Thursday, December 08, 2005

Return to Rocky Beach, Calif.

A post by Jaquandor the other day got me thinking. He mentioned that movement finally seemed to be picking up on the long-rumored Encyclopedia Brown movie, and reminisced a bit on reading those old mysteries as a kid. I did, too, back in the day. But I never really got that into Encyclopedia Brown. They were interesting, in a way, but to me they always came across as more than a little stagnant. They held little thrill for me.

Shortly after I passed through my brief Encyclopedia Brown phase, though, lighting did strike--in the form of Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews. The Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series made a huge impression on me growing up, in 4th, 5th and 6th grade. I don't recall our school library having any Hardy Boys books, but it had almost the entire run of the Three Investigators up to that time, and I remember racing my friends to the stacks, trying to find the next one in the series before my friends snatched it up. So while the girls in the class were reading The Truth About Fonzie, we were fantasizing about becoming the next generation of Sam Spades. With all these memories flooding back, I did what any red-blooded American juvenile would do these days: I Googled. And lo and behold, I found websites aplenty: The Three Investigators Collectors Site and Tunnel Two for those folks already well-versed in the arcane lore of mysterious goings-on at Jones' Salvage, and the obligatory Wikipedia entry, which gives a quick and dirty rundown of everything you need to know to get up to speed. Very cool.

The first of the series I ever read was The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot, and boy, was it a corker. The cover art by Ed Vebell didn't really match the character descriptions--the protagonists all look like Puerto Ricans here--and for my money, the phenomenal Harry Kane was the definitive Three Investigators artist. His interior illustrations defined the books in more ways than one. But that's beside the point. Wow, was the story ever inventive. A guy (I can't remember if he was bad or good anymore) had essentially taught a coded treasure map to a variety of parrots. Each one had memorized one part of the map, disguised as random sayings. A macaw, for instance, misquoted Shakespeare by saying "To- to- to be, or not to- to- to be?" Hence, the eponymous stuttering parrot. But the stutter was intentional, and actually turned out to be an address. Clever, huh? Each bird's clue built upon the previous, and only when taken together would the location of the treasure be revealed. When the bad guys beat the boys to the final birds, all seems lost until the Investigators realized that the mynah bird--the only one they managed to keep away from their opponents--not only held a critical piece to the puzzle, but had memorized all the other parrots' clues as well. That was some pretty deft plot twisting, I have to admit.

The first 10 books in the series were written by Robert Arthur, who died in 1969 after handing the reins of the series over to William Arden, who wrote the lion's share of the series books for the next two decades. Arden's style meshed very well with the voice Arthur had established in the titles up to that point, and he also paid close attention to continuity. The result was a fairly seamless transition. There was one distinct change in the books, however: Under Arden's pen, the dangers the boys faced grew more threatening, their challenges more perilous. Time actually passed in Rocky Beach, and situations changed for the boys. The great Jack Hearne cover art for Mystery of the Dead Man's Riddle above is a great example of the amped-up tension. Like Encyclopedia Brown, the Three Investigators relied on their brains to solve their mysteries. But unlike the smug and static brown, they often had to get physical in order to survive long enough to solve the mystery.

I'd always thought the series would make an excellent one-hour TV mystery series, and was baffled as to why during the series' popular heyday in the '70s nobody attempted to do one. After all, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew made brief but memorable splashed back then. So imagine my surprise when I stumbled across this movie audition notice for a Three Investigators film version of The Secret of Skeleton Island. Then I read some of the casting description:
Chris: 10-12, Hispanic. She's stowed away on Skeleton Island, where her father is currently working on the new amusement park. She and the other indigenous people of the island are not thrilled by the disruptive new development, which threatens their ancestral way of life. When her father falls afoul of the law for a crime he did not commit, Chris turns to The Three Investigators for help in her predicament, and later finds herself running for her life from a murderous adversary.

In all honesty, that doesn't sound much at all like the book I remember. There's an old carnival, I think, but the plot revolves around a disrupted movie shoot. There's certainly no girl named Chris. The book had some distinctly evocative scenes, however. A key plot point was a local legend that a pirate had hidden his treasure on the island, but died before he could tell anyone its location. His only clue was that the treasure was "in Davy Jones' grasp." In a clever bit of wordplay, a tidal cave hidden an outcropping of rock (the "hand") conceals the treasure, only the boys are trapped in said cave with the tide coming in, which renders their discovery rather moot if they can't find an escape. That's a suspenseful scene I'd dearly love to see on the big screen, but Hollywood being Hollywood, I expect they'd dump it in favor of a speedboat chase reminiscent of Thunderball.

I eventually lost interest in the series during junior high. I'd kept reading them even after I outgrew their targetted age bracket because I loved the characters and the mysteries--again, mostly by Arden--were well done. Until. Sigh. In 1979, The Secret of Shark Reef was published, and this proved to be the last Arden book. In 1981, M.V. Carey replaced Arden with the publication of The Mystery of the Scar-Faced Beggar, and things quickly went downhill. Alfred Hitchcock had died a few years previously, so his role in the books was unceremoniously replaced by the ill-constructed fictional mystery author Hector Sebastian. I remember this abrupt imposition of a new framing setup confused the heck out of me even though I considered myself a pretty astute reader. Hector Sebastian simply served no purpose in the narrative. But that wasn't the bad part. Under Carey's unsteady hand, the Three Investigators lost all vestiges of personality. Jupiter Jones, the leader with a photographic memory, forgot basic facts and was confused and misled easily. Bob and Pete did dumb things to complicate matters. Character actions made no logical sense. Essentially, the idiot plot ruled the day--the characters did things because the author made them, rather than said actions growing out of the story. I tried two more of Carey's books--Wandering Cave Man I think was one. Or maybe not. Perhaps Blazing Cliffs. Doesn't really matter, because they both sucked. Continuity was ignored. Character was ignored. Cookie-cutter plots were churned out, with only the names slapped onto the characters giving clue that these were in the same series as the books from way back when. It doesn't surprise me that the series was cancelled less than six years later as sales collapsed--the product was terrible, plain and simple.

I still have a handful of my old Three Investigator books around here somewhere. Some were even the ones I'd originally read, having the good fortune to pick them up in a library book sale some years after I'd stopped reading them. Nostalgia's a fun thing, sometimes. I wouldn't mind trying my hand at writing some books in the series, but seeing as how I haven't ever written mysteries, and that Random House shows no interest in reviving the books, that's not something I'm about to lose sleep over. But still, it's fun to dream.

Now Playing: Vivaldi The Four Seasons


  1. William Arden was Dennis Lynds, who passed away last year. One of the greats under any of his many names.

  2. I remember these books! I used to love them as a kid.

    Thanks for bringing back the wonderful memories...

  3. I loved these books too, and have been able to find most of them on eBay.

    I recently read The Secret of Terror Castle and The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot to my 7 & 9 year olds, and they loved them. I enjoyed them just as much this time as when I read them the first time!

    And I agree...The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot was one of the best. I've never forgotten that "to-to-to be or not to-to-to-be" as the address for Sherlock Holmes.

    I also loved Dead Man's Riddle and The Haunted Mirror.