The human mind is obsessed with patterns, because by spotting them we make sense of nature; be it the golden ratio in the seed spirals in the head of a sunflower, fluid dynamics in the formation of sand dunes, or the growing box office returns of successive Fast & Furious movies, patterns are hard to resist.
Thus far, Robert Arthur’s series featuring Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews as The Three Investigators had been adhering to its own pattern: The Secret of Terror Castle (1964), The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965), and The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966) — a.k.a. The Odd Ones — have been very good, and The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot (1964), The Mystery of the Green Ghost (1965), and The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966) — a.k.a. The Even Ones — have been, er, less so. Not bad, exactly, never that, but definitely the weaker arm of the series. The Mystery of the Fiery Eye (1967) is the seventh book in the series and, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll now be on tenterhooks…is the pattern borne out?! Hairy Aaron, the excitement. What an intriguing narrative web I weave.
The hook is certainly a good one, maybe even the best so far: young August ‘Gus’ August is bequeathed by his august uncle Horatio August a mysterious letter which seems to hint at some marvellous discovery which awaits to him only if he solves the riddle the letter represents. Why is the letter a riddle? Not just because Uncle Horatio likes a game, but also…
I dare not speak more plainly lest others find what is meant for you. it is mine; I paid for it and own it, yet I have not dared its malevolence.
But fifty years have passed, and in half a century it should have purified itself. Yet still it must not be seized or stolen; it must be bought, given or found.
And so Young Mr. August goes, in August, to the august Alfred Hitchcock, and Hitch phones Jupe and we’re away. And what a ride it turns out to be.
Whether it’s a greater confidence in his milieu, with six books of background and potential to draw on — I loved the moment the Ghost-to-Ghost Hookup, which I assumed we’d never see again, ties up all the phone circuits in Rocky Beach as the boys spread word of a particular part of the case — or whether something in this particular plot just suddenly got Arthur’s juices flowing, this is a marvellously confident, creative, and enjoyable investigation. Even little things like the essential core idea being a take on a Sherlock Holmes story simply being leaned into, with the in-narrative explanation becoming that it’s deliberately a Sherlock Holmes call-back on account of Uncle Horatio’s love of the works of Conan Doyle, feel as if Arthur is happier working off of, and adding dimensions to, similar work in this genre that has come before him.
And there are some damn fine pieces of deduction here, too — not too many to signal a sudden shift into ratiocination over action, but what’s here is intelligent in a way that feels we’ve been told about before but not quite seen. That a chapter entitled ‘Strange Deductions’ actually brings some solid deductions, and on information you had, too (though, yes, some of it you don’t — but you really didn’t need that, I promise…) is a delight, and Arthur lays a more than passable false trail and manages to work in a Surprising Development at a key stage…good gravy, this is almost a puzzle plot! There’s wordplay, there’s a moderately complex switchback of shifting power balances between not one but two sets of bad guys, and for the first time the seemingly inconsequential activities of the boys that surround their cases but never feature in them actually, well, feature in them. Picture Arthur, cigarette between his teeth, hammering on an olde timey typewriter: “You want connections? I’ll give you connections…!”
Indeed, the plot here is tighter than you might initially think, and it’s a little bit of a shame that, once the key action is over, things get resolved with a page-and-a-half Hitch-narrated epilogue which spells out the various developments that drew some of the actors and events together. You admire the desire to keep these books to a sold 120 pages, and it would have bloated things irredeemably if the boys had to go around and figure out these things themselves — so from an editorial perspective it’s absolutely the right choice — but it’s such a wonderful performance from first page to last that I found myself wishing we weren’t just waved off with a sort of “And here’s why what happened happened…”. Damn pre-teen audience, spoiling a perfectly enjoyable mesh of well-judged plot threads mumble mumble.
“You tell ’em, Jim!”
The air of Foreign Mistique in which these books have traded so heavily is provided less by the Englishness of Gus than by the tall, slim Indian gentleman known for the most part as Three Dots. His apparent ruthless streak in seeking a MacGuffin gives rise to some delightful misgivings about possible dangers:
“Suppose he doesn’t believe we really don’t know where [the MacGuffin] is? They have some pretty fierce tortures to make people talk, over there in the Orient.”
“You’re letting your imagination run away with you, Second,” Jupiter told him. “This is California, not the far East. I haven’t heard of anybody being tortured here since Indian days.”
“There always has to be a first time,” Pete muttered darkly.
But in fact it’s the Black Moustache Gang — so-called on account of their members all wearing the same Grouch Marx-sounding disguise of round glasses with a patently false moustache attached — who end up providing the book’s moment of greatest peril when they snatch Jupe and subject him to a not exactly nasty, but also not entirely pleasant, third degree. Steady on, Bob, it’s not the Five Find-Outers! But, interestingly, that’s the first time in my chronological reading of this that’s felt like actual peril and, honestly, the book is so much the better for it.
We also get a little more sense of background — the Three Investigators started as a puzzle-solving club, fact fans — and context: if your heart isn’t a little bit warmed by Bob meeting T3I eager super-fan Liz Logan then there’s something wrong with you (though that they’d have fans of this calibre given that they’ve solved only three mysteries in the locality in just over a month…well, don’t think about that too deeply). Added to this, the brief glimpse at Bob’s work in the library and interaction with his family all made me realise how subtly these books have crept up on me and made me invest in them without ever needing to try too hard. For the first few I wasn’t entirely sure how buying 25 at once from a British Heart Foundation charity shop would work out, but seven books in — with four very good ones — I’m ready to sign up to the rest right now. It remains to be seen of the other authors who had the chance to put their prints on the series did so with the same effectiveness that Arthur displays here, but no-one could argue that they weren’t handed something a little special when the writing duties changed hands.
I’m feeling supremely enthusiastic about this series right now, so expect The Mystery of the Silver Spider (1967) before too long…