#289: The Literary Allusion That Wasn’t – Use of the Flying, Dying Message in The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot (1964) by Robert Arthur

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The following will discuss specific details of the plot of The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot (1964), the second novel in the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series.  I suppose you could consider such details spoilers.  However, it’s a book with many flaws that I can’t believe the average reader of this blog would get much from, and the need to go into specifics is necessary in order to have a more interesting discussion.  Nevertheless, I’d hate to drop spoilers on you without warning.  Thus whether or not to continue reading is, as always, your choice.

Happy to continue?  Right, then…

I don’t want to give them impression the book is a complete bust — it has some interesting ideas, and the tone is much more confident that in the opening volume The Secret of Terror Castle — but it suffers from Difficult Second Novel Syndrome in trying to give us something new while also establishing the essential foundation of constants that are necessary to give a flavour of a planned series at such an early stage.  Indeed, one of the best facets of the entire thing seems, as far as my research tells me, to’ve been disregarded entirely, possibly in order to keep things simple for and avoid long-running strands that might confuse the plotting of subsequent volumes.

Calling on the actor John Fentriss, having been informed of his missing parrot t the end of the previous book, Jupiter Jones and Pete Crenshaw are apprehended by a man with a gun who orders them into the house and demands to know their business.  Once he is convinced they’d been sent by Hitchcock — now referred to as “the famous director of suspense and mystery films and television programmes” — the man laughs, reveals the gun to be a cigarette lighter, and tells them Hitch had phoned ahead and this was just a test of their nerve.  He then tells them his parrot has returned of its own accord and there’s no need for them to track it down for him and the boys leave.  So far so standard.

From here it builds rather nicely — the man is revealed not to be Fentriss, and Jupe and Pete return to the house to find the real Fentriss bound and gagged, and discover that his parrot is still missing.  It’s at this point things start to go downhill, but there’s one very goo idea and this unfortunately-disregarded thread to pick over.  Now’s your last chance to avoid proper spoilers, so back out at this point if you’re having second thoughts.

blue-beware

The man with the gun turns out to be Claude Claudius, who is going around stealing parrots.  Essentially, and I feel no need to go into the precise details of this, seven parrots have been taught to repeat phrases that when combined will give the location of a great and mysterious treasure, and Claudius is one of two people trying to find it.  Each of the parrots have been named along literary lines (and, weirdly, one from a movie…who I’m pretty sure was based on a real person), and the messages they’ve learned are these:

Little Bo Peep:
Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and doesn’t know where to find it. Call on Sherlock Holmes.

Shakespeare:
To-to-to-be or not to-to-to-be. That is the question.

Blackbeard:
I’m Blackbeard the pirate and I’ve buried my treasure where dead men guard it ever.  Yo-ho-ho and a bottle o’ rum!

Robin Hood:
I shot an arrow as a test, a hundred paces shot it west.

Sherlock Holmes:
You know my methods, Watson.  Three Sevens lead to thirteen.

Captain Kidd:
Look under the stones beyond the bones for the box that has no locks.

Scarface:
I never give a sucker an even break, and that’s a lead pipe cinch. Ha-ha-ha!

The slightly disappointing thing here, and in stark contrast to something like Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop (1946), is that there’s not really any need for the whole literary naming thing.  Only really Shakespeare, the stuttering parrot of the title, has any purpose behind the name being attributed to what he says — take out the “You know my methods, Watson” from Sherlock Holmes and the message can be exactly the same, ditto “I’m Blackbeard the pirate” and anything else that seems to relate to these specific characters.  The use of these famous names is the 1964 detective fiction version of clickbait: it doesn’t follow through on its promise.

I know it’s a book for what we’re calling these days “younger readers”, but it would have been nice to see the ingenuity of the Shakespeare conceit — and, credit where it’s due, that one is pretty clever — extended to even one more bird.  And to an extent I think this is symbolic of the general decay that had been occurring in clue-driven detective fiction for some time prior to this: far from providing a series of cleverly interlocked pointers and hints, we get the Father Brownian hiding of a good clue amidst a load of mediocre ones because, well, who can be bothered to come up with five excellent things when there’s one moderately diverting one to hang everything around?

There’s a longer essay in this, one about how the rise in demand for crime stories lead to a decline in the talents of the people writing them and so in turn resulted in fewer quality detective novels that slowly strangled the genre out of fashion and interest.  But that’s for another time.  A couple of nice reversal in this — Claudius ends up being not quite the bad guy he appears, and the interactions he has with the Investigators take on a new flavour at the two-thirds mark — don’t quite salvage the sudden treasure hunt angle that results in the correct interpretation happening to be the on the boys stumble across at every turn (I’d’ve never found the treasure, I had an entirely different thing in mind….mumblemumble dying clues mumblemumble).

It does take a very interesting turn come the end, though.  The international art thief Huganay is also one of those searching for the treasure, and having been outwitted in the final showdown by two thirteen year-olds despite having outfoxed the police of several countries and continents and always evaded capture (we’ll let that pass…) he extends, via letter, the offer to work with the boys again if ever they find themselves in Europe.  This would be amazing, as there’s the appropriately Father Brownian air of Flambeau about  this character that could lead to some interesting interactions and ideas when they cross paths again — he’s set on stealing things, the essential goodness of the Investigators would be involved in trying to settle crimes for the benefit of those affected…that sort of dynamic always lends an additional air of intrigue to something for me, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

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Not this version, obviously.

So it’s a shame to report that it appears this thread never comes to fruition.  Huganay would seem to not appear again in the series, and the picaresque air of devil-may-care he brings never gets to lighten to central earnestness of Jupe & Co.  Like I say, this is probably just so as not to complicate a long-running series, and a similar thing may be attempted with another character for all I know, but I feel a little despondent that we’ll not see this turn into anything.  The book as a whole is a bit of a step back from the opening volume, and would be easier to justify were it the springboard for future shenanigans of this type.

Aaah, well, not to be.  I’m thinking I’ll do a book-by-book rundown of this series, so we’ll find out if this comes about in another form in due courese; as it stands, we shall next see our youthful confreres in The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy…

5 thoughts on “#289: The Literary Allusion That Wasn’t – Use of the Flying, Dying Message in The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot (1964) by Robert Arthur

  1. I think this was one of the earliest books in the series that I read and I’ve retained good memories of it as a result.
    Looked at from a grown-up perspective, I guess the puzzle at its heart is going to feel weak but I seem to remember being quite taken with the clues spoken by the birds – of course I was probably only 8 or 9 years old at the time.
    And Huganay does turn up again in a later story, although I’m not saying which one. 🙂

    • Well, well, well…who’d’ve thought that something I read on the internet would be wrong?! That is indeed wonderful news!

      This one deserves kudos for the clean lines along which it is constructed — it’s far less cluttered than the previous book — but it also feels rather slim and as if Arthut is still finding his way. I hold back slightly and expect better from it because I’m expecting better things in due course…possibly in vain, time will tell.

      • It’s so long since I read that book that I have only the vaguest memories of the details now – I seem the remember the HQ being described in greater detail, which I liked. I’ll take your word about it being a bit thin overall. The next few in the series, as far as I can remember, get more atmospheric, which is always good.

  2. I have a suspicion that I enjoyed your review far more than I’d enjoy actually reading the book. But I think that, as a young child, I would have been totally enthralled by the multiple parrots and their cryptic utterings (although: Scarface? That seems rather age inappropriate).
    In any case, I’m looking forward to further installments.

    • Haha, I don’t deny that a certain part of my dissatisfaction comes from the scales of childhood having fallen from my eyes…but, at the same time, it’s a little irksome to see lazy writing substituted for decent plotting because — essentially — it’s a kids’ book and there’s little risk the intended audience will know any better.

      It’s excusable purely on the grounds that this sort of thing was a fairly new undertaking, but it’s still a shame. I’ll never equate “younger readers” with “well, whatever, we can get away with any leap we like”, so am going to call out this sort of laziness where I see it, I’m afraid. Yeah, bah humbug, etc.

      Nevertheless, my curiosity remained undimmed. That muttering mummy will follow in due course….

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