APRIL
2006

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?

 

 

 

4-27-06

Download the audio of On Six Legs: MP3, WMV.

Inspector Mantis is the Insect Version of Sherlock Holmes


The book "Trouble in Bugland" is a series of mystery tales, starring Inspector Mantis and his trusty companion Doctor Hopper. Mantis and Hopper, as you might have guessed, are insects. This pair of insect sleuths is the six-legged version of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson.

"Trouble in Bugland" is touted as an affectionate tribute to Sherlock creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Like the Sherlock stories, "Trouble in Bugland" is all about mysteries associated with crimes. This amusing book was written by William Kotzwinkle, who called it "a sophisticated, adult mystery story but with an all-insect cast of characters."

This is not the first book that Kotzwinkle has created with some unusual characters as stars. "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" is about a bear that finds a manuscript in the woods, puts on clothes and moves to New York. Then, there is "Walter the Farting Dog: Trouble at the Yard Sale." Walter has starred in several stories. Kotzwinkle also wrote the print version of "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial." So, it is probably not surprising that he has managed to use insects to parody Sherlock.

"Trouble in Bugland: A Collection of Inspector Mantis Mysteries" has a cast of bugfolk. Bugfolk are characters that exhibit both human and insect characteristics. In this instance, the insects are depicted in the illustrations of Joe Servello as walking upright and wearing human attire. But the characters resemble and, in some ways, behave like insects. In fact, there is a remarkable amount of insect biology included in the stories. Kotzwinkle stated that he spent an entire summer on his knees, watching crickets in the backyard, in order to get into his characters' heads.

In "The Case of the Missing Butterfly," the defense mechanisms of butterflies are showcased. For instance, the eye spots on butterflies look like predators and are used to frighten other predators. But the presence of poison in some butterflies is key to the story. Many butterflies have poison in their bodies, which is distasteful to predators. In this case, the butterflies are kept for purposes of extracting such poison. The mystery is solved but not without first encountering an insect-eating tarantula and learning to do the tarantella dance!

It just makes sense that in "The Case of the Frightened Scholar," the scholar turns out to be a Professor Chaning Booklouse who has "devoured" a book. The mystery includes The Duchess of Doodlebug, Baron Blowfly and Ambassador Cornbore. OK, I assume that corn borers in the Midwest corn crop would not claim the ambassador as a relative!

"The Case of the Caterpillar's Head" involves sneaking into the Lost City of the Termites. Just the insect to lead the expedition is J. P. Suckbeetle, who gets his name by allowing the termites to suck juice off his whiskers. This is a process similar to the way that some insects manage to live in an ants' nest -- they have to offer food bribes to the ants in order to be allowed to stay.

Other insects that show up include springtails and bristletails in "The Case of the Headless Monster." The monster turns out to be soldier fly that had been decapitated in a battle with ants. Ants are very good at decapitating other ants, as well as prey insects, in battle. It is also true that some insects can live for a time with their heads removed.

In the final mystery, "The Case of the Emperor's Crown," Captain Flatfootfly plays a major role. (There is a fly known as the flatfoot fly!) The captain once served "next to the Bombardiers in the Locust Wars." These bombardier beetles set off explosive charges from their abdomens, using hydroquinone compounds, according to Inspector Mantis. Bombardier beetles get their name because of the use of such chemical bombs.

In this final mystery, Doctor Hopper discovers, as he describes it, "a very rude bee" in the garden. Mantis, when observing the bees, notes that they possess only a single set of wings. Bees have four wings. Aha! Inspector Mantis is onto something. Later, it is discovered that the Emperor's Crown has been stolen by robber flies! Such flies mimic bees in coloration and sound but, since flies have only two wings, the disguise is less than perfect. At least, it doesn't fool Inspector Mantis or entomologists -- both of whom are likely to count the wings on an insect!

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox