#801: History Repeats Itself in The Secret of the Crooked Cat (1970) by William Arden

There is an argument to be made that genre fiction and sitcoms share a huge amount of DNA: we want them to be the same sort of thing from episode-to-episode or book-to-book, and yet within the repetition of ingredients that define the form we also want something new.

The Three Investigators series started by Robert Arthur and continued by various authors after his early death exemplifies this pretty well: each title stands alone from the others, with enough recurring characters, themes, and settings for you to be able to dip in as you please and always find a book familiar, and yet each book also attempts to ring the changes Be it in moving the boys to an abandoned island, having them confront international theft, or whatever the hell that one with the parrots was about, some of these changes work and some don’t, but they always feel representative of what has been done before and, you can almost guarantee, what is going to come next. And then you have to consider that this series also exists inside of a genre with its own tropes, expectations, and history. So, as with all genre fiction, there’s a line to be walked between being loyal to what those expectations are without being slavish or, probably worse, derivative.

The Secret of the Crooked Cat (1970) is the third entry in this series to be written by William Arden — nom de plume of Dennis Lynds, remember — and perhaps the first time that I really felt as if an entire plot has been constructed purely by playing around with famous ideas from elsewhere in the genre. The boys investigating a carnival struck by a recent series of mishaps that are making the performers uneasy and leading to rumblings of discontent that might mean it has to close down is pretty much the setup for Arthur’s own ‘The Mystery of the Five Sinister Thefts’ (1963), something only reinforced when the plot kicks off with the theft of a prize from one of the attractions.

When the miscreant vanishes in borderline-impossible circumstances (more on that shortly) and we then discover that five such prizes have been given out in recent days and that someone has taken out an advert in the local paper saying they’re willing to pay well over the odds to acquire these toys, leading to a scramble as scores of kids line up outside the given address to see if their toy cat fits the bill…well, ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891) anyone? And perhaps a side order of ‘The Adventure of the Six Napoleons’ (1904)? It’s obviously folly to expect completely original, genre-busting plotting here — the majority of readers, I’d wager, want to see to a genre’s conventions adhered to intelligently, which is why we classify books broadly by genre in the first place — but even when the Three Investigator books have been boring, they’ve before never felt so much like a group of kids stacked in a trenchcoat trying to convince you they’re a grown-up.

“We understand that reference.”

It’s not unenjoyable — Arthur hardwired genuine charm into these boys and their adventures, so that any time spent with Jupe, Pete, and Bob always has something to commend it. Be it the discussion about lock picking here, or the acknowledgement that the carnival is somewhat low-rent and likely to be an embarrassment on the CV of any serious performer, Arden does a great job of manaing to engage the intended audience without ever talking down to them. The Track-o-Mathon 3000 gizmo Jupitre creates early on perhaps reeks little too much of Roger Moore-era James Bond, but it seems harsh to hold the kitsch values of the 1970s against something produced in the 1970s (I think it vexes me more because the use of believable technology — walkie-talkies — was one of the most pleasing parts of the previous book), and the intelligence shown elsewhere makes up for this lapse.

“When something doesn’t fit a pattern, we have to look for some other pattern that everything will fit!”

Given that the boys and their various backgrounds aren’t of Arden’s creation, he does a good job of using the existing parts of the universe he has inhereted to inform developments in this thirteenth story. Pete Crenshaw’s dad works in the movies — the motivating factor behind The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966), but unused since then and allowing for one the more imaginative sequences Arden cooks up in the first half that shows off someone other than Jupe being excellent at something. You feel a little sorry for Bob Andrews that he’ll doubtless forever find himself restricted to poring through newspapers in the Rocky Beach library…but part of me also suspects that Bob’s okay with that given some of the alternatives.

I also like some of the smaller moments that are obvious but nevertheless well-observed. Climbing up a nearby structure to observe everyone leaving and arriving at the carnival site, Pete realises that, for all his genius ides of being able ot watch unobserved, he’s actually too far away to be able ot make out any of the cast, especially as the performers don’t go about in their costumes in their spare time. It’s a small thing, but someone taking less care over their narrative would, I’m sure, overlook it. Arden is very clever like this, making the boys human in ways that are appreciable, and these moments have the spirit of Arthur sewn through them magnificently.

A bigger problem for me is just how much of the second half devolves into “Zoinks, Scoob!” chases through creepy funfairs. Maybe this is exciting for someone, but I find these extended, repeated sequences of running hither and thither to be somewhat uninspiring (my mind plays ‘Yakety Sax’ while everyone appearse and disappears from doorways in an impossible order, y’know?). I thoroughly enjoyed the series of revelations and deductions that resulted in the subsequent villain reveal, but a satisfying meal is more than just a great dessert.

“We understand that reference.”

And that impossible disappearance? Well, the boys pursue the thief across some abandoned land hemmed in by a 12-foot high fence which, after rounding a corner, terminates at the edge of the ocean. By the time they’ve caught up with him he would not have been able to swim out of sight, nor could he hide underwater for the time they search, and as the fence has no gaps, hand-holds, or loose panels there is no way for their quarry to have vanished. This is one of those solutions that isn’t really a solution at all, explained away simply by dint of a profession (a bit like saying “But how did the necklace under 24-hour guard vanish? Well, the thief was a jeweller!”) that, given the background to events, is unlikely to catch anyone out. It is not, alas, the finest moment of the series or of the impossible crime in fiction.

Overall, then, I feel a little indifferent about this one. The ending almost salvages it, but for a lot of the time here the seams are beginning to show a little in how much it is so obviously a concoction of other parts of better plots. I’ll remember it in the months and years to come, but mainly because it’s so damn mediocre when put against the very interesting and creative efforts produced elsewhere. Arden wouldn’t publish another title in the series for two years after this, and I wonder if he was a little relieved to be able to hand over the baton and refresh his thinking while Nick West and Mary Virginia Carey did the heavy lifting for a bit. Time will tell…

~

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The carnival background is well conceived and convincingly drawn, which subtly describes a struggling business in a trade that had its golden days behind it and had to grapple with the modern world. Andy tells the boys early on the story that security is a problem, because “people are always trying to steal from carnivals.” For this alone, The Secret of the Crooked Cat comes recommended to readers who love mysteries with a carnival or circus background.

~

The hub for all my Three Investigators reviews can be found here.

7 thoughts on “#801: History Repeats Itself in The Secret of the Crooked Cat (1970) by William Arden

  1. Not just “Zoinks, Scoob!” chases through the funfair, but the villain is unmasked and curses those meddlesome kids. Even more amazing is that the similarities with Scooby Doo is likely nothing more than a well-timed coincidence. Scooby Doo, Where Are You? made its on-air debut in September, 1969, while The Secret of the Crooked Cat was published in January, 1970. That window of time is too narrow to say Scooby Doo inspired The Secret of the Crooked Cat, but an interesting, timely coincidence nonetheless.

    I was slightly more positive about this one, but agree with you that’s far from the best in the series.

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    • That is possibly one of the most brilliant coincidences in the history of brilliant coincidences — though I’m also guessing these were pretty quick to write, so maybe the “mystery solving teens unmasking a villain after funfair shenanigans” seemed like a good idea to Lynds, eh? And who could blame him? We’re still talking about Scooby-Do 50 years later, so the man could obviously recognise quality when he saw it…

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      • Three months to plot, write, proofread, edit, commission cover art and publish? Robert Arthur came from the pulps and wrote screen-and radio plays and he probably could have done it, but when he died, they needed several writers to continue putting out one or two novels every year. So I’m going with a well-timed coincidence.

        By the way, the first season of Scooby Doo, Where Are You? has a funfair episode, “Foul Play in Funland,” which aired on November 1, 1969. But it would narrow the window of time down to a mere two months.

        That is possibly one of the most brilliant coincidences in the history of brilliant coincidences

        No. That honor goes to Akimitsu Takagi’s The Tattoo Murder Case (1948) and John Russell Fearn’s The Tattoo Murder Case, which might be one of the most amazing examples of actual parallel thinking in our genre. Here you have two men, English and Japanese, who were separated by continents and a language barrier, but they hit on the same idea around the same time – a father who tattooed his daughters. They wrote two completely different (cultural) stories around that same idea, which is not exactly a commonly used, stock-in-trade situation littering dozens of detective stories. I searched the web to see if there was a real-life case, or story, that might have inspired them. Surely such a case or story must have made international headlines, because it was known by an English and Japanese mystery writer. But nothing. Simply one of those strange coincidences.

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        • That Fearn/Takagi factoid is awesome — even better than Robert Crais and Lee Child using the alarmingly specific same core idea in the novels they each published in 1997.

          And I don’t doubt it’s a coincidence, but Lynds/Arden/Collins was no slouch when it comes to impressive rates of output, so it’d be no trouble for him to write a junior novel like this — and one that recycles its key ideas from very famous sources — in virtually no time at all. Indeed, that Track-o-Matron 3000 device is so wildly out of keeping with his use of technology elsewhere, it seems to me to be something thrown in without much deliberation just to fill a plot hole quickly…

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          • Lets say two, three months was enough time to crank out the story, the book still had to be produced, printed and distributed. And that’s assuming the book was written and produced between September 1969 and January 1970. Lynds could have submitted his manuscript over the summer, which would make this a genuine case of parallel thinking without the possibility of one influencing the other. Unless he knew someone who was working on Scooby Doo, Where Are You? It’s unfortunate he’s no longer with us or we could have asked him.

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          • Nevermind! Lynds might have been inspired by Scooby Doo after all. Three Investigators Books website has a page with the preliminary cover art of The Secret of the Crooked Cat and a letter from the artist, Harry Kane, which is dated March 5, 1970. So the January, 1970, publication date found on the web is wrong.

            I’m not adding any links, because those comments just disappear into the void on WordPress.

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            • Still, pretty cool that he recognised the novelty and diversity of the setup — I imagine, when you write as much as these guys did, you get a pretty dharp nose for what makes a arresting central premise.

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