Quite a week it’s been: a humdinger of a self-published impossible crime novel, then a low-key classic from John Dickson Carr…if the best things come in threes, it seems only sensible to finish with another case — the sixth, as I continue my way through this series chronologically — for Jupe, Pete, and Bob, a.k.a. The Three Investigators.
For the first time — and maybe the last, I don’t know, there are still 37 books to go — things here have more than a whiff of Scooby-Doo about them: “Someone’s trying to scare people away from the spooky fairground? But there was just Old Man Withers living there, and he seemed so nice…”. Pete Crenshaw’s father is part of a Hollywood film crew utilising said abandoned fairground on the eponymous, skull-shaped island for the denouement of the thriller Chase Me Faster…but, wouldn’t ya know it, some of the locals seem intent on disrupting the production. Not only have their been thefts of and damage to the crew’s equipment, there are also murmurings amongst the townfolk in the dying mainland town of Fishingport that the ghost of Sally Farrington is back riding the merry-go-round where she died some twenty years ago.
The only course of action? Send in three teenagers to investigate under the cover of making a short film about them diving in the waters off Skeleton Island in search of the pirate treasure long-rumoured to be found thereabouts. No, I’m not making this up.
As a plot it’s a bit of a let down, showing very little of the invention of previous book The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966) or thus-far series high-point The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965), and as such continues this early trend of “The even-numbered ones are disappointing”. As part of the wider series, however, this is very interesting indeed, because you can see the attempts to broaden what’s possible in the series without straining too hard to dismiss what came before. The gold-plated Rolls Royce went a few books ago, and given how quickly the boys end up in peril this feels like the sort of book where three juvenile investigators hanging out in their customised headquarters hidden in a junk heap is perhaps a little too juvenile. This feels not unlike the awkward adolescence of a series whose voice is breaking and keeps dipping into the register of legitimate, high-risk peril of more (forgive me) ‘grown-up’ undertakings before reverting for some awkwardly staring at girls, worrying about its acne, and kicking up a stink over the fact that it still has a bedtime.
“What. On Earth. Are you talking about?”
Case in point: for the first time we have our coterie in legitimate, life-risking peril when, as pretty much their first action in the case, they’re picked up from the airport and decoyed onto a small nearby island by someone who wishes them out of the way — left without shelter or chance of discovery in a howling gale on a pitch-black night…before the chance discovery by this volume’s Obligatory Young Man of Non-American Origin — here it’s Greek skin-diver Christos ‘Chris’ Markos — renders them safe and everyone relieved. The we get a dip into the murky waters of xenophobia with the development that Chris is viewed as the most likely culprit for the thefts and damage purely because the insular townsfolk don’t like them what’s diff’nt — “They’re willing to believe anything bad of a foreigner,” the Chief of Police tells the boys — but this all gets conveniently swept aside upon the capture of the (er, spoilers?) true culprit(s).
It’s not all as wildly inconsistent as it may sound here, however, and some of it is very well-handled. We’ve moved on from the “Zoinks! A g-g-g-g-g-ghost!” sensationalism that betokened opener The Secret of Terror Castle (1964) and The Mystery of the Green Ghost (1965), not least because I’m sure there are only so many times you can have a youthful detection collective terrified of what turns out to be a man in a mask or some cheesecloth daubed with flourescent paint (Scooby and Shaggy don’t count, those guys were high as kites). The boys’ landlady in Fishingport, Mrs. Barton, is quick to admit that the stories of such ghostly happenings are typically spread by the unreliable, superstitious fishermen of the locality, and the town’s GP and owner of Skeleton Island Dr. Wilbur goes one further: “The ghost stories started up ten years ago and have been pretty thick ever since, at least among the more uneducated people in town”.
[Yes, I know, being “more uneducated” makes no sense — you’d be, if anything “less educated”, since ‘uneducation’ is not something one accrues — but we’ll allow the pompous arse his colloquialisms.]
“I’m not sure anyone else cares.”
Equally, the investigators themselves are afforded a freedom of movement in this unfamiliar, and at times frankly hostile, locality the implies a greater maturity than of recent volumes. We’re even told at one point that Bob Andrews “liked swimming. Over the years he had done a lot of it to build up strength in the leg he had broken as a small boy” — that same leg he was wearing a brace to help fix in the opening few books of this series, published some two years before this. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to makes them a little less juvenile, possibly with Robert Arthur having an eye on escalating their adventures to something more risqué than simply out-smarting Skinny Norris and so needing it to be moderately believable that they’d be packed off on a plane for several hours without adult supervision and — perhaps more importantly — that they’ll be the physical equal of any difficulties they meet.
Because there does seem to be a shift here, too, to a more action-adventure style, er, adventure. Some good reasoning is employed in deducing a few core nuggets, and the wider situation is developed by canny use of, among other things, a parasite spoiling the local fishing crop, and (GAD bonus points) a party-line telephone (drink!). The underwater scenes are very well written, and introduce an element of action and adventure that Arthur would have been a fool to pass up, but I guess I like my Three Investigators books to include some, y’know, investigating, and this one scrimps there to give a bit more bang for your buck (even the stories of supporting characters are now enriched to include thrilling armed car robberies and, er, the prospect of being paralysed in one arm for the rest of your life..man, this really is a weird brew).
It becomes a little generic towards the end, though Jupe saves the day with some canny ratiocination, and they’ll all live to solve another one, but I’d really like to see a bit more of the loosening evinced in …Vanishing Treasure, and for the series to really push the situations the boys end up in. This is fine as a time-passer, and probably not the worst in the series so far, but I’ll remember most of it and still be convinced there are swathes I’m forgetting, and that’s never the best feeling to end a book on. I’m also aware that this was the basis for a (possibly German…?) movie, but I’ve not seen that and so can’t comment — please do inform us in the comments if you know it, because I’m sure someone will be curious.
Hopefully, in a few months, The Mystery of the Fiery Eye (1967) — the seventh title in the series — will find us back on track…
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The overall plot was much better than I expected from a juvenile mystery novel and could be compared with Scooby-Doo or the 90s version of Jonny Quest, if they had better plots or were written as straight adventure/detective stories. I mean, I figured out the solution, but never expected this kind of pure misdirection (simplified as it was) in a book targeted at children.
Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators reviews on The Invisible Event: