So, here I am in the throes of a month of Tuesdays posts looking at GAD-era YA novels and — boom! — here’s a YA novel on a Saturday?! What on earth…?
You will, I’m sure, cope.
This is the third of the Alfred Hitchcock and Three Investigators series of books, and I realised one thing very quickly: I remember virtually nothing about the preceding story, The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot (1964), which I read last September. Even going back and rereading my own post about that book brings very little to memory…apparently there’s a yegg in it and I liked him, and something about parrots that say things having been named (in most cases) after famous figures in literature. Well, the good news is that while this cadre of books don’t fall chronologically in the Golden Age — even my arms-open approach to those limiting dates doesn’t encompass 1965 — they carry over very little in the way of changes from book to book. So Jupe still lives on a junkyard run by his aunt and uncle, who have failed to notice the investigators’ Headquarters and its myriad tunnel entrances…that’s probably all you ever need.
This time, Jupe, Pete, and Bob get a break from “investigating how much work three boys could do on a hot day” with two competing offers of a case — the first in tracking down a lady’s missing cat (those parrot-finding skills perhaps more relevant than I first imagined…), and the second a summons from Alfred Hitchcock to discover how a 3,000 year-old mummy can possibly be whispering to the archaeologist who has it on loan from an Egyptian museum. They contemplate for all of zero seconds and head for the hills, and encounter rumours of a curse stalking the members of the party who first uncovered the tomb…
Stuff like this keeps happening, see…
The casual desecration of the honoured burial rights of an ancient civilisation are quietly glossed over here, and instead of any moral conundra we have a far more crowd-pleasing threat of death:
“Lord Carter died in an automobile accident. Aleph Freeman … was murdered in a Cairo bazaar. The photographer and Lord Carter’s personal secretary were injured in the accident that killed Lord Carter. The Egyptian overseer of the labour force died of a snake bite.”
Opinion naturally divides as to whether a curse exists or not, but the use of the name Lord Carter is inevitably designed to bring to mind the “Curse of Tutankhamun” stories following the discovery of his tomb in 1915. There’s nothing egregiously disrespectful about this — hell, everyone has their own “Wow, I can’t believe they used that as the basis for a GAD novel…” example — but I find it interesting that Arthur’s use of this name in particular must be deliberate given that the intended audience would be about the age one is when first learning of the Valley of the Kings (at least, I was).
Pleasingly, Arthur has put quite a lot of background into the finding of this mummy — it was buried secretly and with little in the way of ceremony, seemingly possessed of very little of any worth, and there are even doubts as to precisely when this burial took place. Even its origins are somewhat in question: the name of the person whose tomb it was — read from an inscription over the tomb, the translation of which gives rise to questions over the supposed curse — hints at both Libyan and Egyptian antecedents, with the ‘Ra’ prefix of Ra-Orkon hinting at Egyptian nobility. Frankly, the story in no way needs these details, but it would be a poorer, much less enriched and so enjoyable, experience without them. I like the idea of the element of mystery behind the mystery, as well as the intelligence behind even simple things like names and wordplay: everything counts, everything can contribute to the understanding of a situation or the escalation of a puzzle. That’s an important detail, and one that often gets neglected outside of the masters of this form.
What develops from here is deceptively simple and clear: Ra-Orkon can’t be whispering, but Jupe’s initial suggestion as to how this effect was achieved is proven false and so more investigating is required. How much there is in terms of pure clewing is debatable — well, no, it isn’t, as there is none — but at the halfway stage things become decidedly more complex when a third party enters the fray claiming an interest in the mummy, and I’m hoping this layering of different elements is something that comes into play more regularly as these books progress. Once you get to the end and realise how all the different aspects of the case collide — well, okay, you’ll realise it before you get to the end — it emerges as a pretty solid puzzle for the younger set, even if the page count is bolstered somewhat by an accidental kidnapping and then lots of searching for a thing.
Sure, there’s the odd reach — Arthur clearly doesn’t have much faith in the moral scruples of manual labourers — and this is packed with difficulties enough to the extent that I seriously doubt anyone is reading it and thinking Man, I sure do hope Skinny Norris turns up soon…, but it’s definitely a marked step up from the first two and I’ll remember this several years from now for the clarity of its central premise and the winding of the various threads around each other. As an introduction to puzzle plotting, I would have loved this as a kid (and, in fairness, I rather enjoyed it as an adult-sized person). The answer to the impossibility of the whispering mummy doesn’t, I’m pretty sure, work — it requires a reversal of entropy for one thing — and the eventual motive behind it all is devastatingly bland, but then the answers to a couple of questions come the end are rather delightful (the miraculous arrival of the cavalry in the right place at the right time, for instance…c’mon, that’s not a spoiler).
The plotting is superb, then, and the writing showing significant signs of improvement. Equally, the boys themselves are starting to develop personalities — poor Pete, sidelined to look for that missing cat, is “human enough to want to get ahead of Jupe just once”, and you’re a cold fish indeed if you can’t raise a smile at Bob suspecting the household staff because “he had read many mysteries in which the butler had turned out to be the criminal”. Even Jupe gets a moment of reader-insert self-awareness when he remarks at the need for keeping the adults around them in the dark: “I’ve noticed that adults can’t help trying to be helpful when they learn a boy is engaged upon some important project, and often they spoil everything”. Wise words indeed, and ones that bode well for the future of this series as I continue to work through them chronologically.
Next up for the boys is The Mystery of the Green Ghost (1965)…but since that’s one of the titles I don’t possess — and if I can’t find an affordable copy of the Armada edition before the desire to delve in hits me again — I may have to skip ahead to The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966). Wow, this almost feels like an adventure all of my very own…watch this space!
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Jupe has a trick up his sleeve to make the mummy whisper in his presence, but finds himself confronted with somewhat of a locked room problem when the ruse succeeds: mummy begins to murmur when “he was totally alone” and “the door into the room where the professor and Bob waited was shut.” Nobody was near the mummy case to “throw” his voice and the possibility of a radio transmitter had already been eliminated. I was a bit skeptical about the actual explanation for this locked room mystery, because it seemed out-of-time, but consulting the all-knowing Internet revealed this was technically possible since the early 1960s. So the trick was technically possible. [Editor’s note: I still don’t completely buy it…]
Previous Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators books on The Invisible Event: