Welcome to Jungle Land!
Not many of you will know it, because only about seven people read the posts, but in recent years Stuart Gibbs has done excellent work in proving just how much diversity there is in mysteries for younger readers based around animals. His FunJungle series consistently works in intelligent, world-appropriate clues which fall well within the grasp of his juvenile sleuth and yet will both elude the adults who populate his novels and prove all but invisible to even the careful reader. Frankly, even without Gibbs’ excellent mining of superb ideas, the marriage of ‘Juvenile Sleuth’ and ‘Animal Park’ feels so natural that it seems incredible that it took The Three Investigators’ writers 16 books before trying it themselves.
But, with The Mystery of the Nervous Lion (1971) we find ourselves in exactly that setup: the boys are roped in by Alfred Hitchcock to investigate Jungle Land, a “kind of wild-animal farm with lions and other animals roaming around” that’s “supposed to be a tourist attraction” — ouch — whose tame lion George has been exhibiting increasingly nervous behaviour in recent months.
“He’s on edge. He stays in the house with us, but lately he hasn’t slept well. Almost every night, he’s up and growling, walking around, trying to get out. Jim can’t get him to go back to sleep, and he doesn’t take orders as he used to. He’s getting so hard to handle now I’m afraid he’s not the good-natured, well-trained animal he used to be.”
George’s difficulties are an extra headache for Jungle Land owner Jim Hall because the park is currently closed so that movie producer Jay Eastland can shoot a film using the premises with George as a star of some thrilling scenes…only, if George is unsettled, there’s the distinct risk that those fight scenes might end up more realistic than anyone wants them to be. And Jay Eastland has an insurance policy to the tune of $50,000 protecting him against any problems — $50,000 that will come straight out of Jim Hall’s pocket, and doubtless shut down Jungle Land for good.
Nick West — nom de plume of Kin Platt, here writing his second and final entry in the series — vastly improves on his T3I debut The Mystery of the Coughing Dragon (1970) by ensuring sufficient plot density this time around. The troubles of Jungle Land are added to via a variety of escaping animals and semi-thrilling encounters with said wild beasts, all far less personable than George (terrible name for a lion, incidentally), and the stirring in of a subplot where people seem very eager to either sell or by large quantities of scrap metal for reasons that will eventually tie back into the central puzzle. West also improves the intelligence of the central trio by advancing things from the rather blatant and poor misunderstanding that occurred at the heart of …Coughing Dragon, giving us not only clever reasoning — the interpretation put on the mysterious cabled message, for instance, which is strong enough to be held back as a revelation for the closing stages but instead gets discussed openly here — but also some interesting faulty reasoning on the part of Jupe and the boys when the threads begin to pull together, reminding us of their fallibility in a way that feels infinitely more realistic.
A more — and I’m not sure that this is quite the right word — pessimistic air pervades this entry, too, with Eastland’s production stripped of the possible glamour of Hollywood by it being made clear that the man is a borderline shyster who’s firstly not exactly turning out great art or anything motivated by the excitement one would expect to see attached to The Movies…:
“He’s what they call a ‘quickie’ producer in the trade, Jupe. They’re hustlers, only interested in grinding out something fast and getting their money back even faster…”
…and secondly also almost hoping some accident befalls his production since that $50,000 would go straight in his pocket. Additionally, Jupe, Pete, and Bob must face up to the fact that, as their investigation progresses, it seems likely that some shady dealings are going on which are only going to hurt Jungle Land and greatly upset young Mike Hall, the nephew of Jim, who not only idolises his uncle but is also very much invested in the success of Jungle Land itself.
They enjoyed solving mysteries, but solving this one seemed to entail making several people unhappy.
Not everything that could be dealt with in a meaningful way is confronted in quite the manner we’d hope in more enlightened times, however, with the casual ease with which Mike’s other uncle Cal travels around Africa and simply bags animals which are then exported to Jungle Land dating this badly. I’m not going to get on a horse and start preaching, but it makes the book more interesting as a relic from the era it was written, even while it sort of makes one itch between the shoulders to read.
All told, though, The Mystery of the Nervous Lion is a vast improvement for West that makes me wish he’d written more in the series, since he exploits the key ingredients far, far more successfully at this second attempt and manages to work in some nice ideas like those incorrect conclusions which stop the edifice becoming anything close to the predictable trudge his first case for the boys proved. In many ways, this might even be the closest the series has thus far come to the spirit of creator Robert Arthur’s originals — lacking Arthur’s brilliant originality, of course, and without his eye for a superbly arresting set-piece, but possessed of the necessary brains and heart to really feel like a true Three Investigators case once again. It is to be hoped that the formula is now refined and that Mary Virginia Carey and William Arden — the two authors most responsible for growing the series from this point — are able to continue this very high standard going forward.
Other Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators reviews can be found here.
2 thoughts on “#1020: It Gets Worse Here Every Day in The Mystery of the Nervous Lion (1971) by Nick West”
This is before the 3/I train started passing me by, but that newfound fallibility and proto-Gibbs setting both make me look forward to visiting Jungle Land along with my old friends.
I re-read this last year – it’s never been one of my favourites (as a kid, this didn’t have the same zing as the others), but as an adult, it reads better than “Coughing Dragon” and, like you, I’d have been curious to see what West did next, were he given the chance. Also like you, some of the ‘dated’ aspects did rankle.