With a new school year about to start, and Peter F. Hamilton’s 1,152-page epic Pandora’s Star (2004) crushing the peak of Mount TBR, I’m going to take a break from blogging in September. But here’s one last trip with Jupe, Pete, and Bob before I go.
This, the ninth Three Investigators title and the penultimate one to be written by series creator Robert Arthur, displays the full confidence of hokey invention that Arthur has demonstrated with increasing ability since fifth title The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966). Each of these cases has demonstrated a particular genius with how to build an interesting investigation out of something uncommon — parrots speaking famous quotations, mysterious summonses from foreign princes, etc. — but the utilisation of the eponymous screaming clock is possibly the most inventive yet. And, best of all, it doesn’t need to be dressed up in the finery of strange locations donned by previous books The Mystery of the Green Ghost (1965) and The Mystery of the Silver Spider (1967) to varying degrees of success. What unfurls here is compelling, and more than good, enough to occur on the humdrum streets of Rocky Beach, CA.
Wherefore a screaming clock?, you wish to know? Well, therein lies the mystery. Jupe has the clock on line 1, and the mystery is simply why someone would go the effort of making a clock whose alarm was a blood-curdling scream. Though Jupe puts forth an early theory that would have made perfect fodder for the sort of thing Robert Eustace and L.T. Meade were writing seventy years earlier:
“Suppose you wanted to frighten someone badly. Perhaps even scare them to death. So you slipped this clock into their bedroom in place of their regular clock, and the next morning when the alarm went off a fatal heart attack followed. That would certainly be a clever murder plot.”
In the grand tradition of the author telling you, the reader, what a solution could be so you know it’s not that, things here turn out to be far more complex. And when a note that was attached to the clock turns up bearing an obscure hint to some darker — or at least deeper — purpose the boys are off on the hunt for reasons.
From here you’re best discovering the plot on your own, though Arthur reliably gives us another Young Man of the Week to accompany the boys on their quest, as Harry Smith and the very unusual room in the house his mother ‘keeps’ add a layer of intrigue and complication that would not have been previously expected. Two seemingly unrelated issues, shall we say, converge where the screaming clock is concerned, and it’s taken as given the the untangling of one mystery shall provide the key to the other. And in this regard Arthur does an excellent job of tying up threads and offering explanations for the way things are done — since, as is suggested in the narrative, the seriousness of the problem would doubtless simply warrant a quick letter to the police rather than a modified electric alarm clock and an cryptic note that could be deciphered by one, hospital-bound man. Rest assured that, while we once again have a ‘Hitchcock’-penned afterword to fill in a few blanks, all such considerations will be accounted for.
In a change of pace to the out-and-out romp of preceding title …Silver Spider, this case represents a problem investigation, too. The tortuous ends the Three Investigators must go to here in invoking inventive chicanery makes it an especially pleasing experience: a ‘phone company’ ruse that has (unfortunately) now passed into obsolescence, the use of bilingual awareness to link two seemingly unrelated people, even having had to pay attention to information provided earlier once it turns out that everything has ended up as an impasse…there’s a lovely rich seam of intelligent reasoning to add a cerebral appeal in the manner of the best of these books, even if occasionally the self-adopted sobriquet of ‘Investigators’ seems like something of a misnomer (but then ‘The Three Runners Around Hoping for the Best’ wouldn’t exactly inspire confidence, and the business cards would be huge…).
Continuing what seems to be a very slightly more mature tone over the last couple of books, too, we once again get one or more of the boys in a situation where the physical harm risked to them seems a little more elevated than your standard juvenile mystery should attempt — these days, I doubt you’ll find many commissioning editors sitting around going “What mysteries for 10 year-olds need is more scenes of a boy about to be tortured by a man with a blow-torch…” and, honestly, that might be fiction’s loss (don’t worry, even I can’t tell how serious I’m being here). But Arthur has been exceptionally good at not talking down to this audience throughout, confronting such issues as historical relics stolen from their country of origin in The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965), meritocracy and the monarchy in the aforementioned …Silver Spider, and parental responsibility and accountability in The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966). Here, he even casually throws in an attempted South American coup as a key piece of backstory…because why not?!
We also get Alfred Hitchcock himself as something slightly more than simply the means by which plots are started, providing a key piece of the puzzle while also filling in a lovely piece of history that would have been fading from memory at the time of writing and almost entirely unknown to any youngsters fortunate to be reading these books today.
Arthur, though, saves the best for last, with a cameo from a character in an earlier title that is of such undiluted fun I shall not ruin it here. When the going gets tough, and when the case finally reaches its conclusion, there’s a wonderful scene where Police Chief Reynolds wishes to bring the full force of the law down upon this person, and it’s handled with such staggeringly deft aplomb that I had to marvel a little at the brilliance of what Arthur cooks up and serves back. On the back of this, and having recently read some of his short fiction, I’m starting to think that he could well be an under-appreciated genius in the plotting stakes, and my eagerness to track down his Mystery and More Mystery (1966) collection only intensifies with each story of his I encounter. Man, I sure do hope that this series, at least, continues to show the creativity and invention of Arthur when the likes of Dennis Lynds (writing as William Arden) and M.V. Carey take it over.
And so another excellent title from this highly enjoyable series, which has really hit its stride in this last handful of books. Arthur would get just one more case with the boys — The Mystery of the Talking Skull (1969) — before his untimely death at the too-young age of 59. It’s difficult not to feel a little sad at the prospect of the loss of such a talent, but at least he has these wonderful books to be remembered by. It’s sad that they’re possibly a little too dated to really fire the imaginations of young people today, but, for those of us who enjoy such things, these really are a treasure trove of wonderful writing with so much to offer even the interested adults among us. In fact, possibly especially the interested adults among us, since we can close each one with a happy sigh, sit back and lament like all old bores that They Don’t Write ‘Em Like This Any More…
As I continue to work through this series, all past and future reviews of the Three Investigators books can be found here.
Right, I’m off on hiatus for a month, so I’ll see you back here in October for, among other things, a discussion with Brad about Postern of Fate (1973) by Agatha Christie, and a review of Paul Halter’s new novel The Gold Watch (2019). Until then, adieu, adieu…