Originally published 1964
The Three Investigators #2
Preceded by The Secret of Terror Castle
Followed by The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy
Seven talking parrots have vanished into thin air with the Three Investigators in hot pursuit. Together, the three birds can repeat a coded message from beyond the grave. But the boys aren’t the only ones who want to hear the dead man’s secret…
In spite of the introduction promising a ‘spine-chilling adventure’ and the attempt to conjure up some spooky atmosphere with the cover art to this reprint edition (which sadly replaces Alfred Hitchcock with mystery novelist Hector Sebastian), one of the things that struck me most about this second novel was how lacking in atmosphere it felt. While there are certainly some moments of tension and peril for our young heroes, the action here takes place largely in the daylight and there is absolutely no attempt to conjure up any sense of the eerie or supernatural at work. This struck me as a bit of a shame given how that was one of the strengths of the previous volume and, indeed, many of the stories I remember best from this range.
Instead of spooks and eerie old houses, this outing sees our intrepid heroes on the trail of a couple of missing parrots. When they discover one of their potential clients tied up and a car speeding away, they realize that someone is stealing parrots – the question is, why?
While it is important to recognize that these mysteries were written for children, I ought to stress that the mystery angle of this story is pretty neglible. The concept that each parrot had a strange name and had been taught to recite a message by its previous owner is introduced very early and clearly suggests that we are being set up for a treasure hunt rather than a clearly clued puzzle. The book delivers on that, providing lots of adventure but next to no detection.
What makes that a particular shame, at least for this nostalgic reader, is that clues to the treasure hunt feel underwhelming. Some are quite clever, I think particularly of the one delivered by Shakespeare, but it feels that several of the other birds are only there to bulk up the numbers, contributing little to the problem’s resolution. It certainly didn’t match the complex riddle I remembered from the last time I had read the story as a preteen.
The book scores a little better for its action and adventure, such as the fun sequence which opens the novel. This throws us straight into the action as two of our heroes, Jupiter and Peter, arrive to speak with a client only to get a bit of a surprise and find themselves in a bit of unexpected danger. The scene, while admittedly a little silly, does do a fine job of reacquainting us with the characters, their personalities and their goals and also injects a little tension and suspense into the proceedings.
Later chapters follow throw on the promise of this opening, presenting multiple antagonists for our young heroes to overcome. These moments aren’t always subtle or even all that credible but they do help sustain that sense of excitement and provide a little pressure that helps sell the urgency of their investigation.
For me though the real pleasure in this story was not in its plot which I admit to be underwhelmed by on revisiting it, but in the efforts taken to build up the world of our three heroes. While we get flashes of Jupiter’s home in the previous novel, this delves deeply into it, providing a base of operations hidden in a trash heap that this reader, as a preteen, longed to get inside and explore. We also meet Jupiter’s family and get a nice glimpse of their values in the way they interact with a character we encounter in the course of this novel.
I also respected Arthur’s attempts to discuss child poverty and to have our heroes model kindness and empathy in their interactions with the character that affects. While the writing in those passages may feel a little heavy-handed and perhaps a little message-y, the author does make sure that the character is presented with dignity and their experiences are framed in a way that the children reading it could understand.
Still, as much as I like spending time with Jupiter, Peter and Bob, I don’t think this holds up with the best entries in the series. There is very little deduction or even much in the way of observation, and while there is some fun to be had – especially with the charming concept of a children’s telephone information network they call the Ghost-to-Ghost hookup that gets used a couple of times in this story – I wished the story had made the question of why these thefts were taking place a little more mysterious or sustained it for a little longer.
The Verdict: The case itself feels slight with the author giving us too much, too early, reducing the sense of mystery about what’s going on. There are a few nice, adventurous moments but on the whole this didn’t match the quality of its predecessor.
JJ @ The Invisible Event also viewed this as a step down in quality. Their post is a little spoilery, giving you all of the coded messages, but it makes some excellent points – particularly about the idea that a character in this story is reminiscent of one from Father Brown.
Elsewhere Bev @ My Reader’s Block liked the blend of elements at play here, appreciating the mix of mystery and adventure.