Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Review - The Eyes of the Killer Robot by John Bellairs

Short review: A madman built a baseball-pitching robot a long time ago, and for some reason, Professor Childermass decides to find it and build it again. This turns out to be a bad idea.

A baseball robot
Broken, missing both its eyes
Still a madman's toy

Full review: Mix together baseball, black magic, evil robots, and a creepy lunatic out for revenge, and you get The Eyes of the Killer Robot, a Professor Childermass/Johnny Dixon mystery. This story is not as much of a mystery as other books in the series, taking on more of the character of a gothic horror story complete with scary ghosts and evil villains.

The story starts at a Red Sox baseball game attended by Johnny and the Professor. The Professor, being a die-hard Sox fan harangues the Yankee players mercilessly. On the way home, the Professor tells Johnny about Johnny's grandfather's own baseball exploits when he was a young man, and relates the story of Evaristus Sloane and his mechanical baseball pitcher. The Professor explains how Johnny's grandfather prevented his team from purchasing the machine in 1900 (and how Evistarius vowed revenge), and the story of the mysterious pitcher who showed up out of nowhere at a baseball challenge to blow away the best hitter in the league. The Professor, of course, suspects that the mysterious pitcher was none other than Evistarius' mechanical pitcher.

Later, while relating the story on the same field to his friend Fergie, Johnny discovers an antique snuff box with an old pawn ticket inside. After consulting with the Professor, they take the ticket to the pawn shop and find themselves in possession of an ornate sword cane. Although they come to the conclusion that someone meant for them to have it, they have no idea why.

The Professor becomes interested in Evistarius' robot. Assuming the nutty inventor must be dead (since it is 50 years since anyone saw him), the Professor takes the boys to find the old man's house and try to find the robot. They recover the robot, or at least its parts, in short order, but it is lacking eyes. Happily, they stumble across a small box holding what appear to be glass eyes for the robot alongside the road. Taking the robot with them, they return to Duston Heights so that the Professor can reassemble the machine.

Meanwhile, Johnny has been noticing some odd events - a strange blue car has been showing up wherever he is, and he has been visited by what appears to be a ghost. Things come to a head when the Professor finally finishes assembling the robot and installs the glass eyes - whereupon the robot vanishes as soon as it is left alone.

After mysterious happenings that the Professor attributes to the runaway robot, he, Johnny and Fergie all return to Sloane's house, but are sidetracked. Johnny is kidnapped by Sloane and saved in the nick of time (by an unusual rescuer). Things seem to be back to normal, but in classic horror-movie fashion, the evil villain returns for a final act of revenge that is only averted at the last minute (the sword cane, unsurprisingly, comes in handy).

Unlike some of the other Johnny Dixon mysteries where the puzzle of the story forms the core of the book, in The Eyes of the Killer Robot there is only a limited amount of mystery, and most of the puzzles are solved pretty quickly after they are introduced in the story. Unusual for a Bellairs book, neither Johnny nor Fergie find themselves in trouble as a result of running off half-cocked without telling the Professor vital information. Rather, Johnny gets into trouble because of missteps by the Professor (and his grandparents). Contrary to most of the books in the series, both Johnny and Fergie are oddly level-headed.

Despite the lack of a strong mystery element, the scary gothic horror parts of the book are quite well done, and give the entire story an appropriately spooky and creepy feeling, despite the fact that the story revolves around a baseball pitching robot and the madman that built it. Bellairs plays upon some fears that are basic to kids - the fear of being kidnapped, the fear of losing one's sight, and the fear of being betrayed by adults in authority. A better mystery would have improved the book, but the scary elements save it. Overall, this is a decent, if unspectacular installment in the Johnny Dixon series.

Previous book in the series: The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost
Subsequent book in the series: The Trolley to Yesterday

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  1. Sounds quirky, not really scary.

    1. @fredamans: That's probably an accurate summary. On the other hand, given that the entire series of books was written with an audience of eight to twelve year old boys in mind, there is a limit to the intensity of the scariness one can expect.