Monday, 14 July 2014

The Mystery Of The Dancing Devil, 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 1977 and never re-printed), cover art by Roger Hall
A horrendous being stood on top of the dune.  Vast and shaggy, with long horns, blazing red slit-eyes and rows of jagged teeth that glowed like fire, the creature was totally evil.

"What is it?" Pete quavered.

Before Bob or Jupe would answer, the demonic figure began to move slowly towards them...

The Three Investigators have been called in to investigate some bizarre thefts.  To late, they realise that their adversary is no flesh-and-blood thief, but a terrifying supernatural spirit known as the Dancing Devil...

internal illustration from the Collins/Armada
editions, by Roger Hall
A bizarre series of thefts have been perpetrated on Pete Crenshaw’s block and the Three Investigators are hired by his neighbour’s daughter Winifred (for 50c) to find her missing doll.  Setting a trap on a chill, foggy evening they not only discover the crook but also a terrifying apparation, allowing the criminal to escape.  Finding his location, though the clever use of Jupe’s walkie-talkie, they discover all of the stolen goods but also run into the Dancing Devil, a monster who appears to them on the beach.  Jupe correctly deduces that the criminal is looking for something that he hasn’t yet found and declares the case has just begun but what is the thief looking for - and what connection does he have to the horror of the Dancing Devil?

This is William (Dennis Lynds) Arden’s seventh entry in the series and I thought it was a great read.  Taking place solely in Rocky Beach - as did Arden’s last book, “The Mystery Of The Dead Man’s Riddle” - and giving us a whole new set of locations to imagine, this makes good use of the town and adds the story a nice flavour.  Opening on Pete’s street and staying close by for several chapters, it brings a touch of realism to a tale that, it has to be said, needs to be sometimes taken with a pinch of salt.  Now I like pulpy action, I like twinges of horror in my mysteries and so I loved the whole Dancing Devil (the spirit/demon/man, rather than the statue) concept (especially how people accept its existence) but I can see that others might have problems with it though who could deny that “The Dancing Devil of Batu Khan, dated 1241AD and inscribed ‘To the Exalted Khan of the Golden Horde’” isn’t a touch of brilliance.

With an interesting cast of characters - the boys are superbly written, with nice interplay and some smart touches of humour - from the ratty looking thief (who is only ever seen from a distance, his wearing a cape whilst trying to look inconspicuous another nod to pulp), to the mystery man with rimless glasses, from Andy the good-natured drifter to Jim Clay, son of businessman H P Clay who provides the MacGuffin for the tale and local bully Frankie Bender, great use of locations (especially the beach and canyons at night) and a neat little mystery, this is almost perfectly constructed.  On the downside, I felt that the middle section reminded me somewhat of Arden’s earlier “The Secret Of Phantom Lake” (with the curio shop and getting trapped on a boat), but that’s a minor niggle.

It’s tightly written, as is typical of Arden and full of twists and turns and with some stand-out set pieces along the way - Pete’s block at the start, the cave, the Demon on the beach.  Well paced, well constructed and damned good fun, this is a great entry to the series and I highly recommend it.

Armada format B paperback (printed between 1980 and 1982), cover art by Peter Archer

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)

1 comment:

  1. Dancing Devil is my pet peeve among all the 3I's series. The plot is probably the most absurd in the entire series. There's practically an eyeroll in every chapter. I guess if you're ranking books based on how much preteens would like them, maybe Dancing Devil is OK. But adults beware...your supply of suspension of disbelief may run dry!

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