Then: In case it has slipped anyone’s notice, I used to quite like detective books. Specifically child-detective books. I’ve covered the rest of the stalwarts, but last on the list for this re-read blog was The Three Investigators. If you’ve never come across them (they seem to be the most obscure of my list), the Three Investigators are Jupiter Jones (think 13-year-old Sherlock), Pete Crenshaw (the athletic one) and Bob Andrews (the shy, geeky one who wrote up all the investigations). The particular quirk of this series was that each book purported to be introduced by Alfred Hitchcock, who frequently appeared as a character in the books (or at least did so at the beginning.)
At the time I read them, I didn’t really know the first thing about Alfred Hitchcock (aside from my father’s vague explanation that he made ‘weird films’.) As such, the series’ main attraction was lost on me, but I remember being utterly absorbed by the various mysteries of the Three Investigators. Whereas your Famous Five, Five-Find Outers and Hardy Boys were running around investigating fairly pedestrian things (like smugglers and wreckers and whatnot–bor-ring!), the Three Investigators mysteries always centred around much weirder things – a whispering mummy and a screaming clock were early titles that stick out.
Two other things come to mind when I think back to the Three Investigators. The first, from within the books, was one of the methods the Investigators used to find someone or something when it was lost. Each of the three would ring ten friends to tell them to look for something, who in turn would ring ten friends, and so on and so on. It seemed ingenious at the time; in the 21st century, I realise it’s the same principal as sharing a picture on social media of someone’s lost dog.
The second thing is an entirely different story. I grew up in a church household. I attended church twice on Sundays, but it was generally assumed that at a young age I didn’t have the attention span to sit through the forty-minute sermon, and so when the first half of the service was over I was permitted to read quietly through the service. (At some point my age required me to downgrade this reading period to only once per Sunday, and eventually to none, which was a heartbreaking watershed.) Sometimes, preachers would visit, and usually when this happened the job of hospitality would fall to my parents. I used to hate when people visited on Sunday afternoons; I was socially awkward, and as the adults rarely expected much of the child in their midst, there would inevitably be a tricky half hour at the dinner table in which they try to get to know you with patronising small talk. Still, I was adept at surviving these interactions, and was only infrequently admonished for being antisocial.
One of these visits, the preacher brought his son with him. I can no longer remember his name. I estimate I was eight, and his son was ten, and therefore in the manner of adults, it was assumed that our similar ages were all it would take for us to be instant friends. I experienced a week of trepidation knowing the Sunday was coming. The awkwardness of being forced into conversation is still vivid, in the way that ancient embarrassments always seem to remain. On top of this, the friends I had I saw only at school, where I kept the entire concept of a Sunday spent at religious commitments locked tight away–if they knew, they’d think it was weird. The idea of interacting with someone my own age within the context of a Sunday afternoon between church services was thoroughly alien. But against all odds, it worked. We played in the garden, and invented an make-believe detective agency. We talked about things–things I can’t remember now. We also discovered we read a lot of the same books. That evening, while his father preached from our pulpit, he sat next to me in the seat that was normally empty between my father and me, and we shared a copy of the Three Investigators omnibus between us. When one or the other of us reached the bottom of the page, we would nod, and we would know to turn the page. His arm rested against mine.
Two years later, his father returned for another visit, bringing his son with him. I was excited to see him again, but whilst I had gone from eight to ten–no big leap–he had gone from ten to twelve. They suggested we go to the park to play football. I no longer had any idea how to speak to him.
Now: I think that The Mystery of the Missing Mermaid was the book that we read, but I can’t quite remember. Nonetheless, I remember its title, and it’s one of the more evocative titles in the list. If I didn’t read it when I was eight, I’d have been dying to.
Of all four of the childhood detective series I’ve re-read, this was the most satisfying. The prose isn’t miraculous, but it’s certainly got some wit and invention about it, and in this particular volume, the quirky and diverse neighborhood of Venice Beach is absorbing and rich. The plot even just about makes sense (unlike the Hardy Boys and the various Blyton series I’ve re-read), and there is a darker edge to the story (this one is about the search for an abducted child) that I appreciate as an adult reader. (There’s also a prostitute joke designed to go straight over young reader’s heads which I couldn’t quite believe was in there.)
Only two things disappointed: the first, that there wasn’t even the slightest sniff of anything strange or weird in this book, despite its title. The cover is lurid, featuring the trio encountering an incandescent mermaid on a rock. This cover is a complete lie. Secondly, Alfred Hitchcock* appears to have retired, as he is replaced for the last fifteen books in the series with a fictional mystery writer. I’m not sure on the behind-the-scenes reason for his disappearance, but his departure does seem to take with a little bit of the mystery and oddity from the series. Some googling revealed that perhaps I made a poor choice of which volume to re-read, as Missing Mermaid is from very late in the series when (fans argue) ideas were stretching thin and the absence of any actual weirdness is well-known. As is the series penchant for completely misleading covers–but the Missing Mermaid specifically is notorious amongst fans for featuring a scene that could not be more absent from the book if it tried.
*(When discussing this with Nick Campbell, he pointed out how bold a concept having Hitchcock appear is, and imagined what detective series might be born out of different cameos–let’s take a moment to imagine the young detective series that could have been if the introduction was by, say, John Waters…)