#482: A Sea-Change Into Something Rich and Strange for The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966) by Robert Arthur

Secret of Skeleton Island

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…


See also

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:

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

5. The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966) by Robert Arthur

33 thoughts on “#482: A Sea-Change Into Something Rich and Strange for The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966) by Robert Arthur

  1. Ah, another Three Investigators review. I am always happy when I see one of these crop up on my reader.

    I do know that I read this one as I remembered their unlikely cover story but I remember precious little of the case itself. I seem to be finding that the ones that stick most firmly in my head are the ones with the overtly Gothic elements and themes. I still remember the solution to how the mummy case was worked and it has been at least twenty years since I last read it!

    Your posts are inspiring me to go and try to track down some used copies of the series. I have really fond memories of reading them as a child and while this one may have been a bit Scooby Doo in places, I am pleased to see that they generally are standing up to adult scrutiny.


    • I consider myself lucky to have found 20-some of these in a charity shop, as well as justified in my taking the plunge in buying all of them at once: they’re fun, light, inventive, and obviously written with the very best of intentions at heart. Sure, they don’t always work as well as they might, but I’ll take a well-intentioned swing-and-miss over a lazy guaranteed-to-be-successful-so-don’t-thing-about-it-too-much.

      This one will probably hang around in my memory on account of how much it rings the changes, but that’s not to say the plot itself — which is pretty by numbers — will stick with me. It lacks the crazy fun of Whispering Mummy or the loopy invention of Vanishing Treasure, but it would be a hard heart indeed that was discouraged from the series on purely this evidence.


    • Oh. My. Days. A Three Investigators drinking game would be spectacular.

      The plot is a sleek 154 pages, and it’s actualy not that wild — Vanishing Treasure is far, far more out there, though I think this possibly runs a abit more smoothyl on account of Arthur’s growing confidence in what he’s writing. And, hey, if he was putting out two of these a year he’s bound to have his off days.


  2. …hings here have more than a whiff of Scooby-Doo about them…

    This is why I can wait for you to get around to reading the titles written by William Arden.

    Robert Arthur was a good and fun writer, who created the series, but his stories are more like juvenile adventure pulps (e.g. the criminal scheme from The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure) than the adventure and detective stories of Arden. I can guarantee you’ll love Arden’s The Mystery of the Headless Horse and The Mystery of the Shrinking House.

    All of that being said, The Secret of Skeleton Island was my introduction to the series and still a favorite. A good, Scooby Doo-like adventure story with those great underwater scenes and an excellent historical mystery, which deserved more time to be explored. So I probably enjoyed this one more than you, because it was my first exposure to The Three Investigators and had nothing to compare it too. And you had already read The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy.

    Yes, The Three Investigators are still very popular in Germany and the series has been continued over there with German writers. There was a German movie with American actors made in the 2000s, but the trailer looked very off-putting.


    • I’d love to track down Arthur’s short story collection Mystery and More Mystery on the evidence of what I’ve read so far, because it’s clear just from these six books how much fun he was able to have inside of a pretty tidy setup (plus, y’know, that’s the collection that contains ‘The Glass Bridge’, right? And I’m keen to read that for obvious reasons…).

      I’m still a ways from Arden’s entries, but I do at least own a bunch of them — so when I get there they will be pretty thick on the ground! And you’ve already tautned me with The Mystery of the Shrinking House and its impossible problem…so I’m super-keen to get there ASAP.


  3. You know, the Rolls Royce will be back… 😀

    Anyway, I know that in a comment on one of the earlier novels in this series I said that Arthur was the best 3I author, but I might agree with TomCat that perhaps Arden was the better after all. He’s certainly correct that there is more detection and GA similarities in his stuff than in (at least some of) Arthur’s. I think this one was a solid read with some pretty exciting adventures, but it isn’t the greatest mystery. Still, Arthur has a couple of really good ones coming up soon.

    Man, you make me want to re-read them again now…


    • Good to know that the GAD trappings don’t go out the window with Arthur’s exit…there re few enough of them as it is, so if Arden increases the density of that he and I should get along famously.

      I consider myself fortunate to have the chance to read these now. I remember one or two — definitely Cowardly Lion — on the shelves of my school library when I was younger, but never felt the need to pick them up (I was only vaguely aware of Hitchcock at the time, he was the fat man who’d made all those old movies…). If I read someone else posting about them and having this much fun, I’d want to read them, so thank heavens it’s me who’s making me want to read on!

      And you’re kidding about the Rolls Royce, right? I feel like we’re well and truly past that, but I guess I can handle it so long as Skinny Norris doesn’t have to be tolerated, too…


      • No kidding. Worthington the chauffeur actually has a pretty big role in some of the stories.

        And Skinny too will be back, sorry…


        • Well, sure. I mean, after being trapped in an underwater cave and nearly drowning, the obvious antagonism to reach for after that is a teenager who writes questions marks on walls in chalk, I don’t know why I didn’t see the sense in this before 😛


  4. You do not know the permutations I had to travel in this maze-like used bookstore in order to find ONE 3Investigators title. I was so proud! And if you will all hold on a brief moment, I shall rush along to see whether it was written by Arthur or Arden . . . . .

    Who the hell is Nick West?!?!?!?


    • Nick West actually wrote T3I books before M. V. Carey was on the scene, though only two in total: The Mystery of the Coughing Dragon (#14, 1970) and The Mystery of the Nervous Lion (#16, 1971) before vanishing into the ether. Someone will point out that Carey’s first book was published between West’s two, being The Mystery of the Flaming Footprints (#15, 1971), so I’ll do that for them.

      As to who he actually was, no idea. Though I hear his brother Adam was quite the crime-fighter on his day… 😊


  5. I love the Three Investigators–discovered them after I was well-launched into Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I’ve been on the look-out for vintage versions (that don’t cost an arm and a leg) the last several years and Skeleton Island is one that I’ve managed to find. It’s on the stack to read….


    • “Stack”? Now, Bev, you’re being far too modest 🤣

      I read a bunch of the relaunched Nancy Drew books at about the age of 11 or so, but never picked up the coupleof these I remember seeing back then…not entirely sure why not. And it’s taken me until my 30s to discover both these and the Five Find-Outers…but, well, at least I got there in the end.

      And, in fact, I’ve recently been introduced to — but am yet to read — another couple of 1950s YA series which apear to run to a few volumes…so they may (hopefully?) become my new juvenile fiction fixation. Man, it never ends, does it? How wonderful!


  6. Incidentally, I am unconvinced about more uneducated. The doctor didn’t say X was more uneducated. He said X was “one of the more uneducated people in town”, which is subtly different. “Uneducated people” is a group. I think you can say “X is one the more hopeless cases” or “X is one the more worthless politicians” and so on, because the more describes how much X belongs to or typifies the group. There is a (presumably rather snobbish) line the doctor mentally draws, with the uneducated below it, and X is lower than most.

    I am one of your more unconvinced readers on this point 😉.


    • Okay, you raise an interesting point; here are my feelings on it —

      Idiomatically, yes, people can say “one of the more useless/hopeless/etc” things, but this doesn’t mean it makes linguistic sense. How is object A “more useless” than object B? Because B is more useful — that is, has more uses in the given situation — than A. Implicit in this is that you can therefore list the uses B has which A does not — which, yes, is the same thing as listing the things A does not do which B does, but there will be things A doesn’t do which aren’t relevant to the situation. B might be heavier and therefore make a better paperweight, but if you’re looking to, say, pick a lock then there’s no reason why additional heft is a useful trait even if it’s a trait A doesn’t possess and is thus rendered “more useless” by that logic.

      The uses of something are only really sensible f you’re looking to take advantage of them, hence the presence of them — and being “more useful” — is more sensible a measure than their absence.

      In the same way, then, “more uneducation” is simply “less education”. What you have more of is something you’ve taken the time to accrue — more of an absence of something is just less of its presence. You have less food than someone, not “more unfood”. You are less chamring than someone, not “more uncharming”. Education being the accrual of knowledge and understanding, an exposrue to an improved or different way of thinking about things, is equally something whose presence is measured in one’s exposure to it, and the opportunities to have collected or gained from it. As a result, you have gained more knowledged, not “more unknowledge” — hence an absence of education makes you “less educated”.

      Now, yes, I acknowledge the tendency to veer into idioms or general speech patterns seen as correct simply through ubiquity — erm, the only exaple I can bring immediately to mind is “have your cake and eat it”, which is simply how the eating of cake works and therefore not as unreasonable as the correct saying it meant to communicate. This doesn’t make it linguistically correct, it simply means that the more uncorrectness is perceived and less uncorrect on account of volume. And, well, that’s not how language works.

      If anyone wants to get into the “wisdom of crowds” argument — e.g., “Well, if lots of people say it then surely that makes it correct” — I’m afraid there is insufficient space in this margin for me to want to get involved in that. I was making a throwaway comment about the misuse of formal language by someone whose level of education should mean they know better. The deformalisation of idioms, figures of speech, and associated etymological esoterica is, unfortunately, beyod the scope of this detective fiction blog 😀

      Holy hell that went on for some time. My apologies!


  7. This would have been one of the first in the series I read – I just grabbed them whenever they came available back then and it’s always been a favorite of mine – mind you, it’s probably close to 40 years since I last read it!
    I guess it is a bit Scooby-Doo but I didn’t care a jot when I was a youngster, and suspect it wouldn’t trouble me too much even now. Yes I know, I am such a discerning guy. 🙂


    • Oh, I’m not using the Scooby-Doo comparison to knock it — the flaws here are entirely independent of that — it was just a comparison that felt very marked for once. I also got more than a whiff of the Five Find-Outers (in my mind, possibly on account of tiredness, I kept substituting “Fatty” for “Jupe”…). Sure, it’s a little hokey, but it could be so much worse — and the underwater sequences are very good indeed.


      • No, I thought this was a fair review. Looking back, I think I’ve always been a sucker for hokey stuff and it’s kind of stayed with me to a greater or lesser extent all my life. I really must dig some of these out next time I visit my parents – these posts of yours are stirring up memories and creating an itch I’m gonna have to scratch! And those Blyton titles are intriguing me more and more…


  8. I found Skeleton Island to be more Hardy Boys and Famous Five than Scooby-Doo with all the location-action and scuba diving. There’s a paucity of clues in this one. In fact apart from the “10 years” clue I can’t really remember any other.


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