#964: Keeping it in the Family in The Mystery of the Flaming Footprints (1971) by M.V. Carey

Pity the New Guy, who has to come in to an established IP and keep everything recognisably the same while also making changes that justify their hiring, like whoever has to reinvent James Bond now that Daniel Craig is done with the role (I have some ideas, by the way, if anyone at EON is reading). With The Three Investigators 14 books old, what could fourth author into the fray Mary Virginia Carey do to establish herself?

The essential canon of the series surrounding Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews is obviously inviolate, but apart from one location — the Jones Salvage Yard, run by Jupe’s guardians Uncle Titus and Aunt Mathilda, in the California coastal town of Rocky Beach — almost everything else is up for grabs. So now Rocky Beach has a resident quirky artist (“He’s only one of many…Rocky Beach has its full share of eccentrics.”), ceramics specialist The Potter, who is unsettled by the appearance of two men in the town one day and apparently simply walks away from his entire life…just as a woman claiming to be The Potter’s never-before-mentioned daughter arrives in the town with her young son in tow.

“The gang’s all here.”

The mystery unfolds along fairly expected lines, but Carey seems wise to the boys having been doing this for a while now…even to the extent that the people around them are starting to get a little fed up with their bullshit:

“Look, Jones, I know you think you’re the greatest thing since Sherlock Holmes, but I wish you’d knock off this business of snooping around where you’re not wanted. And I’ve got real problems. That Mrs Dobson seems to expect me to produce her missing father — if he is her father — by nightfall, if not sooner. With my overwhelming staff of eight men, I am to go out and scour the Pacific Coast Range and find a man who doesn’t want to be found.”

Carey also seems wise to the sort of peril the boys have found themselves in over the last seven years and ups the ante with a borderline torture sequence and the boys wrestling with an armed man at one point (as shown on the cover of my Armada edition, above). It’s all rather more mature than the “Zoinks, Scoob!” tone of previous book The Mystery of the Coughing Dragon (1970) where — er, spoilers? — something that would absolutely not fool anyone into thinking it was a dragon managed to scare these three straight for a distressingly protracted time. Here, we’re doing away with such childish things, even to the extent that when the eponymous footprints mysteriously appear in The Potter’s house:

Of one thing Jupiter Jones was sure. No ghost was playing a devilish prank. Jupiter Jones refused to believe in ghosts.

So the tone here is rather more mature, even down to the ‘history is written by the winners’-adjacent discussion had about the Lapathian royal family (shades of The Mystery of the Silver Spider (1967) here, in its fictional foreign royalty)…

“The official account is that His Majesty became distraught and jumped off a balcony.”

“Someone shoved him!” declared Pete, horrified.

“It seems likely,” said Bob. “The rest of the family became so upset that they did away with themselves in various ways. The queen is supposed to have taken poison.”

“You mean the people believed that?” cried Pete.

…and casual invoking of “the Romanovs in Russia” likely to traumatise any young readers who went scurrying for their encyclopedia to see what that was a reference to.

“The gang’s still all here.”

That plenty of people have an interest in The Potter’s whereabouts is beyond doubt, and it’s really just a question of waiting for the various identities to fall out. I didn’t know what to make of one character who seems to be something more interesting than they turn out…I was expecting them to have a very different role in events than they did, and their inclusion on these grounds confounds me a little. It’s also disappointing that the eponymous footprints — appearing in burning sets on the floor at times when the house appears untenanted and unbreachable — fizzle out to a non-explanation that doesn’t even begin to cover, like, even just the basics of how they came to be. It might be an impossible crime, but I’m not willing to say it definitely crosses the line.

This is, then, an odd book: seemingly pitched for an older market…but plotted for a much younger one, full of peril that feels more boundary-pushing…and yet tame in any details so that enough remains vague to prevent you raising any contradictions. Carey acquits herself more favourably than Nick West did with his debut in the previous entry in the series, however — West would write one more book in this series, next title The Mystery of the Nervous Lion (1971), while Carey would go on to another fourteen — and she feels as natural with the boys as creator Robert Arthur did, with a sense of the companionship and knowledge of each other permeating easily…

[Bob] turned to look back towards the sea. The sun had already disappeared behind a bank of fog that lurked offshore. “It’ll be dark before we can get back here.”

“We should have no difficulty,” said Jupiter Jones. “The moon will be up shortly.”

“You checked the almanac?” asked Bob.

“I checked the almanac.”

…so things bode well for the future. I suppose I was hoping for a more enthusiastic response, especially given the games that Carey seems set up to play, but it can’t be denied that this is an improvement on Coughing Dragon and that things could be interesting for the boys and their next few cases. Here’s hoping!


Having written the above, I then remembered that, on my previous Three Investigators review, Ian left a link to the letters between Carey and the editors at Random House about the development of this book. A couple of points stand out.

Firstly, it seemed odd to me that the substance used to lay the footprints wasn’t even named, and that seems to have been deliberate:

One comment on the first outline was that we should learn what chemicals made the footprints at the end of the story.  I am against this, not because it would be difficult to mix up a batch of incendiary footprints, but because it would be horribly easy.

Damn kids, always wanting to know what stuff can be set on fire. Secondly, I find it interesting that certain doubts expressed by the editors to do with elements of the plot (the finding of the crown, the amount of information dropped in the ‘Conversation with Alfred Hitchcock’ scene which ends every book) don’t appear to have been addressed (by which I mean “changed”) in the final manuscript. Did M.V. Carey put her foot down? Or, given the time that elapses between some of these letters, did the editors simply forget that they’d asked for these changes?

Also refreshing to see aspects of the plotting critiqued from a character motivation perspective (“On page 9, Jupiter rides down to the inn with the Dobsons.  Why?  So far, only because the plot demands that he find out some information down at the inn.”). I wish more editors did this, it would solve so many of the plot problems that I encounter in my reading…!

Anyway, they’re interesting reading once you’ve read the book in question, and I thank Ian again for the link.


The Three Investigators hub on The Invisible Event can be found here.

5 thoughts on “#964: Keeping it in the Family in The Mystery of the Flaming Footprints (1971) by M.V. Carey

  1. Hey Jim,
    just to let your know I’ve been reading your posts regularly, I just don’t comment as I’m new to the genre and have read very few of the titles that come up in discussions. It’s always a great pleasure to stop by the invisible event.


    • Hey Alex — good to hear from you, and always lovely to know that there are people out there reading this stuff. Hopefully there are plenty of recommendations, and lots of good reading in your future. Drop in any time 🙂


  2. Interesting. I don’t recall much at all about this book, which is not all that surprising when you bear in mind the one time I read it was something like 40 years ago. I do remember being a bit let down, or somehow nonplussed by it all, when the title had grabbed my attention and the premise seemed to have potential. Maybe it was pitched above or below my age/level at the time and just kind of left me bemused.
    I know the next entry, the Nervous Lion fared better with me, but that may have been down to timing and circumstances as much as anything. Without going into unnecessary detail, I know it was read during a very traumatic time for me and it seemed to offer a huge amount of comfort and some desperately needed escapism. After that, there is a pretty strong run – at least that’s the impression I have.


    • Good to know that there’s a strong run to come. It feels rather like the series has been passed around a bit in an attempt to get some good material, so a settling down is needed about now. And since both Carey and Arden/Lynds would shepherd the books going forward one imagines that things became a little more consistent once both were in place. Here’s to the future…!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It IS interesting that Carey here allows Jupiter to dismiss every thought of ghosts when in later entries in the series she’ll happily bring in supernatural forces. That’s my main gripe with her offerings, that and the fact that she and Arden couldn’t manage to keep the characterisation of chief Reynolds consistent – he’s grouchy in Carey’s novels and helpful in Arden’s. Somewhat annoying.


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