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.
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.
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.