Monday, 28 April 2014

The Mystery Of The Dead Man's Riddle, by William Arden

Since 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published, I thought it’d be enjoyable to re-read and compile my Top 10 (which might be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here), but this time I will concentrate on my favourite books and try to whittle the best ten from that.

So here we go.
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed in 1975), cover art by Roger Hall
Suddenly there was a loud crash and the houseboat lurched violently.

“We’ve broken loose!” cried Bob.  To their horror, the three boys saw they were already ten feet from the shore - and gathering speed rapidly.

“The dam!” Bob yelled.

A low roar grew louder.  Straight ahead the racing water of the creek surged over the dam in a thunderous mass.  There was nothing to stop them being swept to their deaths.

illustration from the Collins/Armada
editions, by Roger Hall
When local ‘wealthy eccentric’ Marcus ‘Dingo’ Towne dies, his will is revealed to be a challenge, with the person who finds his fortune able to keep it.  The boys are caught up in the hunt when Mr Andrews gives Bob an advance copy of it (to be published in the LA Times the next day) and also because Alfred Hitchcock (to his great displeasure) is named as an executor.  They are retained by Towne’s daughter-in-law Nelly and her fiancé Roger Callow (a lawyer) to find the fortune and assisted along the way by Nelly’s son Billy, who wants to be a detective himself.  The only problem is that the challenge is a set of six riddles, most of them written in rhyming slang (Towne’s father was a Cockney, though he was shipped to Australia as a convict) and once the news breaks, it seems that half of Rocky Beach is looking for the clues too.

This is the sixth entry in the series by William Arden (the pen-name of prolific mystery writer Dennis Lynds) and is, to my mind, pretty much perfect with a very sturdy mystery at its core.  Though hidden by good use of rhyming slang (something that I, as a kid, wasn’t aware of), the clues are clever and well realised and it’s fun to see how Jupiter cracks each one (though Billy manages to do a couple himself).

Staying close to home (often a benefit), this sends the boys all over Rocky Beach and the city is well described, with a great use of location in several sequences.  One of these is the key set piece (and the basis of all the cover art I’ve ever seen), where the boys are trapped on an old houseboat on the dam of the Ynez Creek.  It’s tightly written and exciting, allowing Pete to shine and builds the suspense up superbly (though the book makes it clear they’re ten feet from the bank, the artwork has them much further out).

There’s a lot of bright characterisation - especially Billy Towne, Dingo’s eight-year-old grandson who knows all about the Three Investigators and ends up a fourth partner (and wears a cape and deerstalker), Turk & Mr Savo and Dingo’s niece and nephew, the awful Winifred & Cecil Percival, two nasty piece of work English villains - along with some nice interplay between the boys.  The book also has a good sense of humour about it, typified by Pete’s eating habits and it runs at a cracking pace (I read the first half in one sitting and the time just flew by).  After opening on Bob writing up their last case (the search for Mrs Hester’s ring), we see the boys at school (and find out that Jupiter is president of the Science Club) and old favourite the Ghost-to-Ghost hook-up makes another appearance - and is used again by Billy, at a critical point of the story, where he makes his headquarters a phonebooth.

Featuring a well realised climax on the SS Queen Of The South, this is a cracking read, with a great sense of pace and I highly recommend it.

left - Armada format A paperback (printed between 1979 and 1980), cover art by Peter Archer
right - a US only illustration (by Jack Hearne) showing the boys arriving at Dingo Towne's place, after the riddle is published and the treasure hunters are out in force (see credit below)
Armada format B paperback (printed between 1982 and 1985), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy, 1983 impression)

The internal illustrations for the UK edition were drawn by Roger Hall.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)
US illustration, by Jack Hearne, thanks to Philip Fulmer at the T3I Readers Site

2 comments:

  1. Did you ever feel there was something a bit off-key about the title of this one. I love the story, but always felt the name didn't quite fit with the rest of the series. The other day I read an interview with Dennis Lynds and he also thought it a bit strange. "It doesn't sound like one of my titles," he said.

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  2. I agree, I think it was perhaps an effort to "jazz it up", but it doesn't really tell the story.

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