Originally published in 1964
The Three Investigators #1
Followed by The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot
Finding a genuine haunted house for a movie set sounds like fun — and a great way to generate publicity for the Three Investigators’ new detective agency. But when the boys arrive for an overnight visit at Terror Castle — home of a deceased horror-movie actor — they soon find out how the place got its name!
Some of you may have deduced that lately I have found myself in a bit of a reading slump. That is not actually reflected in the posts I have made on this blog but rather the absence of new material. This past fortnight I have found myself either abandoning books or, in one case, finishing it but deciding against writing a post as I have no wish to vent my dislike of something I was never likely to enjoy anyway and which I was reading for a professional obligation.
I have previously shared the importance of the Three Investigators stories to my first becoming interested in mystery fiction and have made a habit of acquiring any copies I come across in second-hand bookshops. When I recently stumbled onto a copy of The Secret of Terror Castle, the first in that series, the timing seemed auspicious and I decided the time was right to revisit one of the old favorites…
The story outlines the formation of the investigative team after Jupiter Jones wins the rights to the use of a gold-plated limo and a rather starchy (but ultimately quite lovable) chauffeur for a month. Hearing that movie director Alfred Hitchcock is in town in search of a haunted house for his new picture, Jones proposes that the three try to find one that will suit his needs.
The house they find is the ominously-named Terror Castle, the former home of a silent movie star who died in a mysterious accident many years earlier. The house seems to unsettle anyone who steps foot in it after dark which the trio confirms when their own initial expedition meets with failure as the boys find themselves fleeing in terror. Determined not to fail however, Jones pushes his friends to return and discover the house’s secrets.
One of the surprises for me in revisiting this was that the process of forming the investigative team is essentially glossed over. The competition where Jones wins the limo provides the means but we are told that this is something that he had long thought about and it is presented as something of a fait accompli where he tells his friends and they basically just go along with the idea. That would clearly not work in a teen or young adult book but it feels pretty appropriate in this context, particularly as it reinforces that Jones can be rather domineering.
He is the standout member of the team, displaying a much stronger personality than either of the other investigators. While the other two are basically defined by their roles – the bookish one and the sporty one – Jones is given something of a backstory to justify some of his skills, such as a talent for mimicry which is used rather amusingly early in this story. My memory is that the others fare better in some of the subsequent stories but the choice to focus on one character is probably the right one for an introductory story as it does rather streamline the decision-making process.
I enjoy a lot about the early chapters of the book with the attempt to get into the studios to see Mr. Hitchcock being a particular delight. While they enjoy a great degree of luck and some elements that might frankly be described as pure fantasy (why exactly is a schoolmate working as his secretary?), it makes for pretty amusing reading and gets things off to a promising start. There is even a hint of a rivalry with another kid from school that will be called back nicely later in the story.
While I enjoy the way Arthur pulls the elements into place, I think the premise for this adventure is rather weak. There is, of course, the practical question of why Hitchcock would not be aware of a house in his immediate vicinity that meets the needs of his production. Even if we accept that though, I think that there is a broader question as to why, having established that the house is pretty freaky, they need to explain why to meet their client’s needs. Sure, Jupe gives a justification for this in the book but it isn’t very convincing – at least to this now-adult reader.
Fortunately the setting for the story, the titular Terror Castle, is appealing and intriguing enough to get me to overlook my issues with the setup. The question of why the house is able to elicit a sense of terror in those inside it is an intriguing one and I quite enjoyed the explanation for the house’s reputation, even if the explanations for a few individual components of that are a little less convincing.
Along the way we get to follow some rather solid investigative work done by the boys, turning up some pretty good clues. An encounter with a neighbor offers some particularly strong examples of this and while they are unlikely to trouble adult readers, this is exactly the sort of material that caught my imagination and really appealed to me when I was first reading this as a preteen.
It is this aspect of clueing that I think is the reason this series retains much of its appeal for me as an adult. While this is clearly a simple mystery by adult standards and there are some childish aspects to the setup, Arthur never talks down to his readers. Nor are we asked to believe that his child protagonists have unnatural abilities (or luck) – instead they use observation and deduction to work out what is going on.
While The Secret of Terror Castle may not be one of the best Three Investigators mysteries, it is still a really enjoyable, engaging read and, more importantly, it sets things up beautifully for the adventures to follow. There is even a nice lead-in to the next adventure which, if memory serves, is rather a good one…
The Verdict: This does a fine job of introducing the characters and the premise, even if the case is not one of their strongest.