characters. Such a neat concept.

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  4. Thanks very much Kevin, that's the kind of comment that makes this post worth it!

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  5. I absolutely loved this book after chancing upon a ratty paperback copy in the early 1990s. The illustrations really are tremendous, and are infused with the sort of 'noir-ish' atmosphere that I particularly get a kick out of.

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    1. Absolutely Ian. I wonder if there's a link between our appreciation of T3I and this?

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  6. I'd say so, Mark! Incidentally, one of my German T3I friends also grew up reading the Black Hand Gang: two of the individual stories are still in print over there:

    http://www.amazon.de/dp/B00DO8HOFE/
    http://www.amazon.de/dp/B00FNBBNBG/

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    1. Cheers Ian, I love the fact that those two books are standalone.

      Press' son has also written (and illustrated) something along the same lines, which might be interesting - http://riddleburger.wordpress.com/2008/02/12/blackhand-gang-fans-get-a-clue/

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  7. Thanks for blogging about this book!! I checked it out numerous times from the library in the 80s. I loved it. I have thought about it many times since then and am glad I found your post, so that I can share it with my kids. (Didn't remember its name! Never again, thanks to you!)

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    1. Thank you Mindy, really pleased that the post helped you out! I hope you can find a copy of the book to share with your kids, it's a great read still!

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  8. I am so excited!!! Thanks again.

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    1. Excellent - and you're more than welcome!

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  9. hi, excellent write-up, I don't have the copy I shared with my siblings any longer but you described it so vividly! I can also recommend the Herr Jakob books by HJ Press. I'd like to see his son's efforts - it is still surprising to me that these books have not been reissued in English in nicer editions, given the Where's Wally/Waldo success. I think these were much more sophisticated and subtle. I am thinking of ordering some french titles as I cannot speak German. http://livre.fnac.com/a2466047/Hans-Jurgen-Press-Les-enquetes-de-la-main-noire possibly some extra titles that never made it into English.

    Great scans too btw!

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  10. Thanks for posting these - just suddenly got a notion to see them again - as a child, I spent hours reading and re-reading this book - even when I knew the answers! The illustrations are so incredible - every inch of them has something worth looking at - and spotting the answers made me feel clever! I'll need to try to find my copy of it now...

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    1. Thank you, hope you enjoyed re-reading it!

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