#722: Junk in the Trunk with The Mystery of the Talking Skull (1969) by Robert Arthur

Whatever happens to the series from here, it would be difficult to deny that creator Robert Arthur set Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews off to a magnificent start with his ten Three Investigators novels.

At their best, these are wildly inventive investigations full of some thoroughly delightful jack-knife turns in plotting that would prove the perfect introduction to any young mind wishing to be shaken out of their quotidian malaise. This series showed time and again how a little creativity and invention married to a semblance of intelligence can go a long, long way. Not everyone’s going to like them, of course, and I’ll address their variable quality at the end, but rather like the novels of Agatha Christie — which take in a range of excellence that encompasses Peril at End House (1932) and The Clocks (1963) — if you’re into this type of thing then there’s definitely something here for you to get your teeth into.

Arthur’s tenth and final entry in the series begins with the boys buying an old-style travelling trunk at an auction — you can see how original title The Mystery of the Auction Trunk is, y’know, apt if not exactly thrilling — for one dollar and then immediately being offered $30 by a mysterious lady who leaves frustrated when they refuse to sell. Returning to the Jones Salvage Yard with their purchase, they find it lives up to the expectations of being owned by a magician as promised on the lid as it contains a great deal of costumery, some magic paraphernalia, and the talking skull of the title:

“Gulliver was a small-time magician, but he had this skull that apparently talked. it would sit on a glass table, with no apparatus around it, and answer questions. … It would talk when Gulliver was sitting across the room, and sometimes even when he was out of the room. Even other magicians couldn’t figure out how it was done.”

“Bones…!”

Now, this isn’t technically an impossibility because, let’s be sensible, the solution is bloody obvious when you read the book (man, those magicians are a credulous lot…), but it does allow some good fun to be had with Jupiter being sent on an errand by the skull, as well as some of the lovely light humour Arthur deployed from time to time in the sequence where the skull — he’s called Socrates, everyone do their best Keanu Reeves impression now and get it out of your system — sneezes at Aunt Matilda. Thankfully, how the skull is able to talk is far less of slice of this story than was the the mystery of the whispering mummy in, er, The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965), the third entry in this series.

Instead, there’s the small matter of why so many people seem so keen to take possession of the trunk and, once that’s established, how its use to anyone can be exploited by them. This is perhaps the first time that the boys really felt like investigators in the modern PI sense of the word — the way they build on inference and suggestion and follow leads in the hope that maybe something will turn up has never been quite so developed as here. Previous books have always entertained, but it could at time be argued that things happened because they were the next plot development — and, hey, that’s not me sticking the boot in, it’s just interesting to see how this one stands in slight contrast to its antecedents.

After the peril encountered elsewhere, it’s interesting, too, to have a moment when it looks like they won’t be able to get to the bottom of the mystery…and everyone be fine with it (“They were especially glad to have the curious problem of the talking skull and the mystery trunk off their hands.”). Sometimes you just wanna be free to go scuba diving, y’know? Alas, such is their lot in life — with their actions all but homolgated by the Rocky Beach Police Department, after all — it’s not that long before they’re back on the trail, up to their necks, and justifying their raison d’etre in true audience-pleasing style:

“They think that just because we’re young we don’t have any good ideas. Actually, we often have a fresh viewpoint on a problem…”

“Has anyone examined the bones…?!”

Where this ends up, and the way linguistic and physical clues are utilised to make a sort of dying message, is actually quite pleasing. It misdirects actually very well, I think, and when I realised what Arthur had gotten away with I had to laugh. Socrates may get top billing, but as a piece of in-universe design there’s a lot more going on that’s far better than that attention-hogging cranium.

Plenty of interest fills this out, too: the Chestertonian moment that something is…found not to be lost, let’s say, and the revelation that fortune-telling is (was?) illegal — is that from reality, or just something Arthur made up? Plus, there’s a little bit of social commentary on the price of progress where big cities are concerned (at least, I read it that way, so don’t go thinking he gets all didactic) and what sounds like a marvellous story which turns out to be ‘Lord Chizelrigg’s Missing Fortune’ (18??) by Robert Barr and I’d heartily recommend you read before this since Arthur tells you the solution to that problem of a missing fortune no doubt in honest declaration of his influences. It is contained in his collection The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont (1906) — which also, fact fans, contains two early Sherlock Holmes parodies, ‘The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs’ (1892) and ‘The Adventure of the Second Swag’ (1904) — and can be found online here.

There’s much, then, to find pleasing about this final entry before Arthur’s untimely death. He was clearly a wonderful storyteller with a sharp eye for telling details, creative clues, memorable characters, and bold invention. I’ve been fortunate enough to acquire a copy of his collection Mystery and More Mystery (1966) and so this is far from the last you’ll hear of him on The Invisible Event, but it’s sad to think that Jupe, Pete, and Bob will now have to go on without the man who did so much for them. We can, at least, be delighted that he went out on a high note.

~

It’s well-established that the writing of a list is often a fool’s errand, because the second you decide something is the ‘best’ of its kind you go and remember why something else is better. Undaunted — or perhaps just a massive fool — I offer the following ranking of Robert Arthur’s contributions to the Three Investigators canon.

  1. The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure [#5]
  2. The Mystery of the Screaming Clock [#9]
  3. The Mystery of the Talking Skull [#11]
  4. The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy [#3]
  5. The Mystery of the Fiery Eye [#7]
  6. The Mystery of the Silver Spider [#8]
  7. The Secret of Terror Castle [#1]
  8. The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot [#2]
  9. The Secret of Skeleton Island [#6]
  10. The Mystery of the Green Ghost [#4]

There, that definitely won’t upset anyone.

12 thoughts on “#722: Junk in the Trunk with The Mystery of the Talking Skull (1969) by Robert Arthur

  1. And sad these investigations of the Investigators—at least the Arthur-penned ones—are now done. Can’t wait to get back to them after around fifty years. I have great memories of not getting up until the last page was turned. (And Robert Barr is fantastic in all ways!)

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    • The pacing and length of the stories is just about perfect, isn’t it? Enough happens for the results to (generally) be surprising, but they’re also not requiring you to pay attention to and remember split-second alibi problems from 500 pages ago.

      Arthur judged the weighting of these incredibly well, and it’s to be hoped that Arden and Carey have a good eye on what that required going forward. And, hey, even if they don’t, we still have Arthur’s ten to come back to.

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  2. I have very fond memories of reading this one which was suitably baffling for a preteen, even if the mystery of how the skull talks now seems laughably simple. 🙂
    Almost all of the Three Investigators books I have on my shelves are from the later runs by different authors but I do look forward to dipping back into the earlier tales at some point. Your reviews have certainly been a fun way to relive them!

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    • It’s hard to know, isn’t it, whether the combination of improving factors would ever have been baffling to anyone at any stage — after all, seances were conducted with cheesecloth covered in luminous paint, and that seems laughable these days. I wonder if the — er, spoilers? — technology involved was a new and foreign enough a thing to legitimately confuse, yet somehow also a familiar enough thing to be the workings of a children’s mystery.

      Hmmm, possibly not when you put it like that…

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  3. Some of these books I remember more vividly than others, and for some reason this one never stuck in my mind. Interesting that you rate it highly among Arthur’s books, so it’s probably worth having a look at again when I get the chance.
    That said, you are of course completely wrong to put Skeleton Island so low on the list. 😉

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    • Hooray, our first unhappy customer!

      This is the first time you can really see a reader progressing from here onto the more grown up works of Ross Thomas, say, or the sundry other PI writers who issued forth out American in the 1970s. I’m willing to bet that a lot of Matt Scudder fans, for one, started out as T3I nerds in the 1960s…and then moved on to Block and his ilk as they began looking upwards.

      What a legacy, eh? Imagine being the series that got so many people so interested in reading.

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      • Yes, I do think this is one series whose legacy is indeed far reaching. I don’t have any of these to hand now – all boxed up a long way off at the moment but I’m keen to have a look at this when I do get the chance.

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  4. The only problem with starting with Arthur is holding “real” mystery writers to that perfect balance of content and pace—not to mention his fresh, crystal-clear prose. My memory of the subsequent TSIs is that they mimic the writing style well, but don’t match Arthur’s plots and atmosphere.

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  5. Putting “Vanishing Treasure” at #1 is silly, but otherwise I think your rankings are sort of all right. I enjoy the word ones more than you – the puzzle of “Parrot” always entertained me.

    Looking forward to seeing what you make of Carey and of Arden (of course, you’ve already read the first of the latter’s, so…).

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    • I love Vanishing Treasure. It’s crazy in all the best ways — it really embraces the potential hokeyness of the T3I setup, and does so with a very entertaining puzzle and some interesting developments. But of course I’m wrong; that’s the only reason I continue to write this blog, so that people can tell m,e how wrong I am.

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