Mary Virginia Carey would, in time, write more books in the Three Investigators series than any of the four other writers so employed, but got off to a slightly wobbly start with The Mystery of the Flaming Footprints (1971). So will her second title, The Mystery of the Singing Serpent (1972), find her on better form?
Given that the only real geographical constant in these stories is the Jones Salvage Yard and the headquarters of the Three Investigators hidden therein, Carey is to be commended at first on finding a new way to expand this universe into hitherto-unsuspected locales with the stately Jamison mansion, home of young Allie Jamison who is being looked after by her kooky aunt, Miss Patricia Osborne. In a break with tradition, if not exactly a long-lasting one, Allie herself, destined to be the one-book youthful friend who helps with the mystery this time around, isn’t initially introduced as a sympathetic presence: her first appearance is one of aloofness, soon to be followed by an aggression of sorts as Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews spook her horse and result in her being thrown and injured.
The Jamison girl was lying on the road. Bob and Pete dropped their bikes and Jupe scrambled up. All three hurried to the girl. Pete bent and touched her on the shoulder. The girl was gasping, struggling to catch her breath. With a convulsive effort, she managed to get her lungs full of air. Then she shouted, “Take your hands off me!”
“Hey!” said Bob gently. “Take it easy, huh?”
She came to a sitting position and clutched at her knee, where blood streamed through a rip in her faded jeans. Her eyes were dry, but she was panting, almost sobbing.
“You really got the wind knocked out of you,” said Pete.
She ignored him and glared at Jupiter. “Don’t you know horses have the right of way?” she demanded.
After returning her to the care of her aunt, however, the boys are surprised when Allie comes to them the following day asking for their help: her aunt’s pale, creepy friend Mr. Ariel has come to stay, and Allie heard an eerie singing the first night he stayed: a sound so eldritch and disquieting that the woman who does for the Jamison’s quit at the sound of it and as refused to return to the house. Clearly Ariel is involved, but how? And what is that unearthly noise?
If you’ve seen the cover of any edition of this book, it will come as no surprise to learn that Ariel appears to be the leader of a cult, and that various people in the Rocky Beach locale are seeking to invoke the powers of Abaddon, Asmodeus, Belial, and Dr. Shaitan against others they wish harm. And, pleasingly, the boys don’t get too caught up in the mysticism, exploring the possibilities with a rational mindset that befits young men who have already encountered whispering mummies, ghosts, and various apparently inexplicable oddities. Plus, as Chief Reynolds reminds them, this stuff is hardly uncommon:
“Los Angeles is full of weirdos who burn candles and chant to the moon.”
To a certain extent, this is simply a reworking of The Pale Horse (1961) by Agatha Christie, an excellent later title in which Ariadne Oliver must deal with witchcraft apparently cursing and killing people. And Carey writes this kind of thing well for younger readers, too, exploring not just the importance of the psychology behind such cults and the effect they have on people — “The victim believes. He knows a spell has been cast and he believes that he’ll die, so he does” — but the simplicity of motivation behind spiteful actions (“Some very silly things can stir up strong feelings.”), and, in a short-but-trippy dream sequence as experience by the ever-rational Jupe, the effect that such weirdnesses can have on people even when they don’t believe in them.
It helps, too, that the consequences of these actions are brought home, as shown in Pat Osborne’s guilt when the object of her malice is, er, put out of the way, and that the answers found to relieve the burden of this guilt aren’t simply a St. Paul on the Rroad to Damascus moment, and that chicanery and charlatanism end up being fought with much the same weapons. And, full marks to Carey for revealing the grubby, boring, pedestrian motives behind it all in such a non-fanfare way, stripping the mysticism and smoke and mirrors of its glitter and phantasm, showing the naked an uninteresting face of what lies beneath and treating it all as a matter of course. That, perhaps more than anything else, is the real success of this very successful book.
What else? It’s difficult not to enjoy the casual invoking of the Borgias, sending young people the world over scattering for their nearest encyclopaedias to learn of greed and murder afresh, and the legitimate amazement at a portable, battery-powered tape recorder is rather charming (“The Secret Service probably doesn’t have anything better…”). And MVP points, too, to Hans and Konrad, the Bavarian twins still working at the salvage yard who are only too happy to drive three young teenagers anywhere in one of the largest and most dangerous cities in the world, no questions asked, and then sit unconcerned in the truck reading a newspaper while these youngsters get up to who knows what.
You can criticise that things get — not unexpectedly, it’s something of a feature of the series — a little hand-wavey in the final summary where the eponymous serpent is concerned, but the conceit of its need to sing is, at least, well considered in this regard. And this does so much good work in so many other fields that are more important that I’m willing to let that go since, well, the alternative is a six-page dissertation with diagrams and…I’m not going to suggest that these books would be improved by that sort of thing at all. Maybe it would be nice to have a little more rigour in their explanations, but the strong work this does in demystifying the apparently intractable for an audience generally at a more manipulatable age and so with much to learn about the world is more important.
So, yes, The Mystery of the Singing Serpent represents a significant improvement in Carey’s work in this series, and raises much excitement at the prospect of her going on to write even more cases for Jupe, Pete, and Bob to unpick. Seventeen books in, and the Three Investigators are still going strong.
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2 thoughts on “#1053: Pouring Snake Oil on Troubled Waters in The Mystery of the Singing Serpent (1972) by M.V. Carey”
Fully agree, one of my favourites of the series. And Allie does re-appear, in Carey’s “The Mystery Of Death Trap Mine”.
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Carey definitely tried to take a slightly different track with the characters and series than Robert Arthur and William Arden. The Mystery of the Invisible Dog flirts with the supernatural, The Mystery of Death Trap Mine features an actual, non-historical corpse and Jupe, Pete and Bob feel a little older in her books. It makes her contributions to the series distinctly different from those written by Arden and Arthur.
Yes, I really need to return to this series one of these days. Thanks for the reminder!