The crime fiction genre is as deep as it is wide, and today I’d like to give you the best example I can think of to illustrate this. Let me ask you a question…what are your earliest memories of crime fiction? I was asked this recently, and my answer prompted an extensive debate. Once I’d explained how my childhood memories had conditioned my interest in crime fiction it becomes clear that I wasn’t alone in this. Today, I’d like to discuss those memories through the genius that is Hanna-Barbera Productions, Inc.
In my view, the Hanna-Barbera animation studio is responsible for one of the greatest contributions to crime fiction that there is. I’ve written before about how important I think Cluedo is to the genre, and for me, the collective output of Hanna-Barbera in the 1970s and 1980s is equally as important. That contribution begins in earnest in 1969 with the four teenage members of Mystery, Inc. and their dog Scooby-Doo. The bizarre, yet staggeringly lucrative teenage-crime-fighting-group-with-random-mascot offshoot was born, and once Hanna-Barbera had struck gold with Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (I never understood why it was an exclamation and not a question mark) the studio had hit after hit. There are too many to mention here but my childhood favourites were Scooby-Doo, Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels and The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan.
The model for Scooby-Doo and the intrepid gang (Shaggy, Fred, Velma and Daphne) is achingly simple, yet brilliantly effective. It works something like this. The Mystery, Inc. van (the Mystery Machine), stops, usually because it has broken down, near a deserted property or location that happens to be plagued by a monster. The gang investigates and invariably it is Scooby and Shaggy who find the monster whilst they are in fact looking for food. However, it turns out that the monster is actually a criminal in disguise and so the gang hatches a plan to unmask the criminal who delivers the classic line
And I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling kids.
This all sounds frivolous and that isn’t really surprising as we are talking about a cartoon for children. Hanna-Barbera however, was running a business and as a business idea, this is far from frivolous. Multiply this out over 50 years, hundreds of cartoons, films, computer games and soft toys and you have a genuinely heavyweight product. One that continues to give pleasure to children to this day. For me, it was the parody in Scooby-Doo that fascinated. I’ve written about the parodic nature of crime fiction before and nowhere is it starker than in a cartoon for children. The four teenagers are a complete parody of the bumbling adults, and within the gang itself, each character plays a different, parodic role. If you watch an episode today you will be struck by how formulaic it is.
In a sense though, that was deliberate. What Hanna-Barbera did was simply to take an established genre, with an established set of rules, and make it accessible to children. Four teenagers in a flower power van is simply a recreation of the armchair detective who operates independently in the face of law enforcement incompetence. Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels, is Charlie’s Angels for children. What worked in book form for Enid Blyton (The Famous Five and The Secret Seven), worked in cartoon form for Hanna-Barbera, and they milked it for all it was worth.
The first episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is called What a Night for a Knight, and as a child, I thought that play on words was incredibly clever. In fact, I still do and as an adult, I enjoy seeing the same technique used for the title of every episode of Remington Steele. I really believe that the contribution Hanna-Barbera made to the crime fiction genre is huge, but their first efforts so nearly came to nought. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! was originally called Mysteries Five (five kids and a dog called Too Much) and it was rejected on several occasions by the CBS network. Several rewrites and a dash of inspiration from the ending of the song Strangers in the Night led to Sinatra’s doo-be-doo-be-doo launching an offshoot that continues to this day.
Can you imagine if the dog really had been called Too Much? A whole generation of children robbed of the phrase Scooby snack. How sad would that be? Scooby-Doo, good boy.