#406: A Change for the…Different in The Mystery of the Green Ghost (1965) by Robert Arthur

Green Ghost

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.

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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.

people-happy-cheering

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:

1. The Secret of Terror Castle (1964) by Robert Arthur

2. The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot (1964) by Robert Arthur

3. The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965) by Robert Arthur

30 thoughts on “#406: A Change for the…Different in The Mystery of the Green Ghost (1965) by Robert Arthur

    • I had to write this very quickly, because I could feel the memories evaporating as I was typing. It’s perfectly servicable, but there’s a great little mystery around the haunted Green mansion that unfortunately went unwritten so that we could have this book instead.

    • Entirely possible; I don’t think I’ve seen one in about 20 years. One of them had whales in and I remember thinking it was terrible — for specifics, that’s as good as I go 🙂

    • I am going to come back to this post when I read the next in the series, and I seriously doubt I’m going to remember much about it, even though I’ve tried to fit in as many details as possible (even a few coded references, get me) to help me remember anything at all.

      I have no doubt there will be better ones ahead, I just hope this doesn’t indicate Arthur losing interest and simply writing down any old plot nonsense just to fulfil a contract.

      • He did not. Quite a few of the coming books are great.

        The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966, by Robert Arthur) – an exciting adventure, but the identity of the thieves is quite poor.
        The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966, by Robert Arthur) – one of Arthur’s better stories
        The Mystery of the Fiery Eye (1967, by Robert Arthur) – I don’t remember too much of this one, except that it was mainly okay
        The Mystery of the Silver Spider (1967, by Robert Arthur) – 3I in Europe! One of my favourites when I was small, mainly because of the different setting. More of an adventure than a mystery, though.
        The Mystery of the Screaming Clock (1968, by Robert Arthur) – wonderful. One of the best of the series.
        The Mystery of the Moaning Cave (1968, by William Arden) – don’t remember much of this one, to be honest.
        The Mystery of the Talking Skull (1969, by Robert Arthur) – a very fine sendoff from Arthur.

        “everyone’s legal guardians must still be knocking back the Valium given how laissez-faire they are about what these boys have been through”

        Okay, sure, you certainly have to have a certain suspension of disbelief, but remember that kids weren’t so intensely curled – is this term used in English as well? I hope so, or it might be hard to get my meaning 🙂 – as they are nowadays, at least where I’m from. Kids were allowed to be out and do whatever they liked (to a certain extent) without parents worrying every second of the hour.

        • If I’m completely serious — and I try not to be — I definitely believe that there is some good stuff ahead, if only because the series is unlikely to have extended to as many titles as it did had it started going downhill after three books. I do, however, genuinely appreciate the reassurance; these have the potential to be a lot of fun, and part of reading and reviewing them is hopefully getting to experience and share in that.

          The equivalent term in English would probably be “coddled” — excessviely fussed over and protected from even the vaguest potential harm. Interesting that the two terms are essentially so close phonetically; probably a coincidence, but interesting nonetheless 🙂

          • Well, “curling” is an English word (or possibly Scottish), so I guess that’s not so odd.

            (In Sweden, it comes from parents being like curlers, sweeping away all obstacles in the way of their offspring.)

            • Aaaaah, yes, that’s brilliant — I had curling in mind as like curling one’s body protectively around something to insulate it from harm, but your explanation is glorious!

      • I remember this was the first in this series I read, in a three-books-in-one collected volume, and I read more after that, so they probably do get better. Either that or I had terrible taste as a child.

            • Hey, you’ll not catch me knocking Harry Potter. They get less well written as they go, and books 4+ could do with a good edit, but they made a lot of young people excited about reading and are no doubt hugely responsible for an increase in literacy levels among a certain generation. I could cope without the films, plays, expanded universe, spin-offs, cash cows, and other esoterica, but sometimes that’s the price you pay to get literally millions of kids excited to read.

  1. 1. Describe for me the last time you used the word “unbedisened” in a conversation.

    2. Name a time or place where anyone has used the word.

    3. You . . . you don’t like the one with the whales?? Dude, everyone knows that the odd-numbered Star Treks are bad, and the even-numbered ones are good. The whales are good!! Omigod, JJ!!!

    Now . . . What book were we talking about again?

    • 1. You know full well Bradley that no-one can stand me long enough to wait around and hold a conversation; I do not appreciate this mockery.

      2. I used it in the above review, as it happens.

      3. I don’t even remember books I read two years ago, and you want me to remember a whale-centric space movie from my teens? Is it the one with the invisible ship? Because it does sound goofy…

  2. I can say no more about the book beyond the fact I read it. In my defense, it was 35+ years ago. But other books in the series, or elements within them, have stayed with me so I guess the lack of memories here does say something.
    Don’t read too much into the numbering superstition though – Skeleton Island is #6 (I think??) and that ought to be much more memorable.

    • Oh, sure, the numbering thing was a sort of joke — and it turns out I was wrong about the Star Trek movies anyway. Who knew we had Trekkies in the adueince, eh? Welcome, one and all!

      And this falls below the standard of Whispering Mummy, but it’s perfectly light and enjoyable…which is exactly what it’s supposed to be, right? Arthur wasn’t sweating these out 43 years ago, worried about what I was going to think of them toward the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

      • Exactly, and I don’t actually remember feeling let down or short-changed by any of the series back when I was reading them as part of the target audience. Some felt more memorable or fun than others but I’d still say they pretty much all did what it said on the tin.

  3. I just came across this and your earlier Three Investigators reviews. I was aware of them as a kid but never read one. Sounds as if the better ones might be worth tracking down!

    It’s interesting that Timothy Fuller (1914-71), who seems to have been a different man from Robert Arthur, Jr. (1909-69), wrote five mysteries between 1936 and 1950 about a detective named Jupiter Jones. I wonder if both authors created the name independently as a derivative of Nero Wolfe (first name associated with ancient Rome + syllabically similar surnames).

    • I get the impression even at this early stage that the very good ones in this series are very good indeed. Obviously the first one gets a pass because it was trying to establish something, and the second one was finding its feet, but Whispering Mummy is a great little book and I’m sure other strong ones follow (as I’ve said elsewhere, I can’t believe the series would have got to as many volumes as it did without there being at least a few worth reading). The writing is solid, the characters fun, I’m definitely signed up for a while yet (I own 24 of the first 27…something of an impulse buy).

      Interesting about the Jupiter Jones thing. Mind you, it was also the character Mila Kunis played in the movies Jupiter Ascending, so maybe there’s llike a parallel universe thing going on and they’re all the same person…

  4. Hmmm… Murder of my aunt by Richard Hull was in the ‘next up’ space and now that has been replaced by a question mark. Did you give it up after finding the first half dull?

    • Indeed! Not sure what I’ll have time to read before Thursday, but I did not have the patience to persevere with the Hull.

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