Spooky

I’ve decided to launch a new reading project for this year: one in which I tackle rereading middle-grade mysteries. I am not going to limit myself to merely the series books I loved (although they will play a big role in the project), but will also include other mysteries I have, either in one of my reading apps or an actual hard copy, that do not belong to the series. My childhood memories aren’t as clear as I would perhaps like; then again, that period of my life was around fifty years ago, so it would be more of a miracle if I did have stronger memories.

The first two series books I ever read were not from either the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys series; they were from the Trixie Belden series (The Red Trailer Mystery) and The Three Investigators (The Mystery of the Moaning Cave). Both series wound up being favorites of mine once I eventually got back to them and remembered them; I remember buying five Trixie Belden books at a store at the Ford City mall in Chicago, and I got my first five Three Investigators books from a Toys R Us, I think in the Chicago suburb of Berwin? The two series weren’t as ubiquitous or available as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys; which made finding more of them a kind of triumph for me. I’ve already blogged about The Secret of Terror Castle, which was the first Three Investigators book in the series, so I won’t cover that one again. But recently I sat down and reread the second book in the series, The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot, and remembered again why I love this series so much.

“Help!” The voice that called out was strangely shrill and muffled. “Help! Help!”

Each time a cry from within the mouldering old house pierced the silence, a new chill crawled down Pete Crenshaw’s spine. Then the cries for help ended in a strange, dying gurgle and that was even worse.

The tall, brown-haired boy knelt behind the thick trunk of a barrel palm and peered up the winding gravel path at the house. He and his partner, Jupiter Jones, had been approaching it when the first cry had sent them diving into the shrubbery for cover.

Across the path, Jupiter, stocky and sturdily built, crouched behind a bush, also peering toward the house. They waited for further sounds. But now the old, Spanish-style house, set back in the neglected garden that had grown up like a small tropical jungle, was silent.

“Jupe!” Pete whispered. “Was that a man or a woman?”

Jupiter shook his head. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “Maybe it was neither.

The Three Investigators cases often began this way; with two of them (sometimes all of them) landing smack dab in the middle of something mysterious; whether it was the sight of a weird ghost as they walk past an abandoned house being demolished (The Mystery of the Green Ghost) or biking past an enclosed estate (The Mystery of the Laughing Shadow) or simply riding in the gold=played Rolls Royce limousine and almost getting into an accident (The Mystery of the Silver Spider). Many of their other cases begin with them being hired to find a lost pet, which turns into something more complicated and complex: The Mystery of the Coughing Dragon and The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy fall into this category….while the majority of their cases come by way of referrals from Alfred Hitchcock himself (and why has no one ever done a book about the licensing of the Hitchcoc name, and all the products the great director attached his name to? It’s far overdue.). The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot combines all three: the boys were referred by Hitchcock to a friend whose recently purchased parrot has either been stolen or gotten free; they are on their way to visit Professor Fentriss to talk to him about the missing parrot–which stuttered–when they hear the cries for help coming from within the house. They are confronted outside by a man with a revolver (he is described here, and throughout the book, as a fat man–even by Jupiter, who hates being called fat), who claims to be Mr. Fentriss and that the bird has returned; he also claims that Hitchcock had called him to say the boys were on their way over. As they are leaving they realize that the house had no telephone wires (which used to actually be a thing, before cell phones), so they go back. Indeed, the man they met was an imposter and Mr. Fentriss is also tied up in his home. They rescue him, discover that he bought the missing parrot from a sickly Hispanic man selling the birds (there were others) out of his donkey cart, and that his friend Irma Waggoner sent the peddler to them. (Note: the man is described, and referred to, over and over as a Mexican; he actually is Mexican, so it’s not necessarily problematic–other than the fact that no one knew he was Mexican at first; referring to all Latinx/Hispanic people as Mexican when they may not actually be Mexican is problematic. In an update they would undoubtedly change it to Hispanic–as he did speak Spanish as a first language and his English isn’t good–which we see when the boys find him later in the book.) Miss Waggoner’s parrot has also disappeared; it also spoke, as did Mr. Fentriss’. (I kept thinking as I read it for the first time but parrots don’t stutter; he would have to be taught to do that. Very early on Jupiter also mentions this; I always feel inordinately proud of myself every time I read Jupiter saying this) Eventually, it turns out that the man who taught the birds special speeches had a masterpiece painting in his possession, and each parrot speaks a clue to the location of where he hid it when he realized he was dying–so the boys not only have to find all the parrots to get all the messages, they also have to decipher the clues and find the painting. Eventually they do–while also trying to avoid a flamboyant international art thief and his thugs–in a spooky, abandoned graveyard in the fog. A little bit of luck, and the boys solve the mystery–but despite that piece of luck, the entire case is actually solved by deductions based on the evidence presented thus far, with Jupiter revising his theories whenever new evidence is presented.

I love this series, and the books still make for compelling reading today. Some of the story is dated of course–no cell phones, no computers for research (Bob does all their research at the library, where he works part time), the casual racism of the time–but many of the books still hold up. Hitchcock’s death obviously impacted the series, but I’ve never understood why The Three Investigators never became as popular as–if not more so–than Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. The three boys have distinct personalities–you know Pete will never want to investigate anything complicated, but will inevitably prove how courageous he actually is; Bob is studious and not as easily excitable as Pete, and he’s the one who usually follows Jupiter’s train of thought while Pete always gets confused; and Jupiter himself is a young Sherlock Holmes. Robert Arthur, who wrote the original series up through number 11, The Mystery of the Talking Skull (someone else wrote number 10, The Mystery of the Moaning Cave, which also ironically is the first of the series I actually read). Arthur won two Edgars from Mystery Writers of America for his radio plays; he also ghost edited some of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies I remember from my childhood. The Three Investigators are no longer in print, because of legal disputes between the Arthur estate and Random House about who owns the characters and so forth; it’s a shame. The books are still in print in many different languages–and are especially popular in Germany–where two of the books were actually filmed.

Most of my series books are in storage, but there are some still in the Lost Apartment–and I think when I am too tired to read something new, I may just get down a series book as an homage to my childhood and revisit some of these kids’ series.

The Calm Before the Storm

Alfred Hitchcock was a great film director, and was responsible for some of the best movies ever made, from Rebecca through Notorious through North by Northwest to Vertigo to Strangers on a Train to The Birds to Psycho; the list of great Hitchcock films goes on and on and on and has been studied by film academics and written about; you certainly cannot forget Truffaut/Hitchcock, either. Lost in the discussions of his abilities as a filmmaker (and how he was somewhat abusive to his leading ladies) is his contributions to the culture in other ways. Alfred Hitchcock Presents ran for years; an anthology show like The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone, he presented bizarre stories (often based on short fiction; perhaps the most famous episode of all was based on a Roald Dahl short story in which a wife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, which she then cooks and serves to the investigating police officers) on a weekly basis and the show ran for a long time. (It’s available to stream now, and I keep meaning to dive back into the show.

But Hitchcock also was a master, before it was a thing, of licensing his name out for use; his name meant something as a master director of film suspense, and in addition to the television series there were also anthologies, also published under the aegis of Alfred Hitchcock Presents–my grandmother used to buy and read them; so did my parents–and even today one of the best short story markets for crime is Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. There were anthologies for adults, anthologies for teens and anthologies for kids.

And there was also The Three Investigators.

3 investigators 1

Bob Andrews parked his bike outside his home in Rocky Beach and entered the house. As he closed the door, his mother called to him from the kitchen.

“Robert? Is that you?”

“Yes, Mom.” He went to the kitchen door. His mother, brown-haired and slender, was making doughnuts.

“How was the library?” she asked.

“It was okay,” Bob told her. After all, there was never any excitement at the library. He worked there part time, sorting returned books and helping with the filing and cataloguing.

“Your friend Jupiter called.” His mother went on rolling out the dough on the board. “He left a message for you.”

“A message?” Bob yelled with sudden excitement. “What was it?”

“I wrote it down. I’ll get it out of my pocket as soon as I finish with this dough.”

“Can’t you remember what he said? He may need me!”

“I could remember an ordinary message,” his other answered, “but Jupiter doesn’t leave ordinary messages. It was something fantastic.”

“Jupiter likes unusual words,” Bob said, controlling his impatience. “He’s read an awful lot of books and sometimes he’s a little hard to understand.”

“Not just sometimes!” his mother retorted. “He’s a very unusual boy. My goodness, how he found my engagement ring, I’ll never know.”

She was referring to the time the previous fall when she had lost her diamond ring. Jupiter Jones had come to the house and requested her to tell him every move she had made the day the ring was lost. Then he had gone out to the pantry, reached up, and picked the ring from behind a row of bottle tomato pickles. Bob’s mother had taken it off and put it there while she was sterilizing the jars.

“I can’t imagine,” Mrs. Andrews said, “how he guessed where that ring was!”

“He didn’t guess, he figured it out,” Bob explained. “That’s how his mind works…Mom, can’t you get the message now?”

“In one minute,” his mother said, giving the dough another flattening roll. “Incidentally, what on earth was that story on the front of yesterday’s paper about Jupiter’s winning the use of a Rolls-Royce sedan for thirty days?”

And that is how The Three Investigators series (technically, in the beginning  “ALFRED HITCHCOCK and the Three Investigators”) began. While it’s not as smooth, per se, as the opening of the Trixie Belden series in The Secret of the Mansion, this is also a dramatically different series, and will always have a place in my heart as one of the best series for kids–if not the best–ever published. It never reached the same heights of popularity as Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys; which was a shame, because it was a much better series than either of those. For one thing, the Three Investigators actually considered themselves to be professional detectives; Nancy and the Hardys, amongst with most of the others, were strictly amateurs (although in the Kathryn Kenny books, “the Belden-Wheeler Detective Agency” became kind of a running gag or thing; it was what Trixie and Honey decided they wanted to be when they grew up; and frankly, I’ve always kind of wanted to see a Trixie-as-an-adult hard-boiled series). And while this opening is a little longish about getting to the point, it eventually does; Bob is a highly excitable young man who works at the library, and this is also our first look at Jupiter Jones, and one of the best things about the series is Jupiter; he is the central character and there would be no Three Investigators without him–and he is one of the most remarkable, and original, characters in kids’ mystery series fiction.

I always thought of Rocky Beach as a sort of stand-on for Long Beach in this series; this is where the boys live, and it’s just south of Los Angeles and a drive to Hollywood. This is where the three boys who make up the titular team of the series live; the third investigator, whom we have yet to meet in this opening, is Pete Crenshaw. And that bit about the contest and the Rolls-Royce? It’s very important. Access to a vehicle, and someone to drive them around, is an integral part of the creation of this investigative agency; they can’t always count on getting rides or paying for cabs or only involving themselves in cases they can investigate on bikes; this is the impetus Jupiter has been looking for to open the agency. Jupiter’s message to Bob is impenetrable to his mother; but it makes perfect sense to Bob–and therein lies another one of the great charms of this series: Jupiter lives with his uncle Titus and aunt Mathilda; the couple own and operate the Jones Salvage Yard, a sprawling junkyard where they repurpose other’s people things, or fix them. Jupiter himself is quite adept at wiring and repairing things; just one, as we the readers will find out, of his many skills. Hidden deep within the salvage yard is the wreck of a mobile home, which the boys use as “headquarters”; over the years Jupiter has managed to hide the mobile home behind piles of junk. The yard is also surrounded by an enormous, tall wooden fence, and Uncle Titus has encouraged local artists to paint murals on the fence. With the help of Bob and Pete, Jupiter has created “secret entrances” into the salvage yard, with tunnels through the piled up junk; that way the boys can come and go as they please without having to use the main entrance. They also have a covered workshop in another area hidden from view; Jupiter’s message to Bob is simply Red gate rover, come over come over, the presses are rolling. Bob knows this means,  come to headquarters, use red gate Rover, and we’re printing our business cards. 

“Red Gate Rover” means use the entrance through the fence that is a mural of a team of firefighters fighting an enormous blaze; there’s a dog watching them, and the knothole in the dog’s eye will spring the hidden gate open. And sure enough, once he gets there, the printing press is rolling and Jupiter presents him with a card, that reads:

THE THREE INVESTIGATORS

We Investigate Anything

? ? ?

–and also has their names. Jupiter is, naturally, the first investigator with Pete as second; Bob is Records & Research, since he works in the library and is their best writer; it is his job to write up their cases. As such, and with an understanding that all cases also need to be introduced as well as get sufficient publicity for their agency to get clients, Jupiter has decided on two things: to ask Alfred Hitchcock to introduce their cases, and offer to help find him a truly haunted house, as he is looking for one for his next film. Using the Rolls-Royce, driven by a very proper British chauffeur named Worthington, Jupiter and Pete call on Mr. Hitchcock at the studio. (The Rolls-Royce, by the way, has every luxurious amenity available to a limousine in that time; and is gold-plated, which sticks out. It was originally commissioned by a Saudi oil millionaire.) They bluff their way in–partly because Jupiter pretends to be Hitchcock’s nephew, even arranging his face to imitate his expressions and voice and patterns of speech–but Hitchcock isn’t that interested in introducing their cases, but has no worries about them looking for a haunted house for him. (While they are calling on Hitchcock, Bob has gone to the library to research something–Jupiter writes the words Terror Castle on the back of one of their business cards and offered no explanation.) But when Jupiter does his impression of “Hitchcock as a 13 year old”, Hitchcock is offended and promises to introduce the first case as long as Jupiter will never do the impression again (and, it is to be noted, the introduction and afterward, as supposedly written by Hitchcock, is clearly done so grudgingly; this was a genius touch by author Robert Arthur–and over the course of the series Hitchcock not only grows fond of the boys but starts sending clients their way).

The thing I loved perhaps the most about this series (outside of the wonderful titles for the books) was they actually were investigators. They actually solved the mysteries they were investigating–well, Jupiter did, mostly–through observation and interpretation of data. Jupiter was, in many ways, kind of a young Sherlock–and he often referred to Holmes. Another thing that was very clever about the series is that the stories were rarely, if ever, told from Jupiter’s point of view; Bob and Pete were always the point-of-view characters, representing the reader, who also couldn’t figure out what was going on. Since it mattered for suspense and storytelling to not know what Jupiter was thinking, Bob and Pete stood in for the reader, confused by the cryptic things Jupiter said–or casually observing Jupiter noticing something that didn’t make sense.

Another thing that, in my opinion, makes the series stronger than others is it is made, very plain, from the very beginning that fat-shaming is a bad thing. Jupiter is described as stocky or husky; he deeply resents being called fat, and whenever someone cruelly makes such an observation, both Pete and Bob always get angry and jump to his defense (Jupiter was also a child star, playing Baby Fatso in a Little Rascals type television show; his being a fat child made him the butt of the jokes in the show and he DESPISES being laughed at)–compare that to how Bess is frequently mocked for being hungry and chubby in the Nancy Drew books, or the depiction of the Hardy Boys’ supposed best friend Chet Morton as an always-hungry, overweight comic relief and foil they always laugh at–yeah, not cool, Stratemeyer Syndicate, not cool at all.

The first Three Investigators story I read was The Mystery of the Moaning Cave. We were in Alabama one summer, and staying with a cousin of my mother’s who had a son my age who also loved to read, and loved mysteries. He had a stack of library books, and I picked up my very first Hardy Boys read, The Mystery of Cabin Island, out of the stack. I was two chapters in when he finished reading his book (The Mystery of the Moaning Cave) and asked me to swap books with him. I was enjoying the Hardy Boys, but the cover of the Three Investigators book he was offering me was tantalizing, plus that title! How could a cave moan? I started reading, and was soon swept up in the story–which remains, to this day, one of my favorites in the series. It reminded me of another book I greatly loved as a child, The Mystery of the Haunted Mine, but the problem was my library didn’t have any of these books, and I could never find more of them anywhere. In junior high a friend of mine was a fan of the series, which led me to reread The Mystery of the Moaning Cave, which I loved all over again, and then its predecessor, The Mystery of the Screaming Clock, which was also amazing. I eventually discovered, on a birthday trip to Toys R Us, an entire shelf of the books; I got five–The Secret of Terror Castle, The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, The Secret of Skeleton Island, The Mystery of the Laughing Shadow, and The Mystery of the  Coughing Dragon. 

I honestly don’t recall how I was able to collect the rest of the series, or where I got them or what order in which I read them, but I did eventually read the entire series. Later, the series moved on to other authors other than Robert Arthur and the quality became more hit-and-miss, but even the worst Three Investigators case was better than the best books in other series. I still love the Three Investigators, and occasionally will take one down to reread it, again marveling at how well constructed the books are; how tight the plots and how strong the characterizations. I also loved how something small and simple, like the search for an escaped parrot (The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot) would lead to a massively complicated and interesting case about a massive art theft, or the search for a missing cat with mismatched eyes turned into The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, or a near car crash led them to a small European principality and international espionage in The Mystery of the Silver Spider. Their cases inevitably started small, but eventually grew into something major; like they grabbed onto a loose, seemingly unimportant thread that unraveled a much larger case.

One thing that always amused me was how adults rarely, if ever, took them seriously. Jupiter’s aunt and uncle, and the parents of Pete and Bob, always looked at their “firm” as a “little mystery-solving club”. Inevitably the adults who pooh-poohed their abilities had to eat their words. I also loved that Jupiter wasn’t athletic but was smart. I identified with that a lot more than I did with the Hardy Boys, who were literally good at everything they tried.

The death of Alfred Hitchcock was an enormous blow, and the publisher–Random House, I believe–introduced a mystery writer for a while to replace Hitchcock, but the quality was already starting to decline, and eventually even the fictitious mystery writer, Robert Sylvester, was replaced by another fictitious entity; but the book in which the switch was made didn’t avoid the truth of Hitchcock’s death, and they actually handled it very well.

And some of the earlier books are seriously dated now; The Secret of Terror Castle centered on the home of a silent film horror star whose career was derailed by his speaking voice when talkies came; obviously, that would have happened around ninety years ago now, so there wouldn’t be any contemporaries still alive. Likewise, The Mystery of the Screaming Clock centered on someone who was a sound effects expert for radio suspense shows–which would, at best, have been seventy years ago now.

I’ve never believed this series was as popular as it deserved to be, nor did it get the attention it truly deserved. The books have been out of print for awhile now–maybe you can get used copies, there may even be ebooks now, I don’t know–but they should still be available. I would love to write one of these, to be honest.

They were the shit, y’all.