#452: (Almost) Everything in Its Right Place for The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966) by Robert Arthur

Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure

Much like last week, the intention had been to bring you another episode of the Men Who Explain Miracles podcast today, but, well, it seems we won’t get to that this month.  And so let us return to the world of Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews and another mystery requiring their attentions.

This time, we begin with the local display of the fabulously expensive Rainbow Jewels, of undetermined origin but nevertheless great cultural renown.  And Jupe — Holmes-esque restless and distracted with no case to occupy him — is engaging in the thought experiment of how one might pilfer them:

“There are several guards always in the room with the jewels.  A closed-circuit television set trained on the Rainbow Jewels is watched at all times from the main office.  At night the room is criss-crossed by beams of invisible light.  If anybody broke a beam, it would set off a loud alarm.

“In addition, the glass in the cases has fine wire worked into it, which also work the alarm system.  If the glass if broken, the alarm goes off.  It has its own special electric system so even if a big storm, for instance, knocked out all the power, the alarm would still work.”

“Nobody could steal those jewels!” Pete said positively.

So, yeah, someone steals them.  Not Jupe, thankfully, though it does appear to be accomplished with the aid of someone from his Baby Fatso days: a distraction, lights out, glass casing smashed — the alarm does indeed work — and a bejeweled belt vanishes.  We edge here into impossible disappearance territory, too, since everyone is detained while order is restored and then every single patron of the museum displaying the jewels is searched as they leave, but no-one has anything on them.

Don’t get too comfortable, however, since the boys them receive a phone call from Alfred Hitchcock (now a “famous motion picture director”, where before he was mentioned only as a producer) requesting that they pay a visit to his friend Agatha Agawam — a surname unfortunately bringing to mind Mrs. Doyle trying to force a cup of tea on an unsuspecting visitor — who is apparently being menaced in her home.  By gnomes.

It’s fair to say that in this fifth book series creator Robert Arthur has started to embrace the loopiness that three intelligent and brave juvenile investigators sent on missions by Alfred Hitchcock can encompass.  We saw flashes of it with The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot (1964), but Arthur drew back from making that a truly inventive case, and The Mystery of the Green Ghost (1965) started well with its eponymous emerald spectre but then backed away from this far more interesting idea to focus on a bunch of grown men chasing pre-teens through the desert.  Here, with the brand established, and perhaps with one eye on having to write quite a few of these and so looking to broaden the possibilities, we get gnomes turning cartwheels in the moonlight, a variety of simple-but-at-least-he’s-trying false solutions, and dialogue cranked up to Full Hoke:

“No-one digs anything at midnight.  No-one except—”

“Gnomes!” Pete finished her sentence.

It’s honestly rather wonderful.  Arthur has stripped away the shiny gewgaws obtruding the fun he wants to have — goodbye gold-plated Rolls Royce, we hardly knew thee; sayonara Skinny Norris, you narrative encumbrance — and retained the sense of adventure and excitement that permeated the two best entries in the series to date, opener The Secret of Terror Castle (1964) and third title The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965).  It’s no accident, I’m sure, that the pointy-nosed, white-bearded, red-eyed gnomes hectoring the boys herein are used as effectively as the understated horror elements of those two books — we have here a fine balance of intelligence (the overheard conversation in the abandoned movie theatre — zoinks, Scoob! — is a great example of how to raise expectations and then ruthlessly educate against seeing connections everywhere) and excitement (the chase through the movie theatre is…well, I was flying through the pages, and I’m allegedly in my 30s).

Best of all, the plot dovetails very neatly.  Sure, I’m no fan of purloined letters, and the solution to that vanishing treasure is unfair enough to warrant a code violation, but at the same time the wider elements of the mystery come together very well indeed — how the three-foot high gnomes can be looking through a second storey window, the short-range walkie-talkies that the boys have jerry-rigged for their  investigations, even Jupe’s opening ruminations on how one might commit a seemingly-impossible burglary — everything plays a part.  And the denouements (yes, there’s more than one) are both redolent with a sense of risk that’s been missing before; sure, you know no-one is actually at risk, but the resolution of these threads feels less like thrill-by-numbers and more like an actual design, complete with messy links and genuine peril.

It feels to me, without the benefit of knowing what comes next, that this is the point where the series really begins to know what it’s about: the action feels a bit more exciting, the mystery a little more mysterious (with a good red herring or two…but, frankly, no more than two), and the interlacing strands of the plot coming together very nicely indeed.  Sure, Taro Togati, the Japanese son of the security officer who finds his job in peril following the theft, doesn’t get anything like the page time of Hamid from …Whispering Mummy or Chang from …Green Ghost, but the Plucky Youngster Who Helps The Three Investigators could start to feel like an obligation which would drag the series down in the same way Skinny Norris threatened to, and Arthur seems to be ringing the changes by freeing up any such trappings for future instalments (man, watch as I eat these words over the next seventeen books…).  We shall discover how fugacious this optimism proves to be, but for the time being I’m excited to see what secrets Skeleton Island has to reveal…

~

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

4. The Mystery of the Green Ghost (1965) by Robert Arthur

17 thoughts on “#452: (Almost) Everything in Its Right Place for The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966) by Robert Arthur

  1. Ooh – I don’t think I ever read this one. It was probably one of the gaps in the school library’s collection. The idea of menacing gnomes sounds rather wonderful and I am intrigued by the theft so I will have to keep an eye out for this volume as it sounds like a fun one!

    • It’s especially enjoyable to see everything start to come together — really brings home how much work has to be done in the background of these series so that the world breathes and the events work.

      I’m not entirely clear how much autonomy Arthur had with this series, but it’s great to feel like he’s finally really comfortable writing this type of story now. The bizarre touches — like a museum with no windows, or the gnomes hiding out of sight and then doing circus tricks in the garden at midnight — are the sort of oddness someone only introduces when they’re very sure of themselves. Long may it contnue…!

  2. Well, it’s nice to see you embracing the bonkers. 🙂

    I don’t think I enjoyed it quite as much as you seem to do – to me using gnomes was always a hokey thing, even as a teenager I knew what was possible and what was not, and the explanation for them is a bit bleh. Surely there’s no witness who could mistake one for the other?

    But outside of that it’s a fine YA adventure/mystery. I remember being a bit non-plussed by the explanation of where the bejewelled belt was hidden, probably because I had no idea what the Swedish word that described the hiding place meant. 🙂

    So not really a favourite of mine, but I appreciated it a bit more compared with some other titles in the series when I re-read them a handful of years ago.

    • I think my only real difficulty is the gnomes being mistaken for the [REDACTED] — like, I can see what Arthur is trying to do, and it sort of works, but it’s also wildly far of the mark. However, let’s assume they were rrecreuited for the similarity and leave it at that (we’re told, after all, that a bunch of them do live in Hollywood on acount of the motion picture business, so maybe ones were recruited to fit that requirement…).

  3. Yes, I found this one of the highlights of the series too, and there are are a good many highlights to enjoy. I seem to remember rereading this title a number of times as a kid, and enjoying it every bit as much with each return. And Skeleton Island is next up for you, and that’s cracking stuff too.

    • I’m encouraged by this news, Colin, and by the idea that Arthur has only about 5 or 6 left in the series — here’s hoping he throws everything he can think of at it and then steps aside with his head held high, rather than dragging us through a series of diminishing returns.

      • Well, I don’t know that “step aside” is a particularly apt description, seeing as he died after having written his 10th 3I book. He was in failing health in the late 60s and actually chose his successor, William Arden, who managed to squeeze in one novel before Arthur published his last.

        • See, I had always assumed that Arthur got the series started and then passed it on — I knew there was one Arden before the final Arthur, but I had assumed that was deliberate, a sort of handover phase. Never occurred to me that Arthur stopped writing these because he died. And I have no idea where that impression came from, either. But thanks for correcting me; man, I’m an idiot sometimes…

          • Well, Arthur was on the whole the best 3I writer, but he also managed to choose the second best of the 3I writers in Arden. I imagine vainly that had Arthur lived a bit longer, M.V. Carey would never have been chosen as a 3I writer.

            That’s not to say that Carey doesn’t have any good stories, because she has several, it’s just that she’s responsible for all the 3I novels with supernatural elements in them, and I just don’t think they should have a place in a serious-ish mystery series. I mean, what serious-minded GA writer would include them, huh?

            • I know, right? I mean, good grief, imagine if someone with any credibility in the genre produced a book with unresolved supernatural elements. Yeesh. Their reputation would never survive.

              On another note entirely, I wonder if there would ever be the chance of this series being revived. A couple of new, original-era Secret Seven books have appeard recently (in thankful contrast to the Five Do Something Post-Modern and Hilarious books that have been cropping up as well…) and I think there could be a lot of scope for this type of novel for you ger readers, written now but set in the 1960s. Especially as there’s a pre-exosting brand to potentially add some new puzzle plots into…

              Question is, who’s around these days who would be good enough to do it well?

            • Heh, someone isn’t well read on his Three Investigators. The Germans have already continued the series, so much that there are now more books in the German continuation sequence than there were in the original 43 book series. And that’s even if I include the 11 book Crimebusters series!

              In the German series, which is in the same continuity as the American ones, they have now (2018) reached no. 201. Some of them have been translated into English, though in these translations the Three Investigators are called Die Drei ???, which is the name that the Germans use, and they use the German names for the boys as well.

              Apart from that there are a handful of specials, and there is also a German 60 book series of kids adventures, where the boys are 10 years old.

              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_editions_of_the_Three_Investigators

            • Heh, someone isn’t well read on his Three Investigators.

              Well…no, I’ve read five of them. Didn’t you guess that? 😛

              I saw some Die Drei ??? titles while browsing for covers, and had just assumed that therse were pure translations rather than new efforts. Do you know if the new ones are meant to be any good? Fascinating to think that they’ve expanded to such huge numbers, but perhaps inescapable that they represent a tailing off in quality — The Curse of the Cell Phone sounding especially like the dry end of a barrel being rubbed repeatedly…

            • Unfortunately, I have no idea whether the German ones are good or not. I know that I’ve seen them in German bookstores when I was younger, but I never felt sure enough in my knowledge of German to pick any of them up (and at that time I didn’t know that a couple had been translated).

              I’d suppose that when there are 200 books, quality must have suffered in some way.

  4. I’m a huge fan of the series (49 now, started reading them when I was 9) and you’ve hit the nail on the head with this review! I envy you your discovery of the remainder of the series (I stopped at book 30, when Hitchcock passed away in real life though there are actually 43 in the English language run).

    • Thanks, Mark; I’m very much enjoying discovering this series, especially as I have dim memories of a lone, unread edition on my shelves as a child and so it feels like the books have been waiting for a long time for me to get round to them. It’s always great to be able to find something to get enthusiastic about, and t feel that growing excitement as it improves and improves — and in the absence of any new “grown up” authors fulfilling that at present I’m really pleased that “mere” kid’s fiction is stepping into the breach.

      Onwards and upwards from here…!

  5. I’m another childhood fan of this series…back in my misspent youth (the ’90s), someone reprinted all ten Arthur books plus the first one by Arden. I remember that my favorite one was THE MYSTERY OF THE SCREAMING CLOCK, whose plot is based on Old Time Radio history…Arthur got his start as a radio writer, so this was obviously a subject close to his heart. (Incidentally, he produced a radio series called MURDER BY EXPERTS that was hosted by none other than John Dickson Carr!)

    • Yeah, I wrote a bit about Murder by Experts here, though I’ve singularly failed to follow up and listen to too much of it since then — there’s always something making a demand on my time, y’know?

      However, I’m always intrigued by a radio-set mystery (I dunno why, there’s just something about the setting and the potential for misguiding people based purely on what they hear that really appeals to me) and am excited to see what …Screaming Clock does, so thanks for bringing that to my attention. I’ll get to it in due course…!

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