Full disclosure: the above image does not depict the copy of this I possess. One day I hope to acquire this edition, so that I may have a matching set of these Armada paperbacks, but equally some fools want silly money for this secondhand and, well, I’ve held forth on that already.
In all honesty, I feel rather as if I’ve blogged myself into a corner here. I have so far reviewed the first trilogy of Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators titles, own, like, 27 of them, and would in principle work through them in order and chart the highs and lows, the difficulties or otherwise in the handover when Robert Arthur steps away from the series after The Mystery of the Talking Skull (1969). There’s no difficulty here: the books fit into my chosen genre, emphasising (elements of) ratiocination on their way to the solutions of their intriguingly-framed mysteries, and Arthur has done a good job of writing propulsive tales unbedisened with excess verbiage or pages of chaff to make them up to novel length. Sounds perfect.
Now, of course, as a long-running series runs…er, long, the average reader’s interest may be amortised by repeated visits to the same well. But I’m breaking these up with a moderate variety of other detective novels — both ‘grown-up’ and juvenile — and, despite what my doctor may think, I’ve got yeeears ahead of me; it’s not like I have to get this done by the end of the summer in order to qualify for a reward or anything.
A man can dream…
Why all this navel-gazing? Well, because I’ve spent the last few days reading The Mystery of the Green Ghost (1965), the fourth book in this series, about which I must write as part of the above plan, and…I just don’t know what to say about it. It’s fine — neither terrible nor great, almost entirely devoid of anything resembling a feature, and probably if anything a victim of its own good intentions: the problem it poses is probably a bit too big, but an increase in size was probably felt necessary in order to offer up some variation. Paradoxically, I think it’s precisely this that will result in me not remembering anything about it by the time I get to the next book in the series.
It starts promisingly: in media res, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews — the latter now divested of the leg brace I used to help distinguish which was which — are startled by a blood-curdling scream at the old Green mansion, which is being torn down for a new development to be built on its land. Apparently no protective barriers or fences were put around buildings mid-demolition in the Sixties, because the noise attracts a group of men who, along with Pete and Bob, head inside, and witness an emerald spectre floating around, the absence of footprints on dusty floors a speciality:
They spun around. A green glow, so faint it could hardly be seen, stood beside a doorway. The figure grew clearer. Definitely now it was a human-shaped figure in green flowing robes like a Mandarin’s. … In a moment the green, ghostly figure glided out of one of the open doors, down the hall, hugging the wall, and stopped at the blank wall where the hall ended. Then, very slowly, it faded out. As if, Bob said later, it had oozed right through the wall.
Two complete asides here: firstly, I really do appreciate the work Arthur puts in to his nomenclature. You’ll possibly not remember from their inaugural case The Secret of Terror Castle (1964) that the eponymous castle Jupe, Pete, and Bob investigated was originally called Terrill’s Castle but becomes the subject of rumours regarding all sorts of terrors therein and so it’s a simple bastardisation to come up with a nifty bit of what would otherwise have been a case of nominative determinism staggering enough to rival that of Captain James Hook. I do remember this, because it’s the sort of thing I like. Let’s not pretend this is anything like clever word-play, but the fact that the ghost of Mathias Green is also green in colour…well, maybe you just think I’m easily pleased (you might be right, too). Secondly, there’s not really any clewing as such in this book regarding the providence of the ghost — er, spoilers that it’s not a real ghost? — but there’s a nifty piece of something in this first section that’s about as close to clue-dropping as the mystery aspect of this gets.
Next day, the boys return to the house with Bob’s father, Police Chief Reynolds, and various other witnesses and make a somewhat macabre discovery which goes on to power the rest of the plot, and I’d argue that it’s with the decisions made after this (by Arthur, not by the characters) that things come off the rails. Bob and Pete are contacted by Mathias Green’s niece Lydia, who owns a vineyard far enough away to warrant a plane ride, and who wants them to come out because a large number of her workers have seen the green ghost and she wants to…I guess talk to them about it or something. Sure, ring the changes, but what ostensibly started out as a lovely small, focussed problem in the manner of the previous book The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965) now turns into a sort of trans-national adventure story, complete with financial espionage, jewel theft, and horse-back chases through canyons.
For all the changes, a lot of similarities emerge: there is another young foreign boy for the Three Investigators to make friends with — Chang here, Hamid in The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy — someone gets kidnapped and must be rescued after an “exciting” chase interlude, and everyone’s legal guardians must still be knocking back the Valium given how laissez-faire they are about what these boys have been through. A notorious villain escapes — but unlike as in The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot (1964) I’d be perfectly okay with not seeing him again — and there’s the obligatory Alfred Hitchcock cameo, wheeled out at the end like the chart-topping hit of a band who’ve reformed after 20 years in the wilderness which must be played at the end of every concert because, frankly, who gives a shit about their ‘new material’? Oh, and the explanation for the vast array of ghostly appearances is as cursory and underwhelming as the “whispering” of the mummy was in the previous book, and equally as likely to be complete fabrication where possibility is concerned. In a weird sort of way, it feels like an effigy of the Three Investigators, as if the formula is being reheated by someone who isn’t confident in delivering their own take on a classic series…but it’s only the fourth book, before there should even be a formula, and it’s written by the guy who created the series.
This makes no sense; you people look like idiots now.
However, it is not entirely without merit. There’s a nicely-underplayed indication of the difficulties faced by illegal immigrants, for one, and Chang’s deduction about the wealth of a household in which they find themselves spun purely from a meal he is served gives someone besides Jupe a chance to shine where logic is concerned. Arthur also has some great turns of phrase, such as newspapers reporting the sighting of the ghost where “some of the headlines seemed bigger than the front pages they were on”, or the situation facing Pete and Bob when they find themselves confronted by theft and ghostly apparitions in rural California being succinctly put as:
“The house here isn’t in any town, so there isn’t any police force to call on. Just the sheriff and a deputy who keeps saying ‘I’ll be danged’.”
And Bob Andrews gets to emerge as no small shakes in the smarts department, too. The “39 — Mine — Help” scheme isn’t without its obvious flaws, as acknowledged in the narrative, but the piece of legerdemain that enables him to carry it out is very canny (I have no desire to spoil it, since it’s good to experience pure). Narratively, too, while there’s a certain inevitability to the shape of things, and the broadening of the scope leaves it feeling a little moribund at times, the development in the final line of chapter 16 is gigantically enjoyable (and, it must be said, sort of feels like it might be the motivation for this entire enterprise).
So…it’s an odd one. The series is clearly a long way from kaput following this, but it’s not going to be anyone’s highlight of Arthur’s run (cue twenty-seven “This is my favourite one ever!” comments in the comments…). I would be disappointed if this was the pattern the books go on to take, but hopefully it’s more just a result of Arthur playing around with his universe and seeing what he likes and what can be discarded. Enjoyable enough, but no classic. And I’m definitely not paying over the odds for that Armada edition now.
Interestingly, second investigation The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot proved equally unmemorable, at least to me. Is this my version of “every even-numbered Star Trek movie is terrible”? I intend to continue with the series anyway, but it would be worth reading on just to find out…
Previous Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators books on The Invisible Event: