Interestingly, this is the first real change-up the series has undergone, as the boys are whisked away to the tiny country of Varania — I looked it up, it doesn’t exist, though their word for “Great!” is “Brojas!”, which has a distinctly Baltic aspect to my way of hearing things, so I’m going to suggest it’s somewhere in the Latvia/Lithuania/Belarus corner of Europe. Although the boys do fly into Paris from California and then catch a helicopter to the airport in Varania’s capital, Denzo, which would be a distance of some 1,000 miles if it was in that vicinity, and that seems a long way to fly in a helicopter…hmmm. And Varania is one of the world’s seven smallest countries according to this book, which — let’s be honest — means it’s the seventh-smallest, but since the Marshall Islands is the actual seventh-smallest and the sixth is the decidedly more helicopter-from-Paris accessible Liechtenstein (and Varania’s “fifty square miles” equates to approximately 130 km², making it in fact smaller than Liechtenstein) there’s always the chance I’m over-thinking this.
Sorry. I always do this with fictional countries; I get far too excited. Which is weird, because my geography is terrible — really, quite genuinely atrocious — so I don’t know where the obsession comes from.
“Start again, Jim.”
This is — and I’m aware that the word has negative connotations sometimes, but bear with me — the purest romp the series has thus far evinced. Worthington nearly crashes the gold-plated Rolls Royce into the limousine carrying the youthful prince Djaro of Varania on page 1, by page 9 they’re friends and have been to Disneyland, and on page 16 the boys have been invited to Prince Djaro’s coronation, been recruited by the CIA to acts as spies on foreign soil because “something is stirring in Varania”, and are standing in the royal castle overlooking the river Denzo. That, in the words of Ron Burgundy, escalated quickly.
It’s a little like the reinvention of James Bond when a new actor takes over the role — Connery’s rugged machismo replaced with Moore’s plummy, rakish ostentation, replaced by Dalton’s gritty realness, then Brosnan’s increasingly-divorced-from-reality shenanigans, before Craig brought it all down to earth again. Bond is, in fact, referenced…
“I’d feel a lot better if I was James Bond,” Pete grumbled. “He can get out of anything. But I’m not James Bond and neither are you. I’ve got a funny feeling things aren’t going to go as smoothly as Rudy hopes.”
…but this is more Robert Ludlum Jr. than anything close to the antics of Commander Bond. The hair’s-breadth escapes, shinning up and down ropes outside a castle, fleeing through the sewers, and semi-all-action finale in the glittering dome of Chekov’s St. Dominic’s church, all in the name of overthrowing a criminal and political conspiracy, is more in the grand sweep of Ludlum’s espionage tales than Fleming’s more personal-focussed stories. It’s very different, considering that the toughest the boys have come up against before now is some acrobatic dwarfs, but only a dour soul indeed would not be entertained. It’s not good in the way that The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965) or The Mystery of the Fiery Eye (1967) build their plots intricately and with baroque touches piling up against each other, but it’s far more entertaining than the last attempt at a romp, The Mystery of the Green Ghost (1965), which saw the boys sit in a cave system for seemingly endless pages. Also, there’s a bit where they’re made high on what’s probably opium, which is both hilariously out of place and also wildly enjoyable, so that’s something.
Yes, guys, this time you’ve got it right.
With less plot to keep straight in your head, there’s more freedom to focus on the writing, and the writing feels possibly the most comfortable Arthur has been in the whole enterprise. Firstly, there are some lovely phrases, like Prince Djaro being driven off in a car “Oozing bodyguards at every window” and the wind “plucking” at the group during a particularly hair-raising escape. Secondly, Arthur evinces the sort of respect for the intelligence of his audience that would make Beryl and Sam Epstein proud by trusting to context that a sympathetic lackey brings the boys “wrapped sandwiches, some fruit, and a plastic bag of water” out of a robe described as “capacious”, and explaining the function and advantage of the catacombs beneath a church with remarkable efficiency. And there’s the odd flash of some remarkably hard-edged prose, with a discussion held in the intentionally-threatening environs of an ancient torture chamber, and the breathless moment in the climax when Bob is moved to reflect that
Everything was normal, it seemed. Except here, in the bell tower. Here was warfare and an enemy they had to outwit.
And that enemy has, for once, a remarkably complex plan, even if the chief bad guy might as well rub his hands and cackle every time he’s on the page — the way he’s described at first appearance couldn’t make it more obvious that he’s the bad guy, he’s essentially Jafar without the wisecracking parrot, so it’s not as if Arthur is trying to make a secret of his identity — and I wonder if this slightly more deliberate focus on who is actually suspicious is to counter-balance the political manoeuvring that plays such a large part in the scheme that needs to be overthrown. A rich seam of national pride, superstition, and the power of a story all play into the core peril, and seeing this manipulated by outside agencies for personal gain feels depressingly relevant in the current Brexit-dense climate in which I write, but let’s not pretend Arthur has any pretensions to prescience and simply move on.
If there are any faults it’s that the timescale Arthur imposes on these books feels weirdly out of place yet again — the first seven books took place over some 30 days, apparently, and the brace Bob Andrews was wearing for the first few books gets a mention again here as having been a recent thing — explaining away his tiredness where all the running about is concerned. In the fourth year of these books, where the scale of the peril faced, and their own responses to that escalation have increased in intensity accordingly, it strikes me as weird to insist of this time-framing still. Does it really matter how far we are from the first book? Can’t we just forget about those things and have fun? Yeah, it’s a minor gripe, but the insertion of this into these last two books is so out of keeping with the sense of excitement and invention Arthur has brought to his creations, I just don’t see what it’s supposed to add.
“We’re trapped in a timeless condition, too…”
You might expect me to gripe at the Sudden Convenient Amnesia that enables the second half of the book to happen, but I’m on board with anything beyond an alien invasion that enables such a pace, and such a state of intrigue, to be maintained here. We of course know, as the wonderful Noah Stewart said, how this is going to end, and whatever is needed to keep the boys on the run, and make the band of seditious minstrels helping them pop out of corners when needed, I wholeheartedly support. There’s a real dearth of this sort of breathless joy in my reading, and a book that can use that so neatly while also dropping in the notion of tax breaks offered to people for political support is, bluntly, encouraged to go as wild as it likes. The fact that there’s also a semi-impossible vanishing of the eponymous symbol of authority doesn’t hurt, either.
And so, a pox on The Odd-Numbered Ones Are the Good Ones? Well, maybe. It’s clear that with two books a year to produce for this series, one of them would be plotted and one of them would be made up as it went, with that approach apparently alternating. In the same way that …Fiery Eye might well be the apotheosis of the plotted titles to date, …Silver Spider is most certainly the best of the adventure-style entries. It will be interesting to contrast Arthur’s run, which comes to an end in a few books’ time, with the series as written by two or three authors at once, to see how they divide the styles of the books to, presumably, suit their own writing habits. But for now this is a great little romp, and very difficult not to enjoy. So, pattern broken…?
Previous (and future) reviews of The Three Investigators can be found here.
7 thoughts on “#555: Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave in The Mystery of the Silver Spider (1967) by Robert Arthur”
Very glad to see you enjoying this, because this is probably my guiltiest pleasure from the 3I canon. I recognise that it’s not a particularly great mystery story, but it still is very entertaining. I think I also may have liked it a bit more simply because it took place in Europe…
As for the geography of the thing, I’ve always placed Varania somewhere in the vicinity of Italy – both because all the European mini-nations are situated fairly close to Italy, and because of the language they speak, which I always took as more Slavic than Baltic (I know that Italian is not a Slavic language). BTW, Belarus is of course not a Baltic country, neither linguistically nor geographically, but I’m sure you saw that when you looked it up. 😀
(I think I may also have placed Varania somewhere in the vicinity of the equally fictional Syldavia and Borduria from the Tintin adventures.)
The success of T3I as a series is not unlike that of the British Library Crime Classics — it offers up a range of styles and approaches, so that you’re bound to find something you like even if you don’t like everything. I’m a fan of Arhthur not being too safe in his exploration — Whispering Mummy, Vanishing Treasure, Fiery Eye — and while this hits a lot of familiar beats it does also feel like he’s having a bit of fun with these characters. I can get behind that.
As to Baltic/Slavic differences…sure. I don’t know enough about the relative definitions to worry about it! But I guess a Jafar-esque hand-rubbing evil-doer thirsting after power is better situated in a fictional clime — no-one would believe that sort of thing could exist in real life, right? 🙂
I was wondering how you would find this. The reason is I recall loving it when I read it as a 9 or 10 year old, and my awareness that what would have appealed to me back then might not hold a lot of attraction to me four decades later. So I’m gratified to hear it still presents some reading pleasure from a grown up perspective.
As for the setting, I just thought at the time it felt like a Zenda/Ruritania variant – so north to middle Europe, kind of.
It’s so hokey I expected it to start cokey-ing at any minute, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to enjoy. Arthur clearly has the confidence to simply run with an outlandish scenario now — compare this to Green Ghost, which starts out similarly unlikely and then reins it in suddenly, like the audience won’t be able to cope with too much weirdness — and is perceptive in his use of the foreign and the familiar, and then runs around having a gleeful ol’ time.
I’m hoping this is continued when Lynds, Carey and others get their hand son the boys, but that obviously remains to be seen. SO long as they’re willing to continue with Arthur’s rule-pushing fun, I think it could be a great phase of this series that we’re about to enter. Time will tell…
It really is too bad that Arthur couldn’t carry on – he had a great affinity for these characters and what puzzles and adventures he could provide for them. That’s not to say that Arden/Lynds didn’t do a lot of great stuff as well, and Carey too pulled out some great books from time to time. Just that it’s sad that Arthur didn’t get the chance to go on for a while longer at least.
I have another post on Arthur coming this Tuesday, and I’ve been doing some research on his output for that…holy hell, the man wrote a lot! He died despairingly young, but left quite the body of work behind him — and, with T3I, created something that these occasional reviews of mine have made me realise touched a huge number of lives and had a phenomenal effect on a lot of people.
That he didn’t get to continue the series does seem to be a phenomenal shame, because these last couple in particular really feel like an author hitting their stride. Of course, not to pre-dismiss what Lynds, Carey, and the others did, but I’m with you in feeling a little bittersweet over the quality of these stories when they really land.
In fairness there was a mystery aspect with the hidden spider jewel. That was not that hard to guess. And would not have been a mystery if not for the amnesia gimmick you mentioned.