The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot by Robert Arthur

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.

Second Opinions

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.

The Secret of Terror Castle by Robert Arthur

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.

The Mystery of the Screaming Clock by Robert Arthur

Originally Published in 1964 (this date may well be wrong – Google has it as 1968 but the copyright page of my copy says 64 while Goodreads says 65).

Three Investigators #9
Preceded by The Mystery of the Silver Spider
Followed by The Mystery of the Moaning Cave

The alarm clock went off with the bloodcurdling scream of a woman in mortal terror! Who could have made such a clock – and why?

The Three Investigators immediately set out to discover where the mysterious clock came from. When they come across a run-down house in Hollywood, they find an entire room full of dreadful clocks – and time is running out!

Today’s post will likely feel a little different from my usual style, being as much about the impact this book (and the series) had on me as about its individual or distinctive features.

I was prompted to pick up a copy of this book off my shelf by a conversation I had with some of my colleagues during an online meeting. As an icebreaker we each presented a book that meant a lot to us as a child – my own choice was C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe which was the first book I recall setting out to read entirely by myself.

After the meeting was over though I started thinking about the mystery fiction I had read during those formative, preteen years. In particular, I thought about The Five Find-Outers, The Secret Seven, Joe and Frank Hardy and The Three Investigators. Of those I have the most fond memories of The Three Investigators.

Part of it was, I suspect, that I identified strongly with Jupiter Jones who, like me, was a bit of a know-it-all and somewhat big-boned. I felt far more affinity for Jupiter – a boy who used his brains and reasoning – than the impossibly clean-cut and athletic Hardy brothers or the prim types that filled Enid Blyton’s stories.

The reason I am writing about this title – the ninth in the Three Investigators series – is that it is one of the first I remember reading. I first picked up a copy of this book at a store somewhere in the vicinity of the world’s largest pear drop at Oswaldtwistle Mills in Lancashire (my memory is that it was in a gift shop associated with it but I cannot understand why they would have been selling it). I can only assume it was second-hand as my copy was one of the earlier editions presented by Alfred Hitchcock – a fact that led me to erroneously believe that he had actually written these until I was well into my teen years.

This is a pile of regularly-sized pear drops. The world’s largest pear drop is similar but bigger.
Image by Katie Hopkins – this has been cropped slightly. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

I enjoyed those first few volumes enough that I went on to pick up most of those early titles in the series although I was a little baffled by the sudden replacement of Alfred Hitchcock by some interloper by the name of Hector Sebastian. The Paragraph Paperback edition I read recently had been rewritten to feature Mr. Sebastian.

This particular installment in the series involves our intrepid trio of investigating chums finding a strange alarm clock that has been sold to Jupiter’s Uncle Titus as part of a box of junk. The alarm clock gives out a strong shriek when it goes off, leading Jupiter to think that there is a mystery there to be solved. He wants to find out who created the clock and why.

I noted in my response to JJ’s review of this story, this is one of the stories I remember best from the series. In my comment I speculated that this may be as much to do with the setting in which I bought and read it as the material itself – a trip to visit my grandparents. I do however recall shivering at the thought of a screaming alarm clock which perfectly hit the sort of creepy notes that were one of the chief appeals of the series to me (Whispering Mummy and Talking Skull are the other ones I clearly remember).

It soon transpires that this case will take the form of a sort of treasure hunt as the trio work with a teenaged boy to decipher clues that have been left for them. This device is quite a lot of fun, particularly as the clues involve a mix of general knowledge and lateral thinking, making them fair and accessible for an inquisitive preteen.

There is also a pretty surprising amount of action, some of which must have been quite gritty for a book aimed at this audience. Arthur puts several of the boys in pretty serious physical danger at points. While my adult self was confident that the trio would emerge unscathed, I am pretty sure that preteen Aidan would have been firmly perched on the edge of his seat.

Another aspect of this book I recall really finding interesting was the depiction of an aspect of the entertainment industry. In this case it was the idea of having an expert screamer for a radio series. Radio was an obsession of mine at that age (and I still love it) and so that idea really appealed to me.

What I think pleased me most in revisiting the story nearly twenty-five years after first reading it was that I felt it held up pretty well. There are a few far-fetched elements but Arthur pulls everything together very well towards the end, providing a logical explanation and making sense of what has happened and why.

Rereading it took me back to staying in my grandparents’ home in Preston, reading this on a very rainy afternoon while eating Eccles cakes and laying on their sofa. It is funny how a book from childhood can be bound up with so many other memories…

This leads me to wonder if you have any similar titles from childhood (or later) that are so tightly associated with a place or time. I’d love to read some of your own special titles.

The Verdict: To my delight this book held up to my memories of it. It’s a strong case with a great treasure hunt component.