Friday, February 2, 2018

The Three Investigators: The Secret of Skeleton Island

I admit, to my shame: I am not a one-juvenile-mystery-series man. I also dabble in reading the Three Investigators series. When I was a kid, the Three Investigators were my drug of choice when I ran out of the pure Hardy stuff. However, since the Three Investigators were a sideline, even though I read a lot of the volumes as a child, I have no idea which ones now.

But fortunately, my local library system has several Three Investigators books, and from time to time I indulge my sense of nostalgia by picking up a book. At the end of last year, on a whim, I put a hold on The Secret of Skeleton Island, the sixth book in the series; while returning home from the library with the book, I explained to my wife that the Three Investigators were very different from the Hardy Boys, especially in the ‘60s, when the Three Investigators series began.

The Three Investigators are, like the Hardys ostensibly are, a bunch of middle-class teens who investigate crimes. Unlike the Hardys, Jupiter Jones, Bob Andrews, and Pete Crenshaw didn’t trot the globe. They stuck mainly to Southern California for their setting, and they got around the area mainly by riding their bicycles. Two of them had semi-regular employment. (Maybe three, but I can’t remember whether Second Investigator Pete had to work.) Unlike the Hardys, they didn’t have their father, his assistants, or the police at their beck and call to assist them; the Three Investigators had to rely on the clever Ghost-to-Ghost Hookup, in which they called five friends and offered them a reward for specific info, and if those friends didn’t have it, the friends were instructed to call five more friends and ask them. (And those second-degree friends would each ask five more friends, and those friends would ask five more, etc. etc.) It was — if such a thing could be said without snickering — a more realistic approach to teenage crimefighting.

(On the other hand, there’s a limousine the boys summoned when they needed it, and they knew director Alfred Hitchcock, who listened to their reports, introduced the books, and often referred their services to others. Realism only goes so far when it comes to the pre-teen literary crowd, I suppose.)

The Secret of Skeleton Island, published in 1966, contradicts everything I said to my wife, without even a how-do-you-do. Author and series creator Robert Arthur sends the boys to a film set on the East Coast so the boys can be filmed scuba diving, with the proposed short film giving the movie crew a way to generate a little extra revenue and stay in practice while a location setting is rebuilt. In reality, though, the boys are undercover investigators, trying to figure out why the set is being sabotaged and discover (if necessary) the secret of the ghost that haunts the island the movie crew is working on. Also: the island (or the waters around it) have a pirate treasure.

This is a Hardy Boys plot; honestly, it’s as if Arthur stole the Hardy Boys writing machine (the Dixon 5000) from the Stratemeyer Syndicate for an afternoon, fired it up for a single plot, and then put it back before anyone realized it was missing. He probably didn’t have the time or inclination to read the instructions; he didn’t realize you have to cycle the Dixon 5000 through a lot of runs before you get to anything approaching an original plot.

The pirate treasure and scuba diving on the East Coast is straight out The Secret of Pirates’ Hill (#36), which came out a decade before this book, and Arthur does not significantly improve on that story. (He does add some bits of verisimilitude, like the tides spreading and hiding the treasure, but that change is more than ignorable.) The title itself is more than reminiscent of the book after Pirates’ Hill, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (#37). Like Skeleton Rock, Skeleton Island mentions the supernatural without doing anything to develop the concept; the “ghost” in Skeleton Island is soon exposed as a hoax. The Three Investigators series often does better with the supernatural, usually building an eerie frisson between hard reality and the possibility of the strange, but any possibility of weirdness is dashed early in Skeleton Island in favor of a humdrum mystery.

The “undercover on a movie set” idea was used in the revised The Clue of the Broken Blade (#21), although that was released a few years after Skeleton Rock. (Ironically, the Hardys had to head west to get on a movie set, while the Three Investigators head east.) While the Three Investigators work this case for Alfred Hitchcock, the boys’ jobs — and their guardians, for the most part — remain completely unmentioned. The kids’ undercover identity is immediately blown, and they are put in jeopardy both by their own stupidity (jumping into a car with the first person who calls their name) and adults’ (using a party line without realizing it’s not a private line — stupid California elites). These are classic Hardy moves, and this echoes many adventures; probably the first time was when Frank and Joe hopped into a strange man’s car while traveling west during the original Hunting for Hidden Gold (#5).

In Skeleton Island, the Three Investigators are rescued by Christos, their own earnest, amusing ethnic sidekick for the adventure. The helpful local color is a feature in many Hardy Boy adventures; The Mystery at Devil’s Paw (#38) might be the relevant reference for this one, but there are so many to choose from. The sidekick is even a Greek kid in America, just like Evangelos Pandroplolos in The Shattered Helmet (#52), although Helmet was published after Skeleton Island. (I can’t imagine that the Stratemeyer Syndicate was copying Arthur in any way; I think Arthur just stumbled on a Hardy Boys element before the Hardy Boys series itself did.)

Like many Hardy Boys stories, most of the adventure happens on the water or on small islands in a backwater arm of the Atlantic. (Christos has his own boat, which is sunk in an “accident.”) On the other hand, like the worst of the Hardy Boys stories, the story is divorced from any of the quirks and fun of the boys’ home setting that gives the series its distinctive flavor. Just like in a Hardy Boys book, the adults, who include one of the Three Investigators’ father, are ineffectual, unable to find any clues as to what’s going on. The adults — including the police — contribute nothing, not even serving as decent blocking figures. There’s even a character with the last name “Morton,” for Fenton’s sake.

Skeleton Island isn’t a complete rip-off of the Hardy Boys, even given the similarities. The characters are just different enough to keep the outlines from matching up everywhere. As always, the Three Investigators have too much ratiocination to allow anyone to mistake one of their plots for a Hardy Boys story; for instance, Jupiter, the smart member of the Three Investigators, manages to solve the crime before anyone is captured by the bad guys. (However, because he’s the fat, unathletic one — and because he has a cold — Jupiter gets left behind and has to summon the authorities to bail everyone out, just like the overweight Chet Morton.) The book eventually disdains gold doubloons from the 18th century as mere trinkets, baubles only worth anything if gathered in quantity, whereas a Hardy Boys book would treat them as significant souvenirs if not major treasures.

(The Hardy Boys are right on this one: a Spanish doubloon was made of gold. Today, the forty doubloons found by Christos, Pete, and Bob would be worth around $50,000 just from the value of their gold, let alone their historical value. Admittedly, gold’s value has outpaced inflation over the last quarter century, as that amount of gold in 1966 would be worth only around $1,400 — about $10,000 in 2017 money.)

Part of me wonders if Arthur, because of sales or editorial pressure, decided to make a more deliberately Hardy-like book. “All right,” I imagine him saying, cracking his knuckles over his typewriter, “if the Hardy Boys are so damn popular, then by Holmes, I’ll give them a Hardy boys book! But it will be a better book than any Hardy Boys book!” (Then in my mind he cackles maniacally, but I doubt Arthur was a cackler. He was a pro.)

In any event, the results are disappointing. I would say that a dud of this magnitude this soon in a series — this is #6 — could signal imminent cancellation. But the Three Investigators lasted for 43 books, almost a quarter of a century, and outlived their patron, Alfred Hitchcock. (He was replaced by the fictional Hector Sebastian in later books and in revisions of the early volumes.) Better days are ahead for Jupiter, Pete, and Bob, and even though I might not write about them, I’ll enjoy reading them.

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