Get out your magnifying glasses, amateur sleuths. Choose Your Own Adventure is about to do a whodunit. Can you guess whodunit? Since this is a CYOA, can there be more than one person whodunit? Let’s find out.

Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? by Edward Packard

Published: 1981

Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? is number nine in the CYOA series, and, I think, the very last of the pure “demo” volumes. I’m convinced the purpose of the early books was to show the CYOA/interactive concept’s possibilities across various genres–science fiction, fantasy, haunted house/horror, Western, and spy thriller/espionage. What was the one genre they had left to tackle? Mystery. You knew they were going to go there. Here, they do.

“You” are an amateur detective. The little write-up on your background (page 2) tells us that you became a detective after finding fingerprints on a beer bottle that was discarded by a man who robbed your Aunt Marinda. I get the point, but this is not an auspicious beginning. Fingerprints are pretty basic, aren’t they? And if your specialty is nabbing burglars who are stupid enough to drink beer and throw the bottles away outside their victim’s homes, I’m not sure you’re going to be busting any criminal masterminds anytime soon.

I digress. Anyway, after the set-up, you get a call from Harlowe Thrombey (I love that name!), a plastics tycoon, who wants to hire you to find out who’s trying to kill him. The first choice is whether to accept Thrombey’s invitation to dinner that evening, or whether to decline and call him back tomorrow. Despite the fact that the second choice is probably a pretty imprudent business move for a detective-for-hire, it doesn’t actually hurt the story that much; whichever choice you make, old Harlowe ends up dead after taking an after-dinner brandy laced with arsenic. The only difference is whether you are there to witness the murder or not.

This is a pretty standard set-up for a whodunit. Next item on the list is to bring on the suspects. There are four of them: Jane, Thrombey’s wife, who reportedly threatened to kill him; Chartwell, Thrombey’s nephew, who might be angling for the inheritance; his sister, Angela, and her fiance, Dr. Robert Lipscomb, who is depicted as a well-dressed young man with a close-cropped beard and a swinging ’70s wardrobe.

Most of the choices in the book involve your investigation. Which suspects do you interview? What leads do you choose to follow? Was Jane playing the piano in the music room while the arsenic was being poured into Uncle Harlowe’s drink, or was it Angela? This is a pretty standard paint-by-numbers mystery, and as it goes on Edward Packard seems to grow increasingly desperate to break out of a formula that he clearly found stifling. As a result, the book contains a number of red herrings, such as the silly business with “Mr. Falcon” who tells you he knows who the murderer is (p. 25), and the inevitable attack on you by persons unknown (p. 89).

It’s fairly competent for a bare-bones murder mystery for kids, but the problem is that it’s too formula. Packard chooses to ignore the single biggest possibility that the interactive/CYOA format holds for a mystery story: the possibility of multiple resolutions, which means more than one murderer, more than one way the crime was committed, and multiple paths to solving the case. As it is, there is only one resolution. After one, or at most two, read-throughs of the book you’ll know exactly who iced Harlowe Thrombey, who was the accomplice and how the murder was committed. The only question is whether you reach that resolution or not. The book utterly wastes the whole hypertext format.

This is all the more disappointing because you get the sense that the possibility of multiple murderers or multiple resolutions never even occurred to Packard. He knew who the murderer was before he started writing. Who killed Harlowe Thrombey? X did. Packard doesn’t seem to have asked himself, “Well, maybe X did, but in another ending maybe it was Y, or Z, or somebody else entirely.” That would have been an interesting mystery. That would have kept me coming back for more. But no, this mystery is a one trick pony. Once you’ve solved it, you’re done. This is a major failure on the conceptual level.

For that reason, Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? is one of the least re-readable books in the series. I sense the writers and publisher didn’t feel it was very successful, because, to my knowledge, they never again attempted a whodunit in the entire CYOA series.

Nevertheless, it’s not worthless. There are some elements I liked. Such as:

  • Jenny Mudge, “that frizzy-haired girl down the street” who also wants to be a detective, is a terrific supporting character. She’s ditzy and smart in equal quantities, and there is a very subtle hint of a romantic attraction between her and you. (“You” are portrayed, in Paul Granger’s drawings, as a good-looking dark-haired male in a turtleneck sweater). Sometimes she’s your ally and sometimes your competitor. Packard uses her to good advantage here.
  • The account of the murder itself (pp. 13-15) is pretty good, and quite vivid for a CYOA book. Although “you” often die in the CYOA series, usually in disastrous endings, it’s pretty rare for an out-and-out murder of another character to be depicted. It’s suitably bloodless for a YA audience, but still has enough meat to carry a mystery story.
  • The progression of shady-looking beak-nosed thugs, who I believe are all intended to be the same person, is quite amusing. The name is sometimes Falcon, sometimes Hawk, and sometimes Keane. All of the plots involving this character are irrelevant and worthless, but at least the character himself is colorful.
  • The subtle Greenwich Village reference–you’re supposed to meet someone (who? Jack Kerouac?) at the White Horse Inn on p. 75–is fun.

Aside from the concept itself, here are the clangers.

  • The bumbling police detective, Inspector Prufrock, is absolutely painful. I assume he was put in for comic relief and to emulate Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther films, but the character is insipid and every interaction with him is pointless and infuriating.
  • The giant tree of possible decisions on p. 101–12 in all–looks like a fantastic smorgasbord that can lead you anywhere in the book, but none of the pages the decisions lead to get you much of anywhere. Missed opportunity.
  • I would have liked a chance to kiss Jenny Mudge. Seriously. But, alas, any hint of romance involving “you” in these books is strictly verboten, probably because of the gender issue.

Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? is a terrific concept for a book, but the execution (pardon the expression) is simply terrible. There’s just nothing here of much interest. It’s a shame, because a successful CYOA whodunit could have launched a whole spate of engaging and fascinating hypertext mysteries–perhaps even a book series of its own. Alas, nothing came of it.

Well, almost nothing. One of the later books in the series, Ghost Hunter–one of the most successful–was a sequel to Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?, with “you” as a paranormal investigator hunting down Thrombey’s ghost. That book was much better than this one.

Grade: C minus

At last we’re out of the “demo” books. On to more exciting things in the next review!