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.