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: