Nearing Perfection
The Ken Holt Mystery Stories
Comments by R. Mark Johnson
This series of short commentaries first appeared on the Ken Holt Yahoo Group hosted by my
friend Steve Servello. Minor corrections/additions/deletions have been made on some reviews.
They are not intended to be exhaustive in scope nor consistent in content or approach and are
simply snapshots of which details caught my attention, as I read through this great series once
again. Reviews of the final seven books will appear over the next few months and will be posted
first on Steve's site. For further commentary on both the Holt and Rick Brant series go
Book 1 - The Secret of Skeleton Island

I just finished reading this one again, the first time since October 1994. It does not seem that long.
When I was a kid I placed a piece of paper in each Holt book and always wrote the date down when I
read it. I did this with no other series. As an adult I have continued this practice. It is amazing how
time flies.

Anyway, Skeleton was as good as ever. Generally on re-reads I pick up mistakes I have missed before,
however I am only aware of four mistakes in this book, and I don't count Sandy being called "Jack"
since that was a proofreading error.

First, the frontispiece mixes up Willie and Turner. Willie was scrawny and Turner pudgy, the opposite
of the rendering in the frontispiece. This naturally was not the author's fault.

Second, the word "stanch" is used when what the author intended was "staunch". This also could
have been a typesetting goof.

The third one really may not even be a mistake. The Advance is said to be a Saturday paper. I am
almost certain in several other books it is a mid-week paper. I am going to read them all in order so I'll
find out eventually. And anyway Skeleton was the first book of the series so I guess if a mistake was
made it is in the later books!

The one logic error I found and had never noted before, was when Ken and Sandy are trapped on the
pier and end up boarding the "Louise" by climbing a mooring rope.

Ken and Sandy sneak into the warehouse, but their silhouettes are seen in the doorway by the
watchman. Only their silhouettes, not their faces, hair color etc. He is halfheartedly looking  for them
when Turner arrives and the watchman says that a couple of "river rats" (I think that is what he called
them) had snuck in.  Turner immediately asks for their description and concludes it is Ken  and
Sandy, and there-in is the rub.

Only a few pages before this, Ken had pointed out that Turner was ignorant of how much Ken and the
Allens knew about him and thus would not expect them to turn the tables and follow him. In such case
he would have been very unlikely to quickly assume it was Ken and Sandy who snuck in as opposed
to a couple of common thieves or whatever.

So, these few piddly complaints are all I can find wrong with it! This book is suspenseful even after
numerous re-reads. Great ending. One of the all time outstanding series books.

R. Mark Johnson
March 15, 2001

Book 2 - The Riddle of the Stone Elephant

I just finished book #2 and it is still an outstanding read. The descriptions of the western landscape
are outstanding. Mesa Alta feels like a real place not just a cardboard cut-out to serve as a backdrop.
Mrs. Purdy, Bowleg Watson, the Wilson family, Bob Chatham the newspaper editor, and various other
supporting characters are all drawn extremely well.

The mystery here involving Elephant Rock and The Needle is quite interesting and the process by
which Ken and Sandy figure out what REALLY happened is very well conceived and written. I enjoy
"cold case" stories and certainly Stone Elephant fits into that genre.

I picked up only two odd discrepancies. On page 91 Ken and Sandy make an appointment with a
certain person, for noon the following day. Then on page 96 they get to the town where they are
meeting him at 10:30 and we are told they are a half hour early for the appointment.

A more glaring goof appears on pages 89 and 125. On page 89 a crucial postmark is said to have been
dated September 18, yet on page 125 that is changed to September 16. This may well have been a
proofreading error.

Yes, those two minor things are all I found wrong with it! This is a very solid book that hangs together
well even from an adult perspective.  I would rank Stone Elephant slightly ahead of Skeleton Island.

Now I move to Black Thumb which I am amazed to note I have not read since January 1992! My
goodness, George Bush was president then!

R. Mark Johnson
March 17, 2001

Book 3 - The Black Thumb Mystery

This was the first Ken Holt book I read as a kid, so I have some extra fondness for it. Now as an adult I
have mixed feelings about this because even as parts of it are outstanding other sections of it annoy
The idea that Mrs. Brown and Roger would be so snotty toward Sandy, Ken, and the Allens is a
problem for me. It is mentioned that FOUR people (two in addition to Ken and Sandy) heard the bank
robber's words to Mr Brown so why would anyone blame the Allen's and accuse them of lying just to
sell papers?

Also the whole case against Mr Brown seems contrived and not something very likely to lead to a

The central plot is very good with the above exception.

The boys continue to feed Horn info long after they suspect him.

Midway through, the boys head to the lake and that is when the book shifts into high gear and
becomes a real page turner.

When the boys are down in the creek and make a noise which Horn hears, it always bugs me that they
did not keep still longer and out wait him. Grrrrr!

The last quarter of the book is just about perfectly nuanced. Ken and Sandy outwit and outfight all the
bad guys and singlehandedly bring in two of them.

Some very funny scenes appear when Horn thinks he has been burned, and at the police station when
Pop is trying to understand what has just happened.

The chief crook here is named Brinkly, which is quite similar to "Bentley" of Skeleton Island fame.

There is a continuity gaffe in this book. When Ken and Sandy stay over night at Mr Holt's apartment in
NY, they find out they are being tailed, by looking out the FRONT window of the apartment. In
Skeleton Island is specifically mentioned that the Holt apartment is in the BACK and has no front

I think this is just about an average Holt entry and will probably land in the middle of the pack by the
time I make it to #18. So far I rate them this way.

1.Stone Elephant
2.Skeleton Island
3.Black Thumb

R. Mark Johnson
March 28, 2001

Book 4 - The Clue of the Marked Claw

The Clue of the Marked Claw has long been my favorite Ken Holt. After the latest re-reading, nothing
has changed. I've read this book at least 9 times and it still holds my interest and keeps me turning
the pages in anticipation.

From beginning to end Marked Claw is top notch. The depiction of life on a lobster boat is very good.
The various characters fit their roles and work well together.

The encounter with Jackson early on is quite gratifying, as is the "extinguishing" of Anthony near the
end. The chase in and escape from the restaurant is great reading. The car chase is also fun and
well done. I love the way Ken handles the issue of whether Global gets the news first or not.

In reading these books in order you pick up on things not otherwise so noticable. For instance, bit by
bit Ken and Sandy are becoming adults and fullfledged newspaper men. In the first three books they
are more like helpers or accidental reporters. In Claw we see them start to assert themselves a bit and
show "reporter" instincts.

One of the outstanding things about the Holt books is the food! I always end up in the kitchen at least
once per book. Steaming mugs of coffee, thick sandwiches, broiled lobsters, delicious pie and on and

One of the minor player's name is Hank. This makes at least three differtent Hanks in the series. The
others are Hank Banner from book #2 and of course Hank the Advance's linotype setter.

The next book is incorrectly refered to as "The Secret of the Coiled Cobra".

Marked Claw goes to the top and I doubt it will fall from that spot.

1. Marked Claw
2. Stone Elephant
3. Skeleton Island
4. Black Thumb

R. Mark Johnson
March 31, 2001

Book 5 - The Clue of the Coiled Cobra

A very good book with a touch different flavor than the first four.

Cobra takes place in and around Brentwood. It flows well from one logical step to the next. One
particularly nifty part is when Sandy takes a photo of an impression in mud. While inspecting the
negative on a viewer he realizes a mistake he made. This sort of attention to detail is what sets the
Holts apart from the run of the mill series books.

An absolutely hilarious scene when Limpy Rand follows the boys down a dark street. Also some funny
scenes with Pop and his aversion to wearing a suit. The visit to the library is funny and well

Ken and Sandy spend very little time held captive in this book yet there are some very tense hours
when they fear what the Rands may be up to.

Good stuff when they shadow Fenton to a local motel and he manages to give them (and the Rands)
the slip. The passages that follow Ken and Sandy to Kenshoa Park and their activities there are very
well written and the final scenes with Fenton and the Rands shooting wildly at each other is the cherry
on the whipped cream.

Fenton is one of the more memorable bad guys in the series even though he is for the most part off
stage. His big mistake was in the choice of who to catch a ride with. Also I wonder if Sam Epstein was
employing a touch of subtle humor using the name Fenton as a gentle dig at the Hardy Boys series.

Coiled Cobra is a very enjoyable read, far better than 98% of all other series books. Among the Holts it
has no glaring defects yet is unspectacular and so will probably end up in the middle of my rankings.

1. Marked Claw
2. Stone Elephant
3. Skeleton Island
4. Coiled Cobra
5. Black Thumb

R. Mark Johnson
April 8, 2001

Book 6 - The Secret of Hangman's Inn

An odd personal note: While this is the first time I have ever set out to read this series in order from
1-18, the last four times I have read "Coiled Cobra" I have followed up immediately with "Hangman's
Inn". October of 1983, June of 1987, January of 1992 and now April of 2001.

This is another classic Holt and another "local" book as the action stays close to Brentwood, moving
to New York City only over the last few pages.

I think one thing this book and this series does so well is use the routine of everyday life as the
backdrop for the story.  In this case we start out with a very commonplace situation that slowly builds
page by page. We are half way through the book before Ken and Sandy know for certain that monkey
business is going on.

When the Allens and Ken are worried about Joe Driscoll the story is written in a way that makes us
believe and feel their concern. In other words, we aren't just told they are upset, the worry is
actually conveyed to us through their words, moods, and actions.

In the same way, the author goes to great lengths to place Driscoll in the wrong place at the wrong
time. Instead of just having Driscoll blunder into a bad spot, there are great pains taken to explain why
he was there and what he was doing. The whole birdwatching storyline was finely crafted and totally
plausible from start to finish.

This book is unusual in that not only Sandy and Ken but also Bert and Pop are captured by the bad
guys. While Bert did see action in other books (Skeleton Island and Silver Scorpion to name two) it
was very rare that Pop got involved to this extent.

As I mentioned in an earlier review, as the series progressed Ken and Sandy started to mature both as
people and as newspapermen. Coiled Cobra showed Ken's writing and Sandy's photography from a
more professional standpoint. That continues here with Ken dealing with Global directly and
functioning as a "made" member of the Advance staff. Also, Ken and Sandy are now behaving much
more as adults would, making decisions on their own and even going against one of Pop's direct

This book has many memorable moments from "pied typer" to "what have  you got under that hood"
to "if I could have seen what I was doing to you I would have quit long ago". Also we have Ken
showing annoyance with a Global re-write man, and Ken pointing out Sandy's lack of sympathy. None
of these are major points in and of themselves but rather they are tiny brush strokes that together
make up a masterpiece.  

1. Marked Claw
2. Stone Elephant
3. Hangman's Inn
4. Skeleton Island
5. Coiled Cobra
6. Black Thumb

R. Mark Johnson
April 9, 2001

Book 7 - The Mystery of the Iron Box

From an adult perspective, this Ken Holt does not hold as well as some of the others but still manages
to transcend most of it's competition.

Richard Holt's visit seems awful quick and it is kind of hard to understand his need to rush back to
New York on Christmas Day so he can leave for Washington the next day. This leads into an area
where I think the series could have been improved. Either leave Richard out of the book entirely or
give him a meatier role. Throughout series (with the exception of Skeleton Island) the author seems to
have had a problem integrating Ken's father into the standard cast. Also Ken seems a bit on the
childish side when his father is around.

The plot is reasonably good and the action is very good at times. The booby trap chapter is
outstanding and the capture of the "burglar" is one of the funniest bits in the series.

Bert is very annoying in Iron Box. He is much more sarcastic and derisive then usual. This book is
probably where that aspect of his personality is shown at it's worst.

There are some gaps in logic along the way but nothing egregious. For instance, when Ken and Sandy
are left alone for a while on the barge, why do they just lay there? Why don't they attempt an escape?

The final third of the book is very good, as they escape their bonds and turn the tables on Cal. The
fight to get the pump to work and the never ceasing battle with a raging sea make for tense reading
and a great ending.

Again, good book but not great, and so it will probably end up in the bottom third when I am through.

1. Marked Claw
2. Stone Elephant
3. Hangman's Inn
4. Skeleton Island
5. Coiled Cobra
6. Black Thumb
7. Iron Box

R. Mark Johnson
April 13, 2001

Book 8 - The Clue of the Phantom Car

This was my fourth reading of Phantom Car and oddly three of those times have been in mid-April.
This is the earliest book of the series that I did not read as a kid, experiencing it for the first time in
April 1993.

The first 6 ½ pages have nothing to do with the story and I believe that is an example of why this
series is so good. Unlike some series that smacked you right between the eyes with some horrific
happening on Page 1, this book opens up and ambles along with small talk for several pages. Slowly
we ease into the story and thus it seems far more realistic and believable.

In Chapter 10, Pop mentions that the Advance has "hit the streets every Thursday" for the past 25
years. This is in direct conflict with Skeleton Island which states it is a Saturday morning paper. I
am fairly sure other books also state Thursday as the publication day.

A rare goof occurs in Chapter 16. Ken and Sandy leave their car at the Haynes cottage and ride with
Bert in his car to the tourist court. Afterward they ride with him back to the Advance and take their car
home from there. No explanation is given for how the convertible got from the cottage to the Advance
parking lot.

Bert is very grouchy in the opening chapters but he has an excuse because of his friends' trouble. He
is not nearly as caustic as he was in Iron Box.

The scene where Ken re-enacts Ralph's crash is very well done and it is made better by the fact that
Pop reacts in a very human way when he thinks their car is going to wreck. The whole family become
detectives when even Mom helps track the movements of the bad guys.

The boy's escape from the tunnel is well done and their breakout is very satisfying. One aspect I like
is the criminals fighting amongst themselves and ultimately that is their undoing.

Before starting this endeavor I thought this book would place near the top. While it is still one of my
favorites, after this re-reading it has slipped a notch or two in my esteem. However this is still a
book I hope to enjoy many more times.

1. Marked Claw
2. Stone Elephant
3. Hangman's Inn
4. Skeleton Island
5. Phantom Car
6. Coiled Cobra
7. Black Thumb
8. Iron Box

R. Mark Johnson
April 16, 2001

Book 9 - The Mystery of the Galloping Horse

Even a great series has to have a worst book and I believe this is the one. This book starts off poorly,
picks up near the middle before getting terrible at the end.

The idea that Ken and Sandy would be sent off for their protection is contrived and awful. They are
grown and have been up against eight other groups of criminals! If Ken and Sandy need to be
protected what Bert? Mom? Pop? Weren't they in danger too? And who in their right mind would think
they were safe from organized crime by going to southern New Jersey? Unlike all the other Holts, this
one has the feel of having been written from an outline prepared by another person.

It also has some of the less attractive aspects one expects from the Stratemeyer books. For instance
the "galloping horse" nonsense. If you take an old phonograph outside and play a record with
galloping sounds on it, it will sound like just that: A phonograph playing. I doubt it would fool a 10
year old. And in any case, criminals in Ken Holt books don't usually try such lame tricks as that.

Worst of all is the huge coincidence of the very criminals they are trying to keep away from showing
up by chance in the same area that Ken and Sandy are hiding in. Coincidence rarely plays a big part in
a Ken Holt mystery.

The middle 100 pages or so contain some nice writing and is generally enjoyable to read. There is an
over amount of running back and forth to town to call Ken's dad and the like, but all in all it has the
feel of the rest of the series.

And then comes the ending. It is grim. Ken, Sandy, their new friends and two total strangers are all
captured and slated for untimely ends. They manage to escape the hole they are in and then they
resort to counterattack by flaming dingy. There are huge logic holes all around.

Of the first nine books this is easily the worst. I have to think that something odd happened that
brought this about. Was Sam Epstein up against an unusually tight deadline? Did someone else do
some of the writing? A different editor perhaps?

Even a bad Ken Holt is still a decent book, but this one is a profound disappointment.

1. Marked Claw
2. Stone Elephant
3. Hangman's Inn
4. Skeleton Island
5. Phantom Car
6. Coiled Cobra
7. Black Thumb
8. Iron Box
9. Galloping Horse

R. Mark Johnson
April 20, 2001
Books 10-18
Or for a commparitive commentary on
the Ken Holt and Rick Brant series go