#621: The Borrowers Afield in The Mystery of the Moaning Cave (1968) by William Arden

Mystery of the Moaning Cave

As the current glut of Golden Age detective fiction reprints is making us all aware, copyrights can be a tricky thing.  An author’s intellectual property is the characters and plots they create, and allowing others to have access to them is correctly something which is very closely guarded.

Typically, for an author who was not the creator to get their hands on and be free to write in the public domain about a character, either the creator has to’ve been dead for a number of years — territory notwithstanding — or the creator has to’ve been dead and the people charged with overseeing the access rights to that character need to be short a few quid…er, I mean need to understand the importance of bringing a character to a new audience by offering an alternative perspective.  Either way, a period of adjustment is achieved, that we may not expect the same standard of output from any later attempts to write a beloved character from several decade previous.  Thus, between Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and David Stuart Davies’ Sherlock Holmes there’s a gulf in quality that is anticipated by the similar gulf in years.

Now, yes, not all continuations are mere facsimile — though facsimile seems a gross over-compliment in most cases — since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Dickson Carr, Colin Dexter, Mark Gatiss, Anthony Horowitz, Laurie R. King, Steven Moffat, and doubtless several others found great things to do with the denizens of 221B Baker Street.  Some continuations aren’t even continuations at all in the typical modern understanding of the word.  Sexton Blake was written by scores of different authors over his several decades of incarnation, and the Whitman series like The Power Boys and Brains Benton, or the Stratemeyer Syndicate titles like Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, had successive volumes written by different authors or pairs thereof, sometimes leapfrogging each other so that partnership A would write books 1, 3, 5, etc, and partnership B books 2, 4, 6. etc.

The handling of The Three Investigators falls somewhere amidst all these options.  Robert Arthur created the series and wrote the first nine and then the eleventh before his death, with the tenth book — The Mystery of the Moaning Cave (1968) — being supplied by Dennis Lynds under the nom de plume William Arden.  Arden and Nick West split the next few books, and then Mary Virginia Carey began sharing the series with Arden from title 15, The Mystery of the Flaming Footprints (1971) up to final title The Mystery of the Cranky Collector (1987) — a run of 28 books, of which only three weren’t written by these two.  So while the series evidently settled into a more secure footing following the unavoidably swift departure of Arthur, there’s clearly a period of transition that we hit at this point in the run (evinced in how even my Armada edition pictured above thinks the text here is written by Arthur…).

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“Oh, no!”

For his first swing here at Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews, Arden gets a lot right, and almost as much wrong.  Crucially, there’s no obvious stylistic departure from Arthur’s tone and essential ideas: as became increasingly common, we start in media res with the eponymous moaning cave, located in the Moaning Valley on the ranch of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton, she a one-time film star who has sought space and anonymity in retirement and who, through connections with Pete’s film industry father, had invited the boys to visit.  Yes, the setup is not dissimilar to sixth book The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966) and the opening moaning of the moaning cave is a carry over of the opening screaming clock in previous title The Mystery of the Screaming Clock (1968), but you can’t blame Arden for leaning into some familiar beats.

As things progress, however, Arden tends to lean on a lot of familiar ideas which, from an adult perspective, seem to reinforce the feeling of a man not really confident enough to write his own plots.  The central mystery — concerning the Mexican freedom fighter El Diablo who hated the American settlers in California and so became a black-clad horse-riding outlaw to avenge himself upon the wealthy Americans on behalf of the poor Spanish-Mexican families who had been wronged — is, er, well, it’s Zorro, innit?  I’d assume this had been a deliberate attempt to horn in on the success of the black and white Zorro TV series I remember from my youth (as repeats, obviously — I’m old, but I’m not that old), except that it seems 1968 and surrounds was a bit of a fallow period for a Zorro-centric media.  And I highly doubt that Arden was going for some of the reflected glory from Sergio Leone’s masterful Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), since it didn’t have the same target audience, so instead this just feels derivative with no real purpose.

Arden also commits what I consider to be a fatal sin in writing for younger readers: talking down to his audience.  It gets very preachy at times — “On a team, each man has to do what he does best” — and veers dubiously into edutainment with its reflections on how water erosion could form a series of caves, plus some ham-handed moralising for anyone not paying attention at the back and a bit of high-handed snobbery when addressing the fact that the ‘curse’ of El Diablo has the ranch-hands spooked: “Uneducated people would rather believe in supernatural forces than in their own carelessness”.  If you’re going to go all After-School Special in one regard when it comes to respecting the contribution of people to a team or culture, don’t go all Stupid Lily-Livered Natives at the same time, y’know?

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N…not now, guys.

There’s a lot of walking around in caves to no particular effect — you remember, like how no-one enjoyed in The Mystery of the Green Ghost (1965) — on the way to an uninspired Macguffin…and then, with about 20 pages left, Arden suddenly wakes up and jams in about five plot developments which lurch the whole thing to life and bundle together a bunch of fun that’s over far, far too quickly.  The final summary is absolute nonsense, stripped of the at least half-decent reasoning used in earlier entries, with Jupe using a sort of circular logic that doesn’t even join up with itself to explain how he knew the guilty party was guilty and, you suspect, a trial lawyer rubbing his hands just off-page at how easy this conviction is going to be to overturn.

But, look.  Those 20 pages of fun are loopy and ridiculous in the way the best of this series have been prior to this, and while Arden is unsuccessful in folding in some respects (the footprints of the sodden ‘creature’ Pete sees, for one, which gets as half-arsed a non-explanation as anything in fiction) it’s to be hoped that the surging to life of this lifeless tale at its conclusion is the lesson he takes from his first foray into this delightful universe.  The tone and nature of the core investigation is about right — c’mon, these three are never going to be isolated on an island while a murderous tontine acts itself out around them, love to read that though I would — and he has Arthur’s character down pretty well, so there’s hope yet.  But when the most mysterious thing about your Young Adult mystery is how easy it is to borrow books with someone else’s library card…sir, you have some improving to do.

~

Previous and future reviews of The Three Investigators can be found here.

16 thoughts on “#621: The Borrowers Afield in The Mystery of the Moaning Cave (1968) by William Arden

    • I find it somewhat incredible that this series has been all but forgotten in the UK but is selling out arenas in Germany. The world is a funny place. Are the “new” German titles as good as the original English ones? If someone wished to continue the series in English, there’d now be the quandary of whether to write completely new stories or to translated the extant continuations from German, and I wonder which would be more appealing…

      Apologies for the delay in replying, your comment ended up in Spam (I’m afraid I get a lot of spam/bot comments, so my controls are pretty tight).

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      • Hello, in my humble opinion the first +/- 20 “German” episodes were a bit average but the first big revival started when the initial German authour stopped and works of several authors were published – if you go by the numeration of the Europa audioplays this golden era would be episodes 70 to 100 more or less. Not all episodes have been great since (they reached over 200 now but I will get the latest only when returning to Germany) but there are some gems like Morton faking his own death and Skinny Norris buddying up with Bob in particular.

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        • The old “buddy up with my nemesis” ploy seems like fertile ground…and often produces some great stuff (c.f. Father Brown and Flambeau, The Matarese Countdown, Blade 2) — I don’t know what sort of ideas are used in the upcoming original series since I’ve only read up to Moaning Cave, but I’m intrigued to see what a chage of guard brings about from the continuing freshness of the series.

          I do hope that titles don’t start to drift into the sort of feeling of familiarity we have here, with old ideas reused in different settings. There’s so much potential from the books to be whatever they want — the The Mystery of the Silver Spider, which shook things up impressively, or Vanishing Treasure which was just bonkers. In a way, T3I were the Jack Reachers of their day…!

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        • Besides wholeheartedly agreeing with you here, this reminds me of the fact they changed some of the more hard-to-pronounce English names to slightly less hard-to-pronounce English ones. “Morton” is, in fact, “Worthington” in the original (ah, a classic: Germans just can’t say “th”, can they?), but why not let Pete Crenshaw be Pete Crenshaw instead of Peter Shaw? Jupiter Jones, of course, is something else entirely – the two Justus Jonases (father and son) were contemporaries of Martin Luther’s in the Reformation… and I dare say that many kids by that name today have to thank their “Drei Fragezeichen” fanboy/-girl parents for it. For the record, so does my son 😉

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  1. I think you’re probably pretty much on the money with this review. Personally, I don’t really remember much from this particular story. I’ll have to get back to these again – if only I weren’t re-reading other things at the moment…

    I’m sure a lot of that can be chalked up to it being Arden’s first volume and him having to learn how to play in someone else’s sandbox. But things will get better with Arden. 🙂

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    • I have no doubt that I’ll find Arden more to my liking as he gets more confidence in this series, but it’s a shame he played it so safe here until those bonkers final pages. But, whatever. I look forward to him cracking on with some inventive stuff; given that Nick West and Marc Brandell only wrote a few each, it’s difficult to imagine Arden and Carey would have stuck this for so long if it wasn’t to their liking.

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  2. I’m so looking forward to your reaction to The Mystery Of The Laughing Shadow, the only book that I felt I had to spoil in my review of it – sorry if you read the spoiler – due to the ridiculousness of one particular element…

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        • I have a theory about that anyway, based on some cover art I’ve seen. But time will tell. I’m committed to the first 20-some of these, since they’re sitting on my shelf and I’ve really rather enjoyed the ones I’ve read to date (the occasional, inevitable duff notwithstanding…). Expect a report in due course.

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