With the death of series creator Robert Arthur after the eleventh book in the series, The Mystery of the Talking Skull (1969), the Three Investigators were passed into the hands of Dennis Lynds, under the William Arden nom de plume he had used for the tenth book in the series, The Mystery of the Moaning Cave (1968).
Twelfth title The Mystery of the Laughing Shadow (1969) starts the post-Arthur era reasonably well, it must be said. In short order we get a mysterious cry for help, a statuette containing an odd message in an unreadable language, and people searching for the latter, one of who casts the sinister shadow of the title: “[It] seemed to tower above them in the night — tall, twisted, and humpbacked with a long, beaky nose and a small head that jerked about in an erratic way. Suddenly a wild laugh shattered the darkness!”. Ominous, indeed.
And then, before too long, Jupe, Pete, and Bob are being chased by swarthy, knife-wielding men — possibly the same men who also interrupt the meeting of Albert Harris’ newly-formed Vegetarian League:
“I assume they were some fanatics who hate vegetarians. We’ve had to face that kind of ignorant prejudice many times.”
So, yes, a mere three paragraphs into this review you’re already starting to suspect me of huffing paint fumes, but that’s honestly what happens and, honestly, it’s wonderful to see Arden, after the somewhat po-faced and laborious …Moaning Cave, embrace the ebullient potential of this series with such a sprightly series of great scenes. Bob and Jupe being pursued through a ravine is easily one of the best chase sequences the series has offered to date (those of you getting shudders — for the wrong reasons — remembering The Mystery of the Green Ghost (1965) need not fear), and Arden smartly showcases the boys’ intelligence in how they evade their wannabe-captors.
In fact, Arden probably does more to highlight the cleverness of these three that has been done for a while: a quiet deduction based on the business cards they had out completely passed me by, for one, and early on Jupe is keen to determine whether the shout for help and the statuette the others discover are actually connected rather than simply going ahead with the easy presumption that they must be simply because they occured close to each other, And this also might be the first time we’re given an actual rundown of the facets of Jupiter’s skillset — previously, he’s just been The Brains who is able to make sense of everything, super-detective like, but now we know he “had some knowledge of several major languages, and spoke three”. It’s detail like this, much as Dr. Waton’s lamentation that Holmes “appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century” while being “feeble” on politics, that help get a sense of the character’s limits, and make them more relatable (because we all speak three languages, right?).
It’s not without slight hesitations here and there — surely they didn’t all call each other “fellows” this much before (did they?) and I could do without Skinny Norris turning this into The Bash Street Kids — but there’s more to enjoy than to gripe at. The wonder of Jupiter having Heath Robinson’d an answer machine for the telephone in Headquarters, for instance, or that waaaay-ahead-of-its-time attack on health fads and the aggression adopted by adherents therein. The missteps (the “headless men” is pure Pulp-motivated cheap thrill generation that deserves no attention whatsoever) are far from calamitous, and the slightly more grown-up sheen added to parts of this (the undemonstrative expectation that, somewhere down the line, someone is getting murdered marks a tonal step up, I’d wager) are handled well and prove necessary to the actions that unfold.
It move quickly, reverses some expectations cleverly, has one of my favourite descriptions for an unmasked villain yet put on paper (SPOILERS (ROT13): “snxr irtrgnevna”), and ends with some Ken Holt-esque grim-faced shenanigans that, again, feel suitably more threatening that most of what they’ve had to do to finish a case before. And then you get the explanation of that laughing shadow and…it’s completely bonkers, and should not work…but if you’ve read this far, you’ll be more than happy to accept it. The best of Arthur’s stories were the ones that committed to their somewhat ludicrous premises, and the spirit of that is most certainly to be found here.
Arden would go on to write another 11 books in this series — second in output only to Mary Virginia Carey, who would join him in a couple of years to share role of contnuing the boys’ adventures, and write 15 books in the series between 1971 and 1987 — and this second entry finds him on much firmer ground than his first. Hopefully we’ll get more of this standard of case going forward, and hopefully the many years he put into the series betokens an enthusiasm to see the quality of Arthur’s early entries maintained. For now, on the available evidence, I’m happy with how things seem to be shaping up.
My other Three Investigator reviews can be found here.