Monday, 1 September 2014

The Mystery Of The Magic Circle, by M. V. Carey

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 1979 and never reprinted), cover art by Roger Hall
Suddenly Bob cried, “Something’s burning!”

The next moment a great billow of smoke gushed into the room, nearly suffocating them.  coughing and choking, Jupiter peered into the hall - it was a seething, glowing inferno.

“There’s no way out!” he sobbed.  “We’re trapped!”

When the memoirs of a famous actress mysteriously disappear, The Three Investigators are sure they can track down the thief.  But they soon discover that someone else has other plans - and that their adversary is determined to destroy the manuscript and its secrets forever…

Working for the summer in the mail room of Amigos Press, The Three Investigators are quickly drawn into a mystery surrounding the (potentially explosive) autobiographical manuscript of now-recluse movie star Madeline Bainbridge.  When the office is burned down - quite literally around them - it coincides with a robbery at a film restoration lab next door, of the negatives of Ms Bainbridges films which have recently been sold to television.  When the manuscript - hand-written and the only one in existence - is also stolen, the boys are hired by Amigos Press publisher ‘Beefy’ Tremayne to try and find it and the trail leads them to a lonely house in the hills, a haunted wood and mysterious happenings from the past.

Another strong entry in the series from M. V. Carey and it’s been one of my favourites since I first read it in 1983 (I have the 1982 Armada paperback).  Back then - as now - I got the impression from their working at Amigos Press (as Bob says “the private detective business is slow this summer, we thought we’d get some experience with office work”), that Carey was writing them as slightly older and I think it works really well.  The book also has a nice attitude - shared by Jupe - towards old-time Hollywood that really grounds this in reality.

With only the briefest appearance by Aunt Mathilda and Uncle Titus (Jupe watches the morning news programme with them, as it features the Amigos Press fire) and no mention of Headquarters, the action is all centred around Santa Monica and Hollywood and the locations are well used, especially as some of them are slightly grimier than you’d expect.  The Golden Age of Hollywood is written well, giving Madeline Bainbridge a nicely constructed and believable history.  Dabbling in the art of witchcraft, she headed a coven and regularly held Sabats, with her boyfriend Ramon Desparto dying after one of them in an accident she blames herself for (and which led to her withdrawing from public life).  She’s a great, if little-seen, character and Jupe’s observation at one point that she’s “a sleeping beauty in an enchanted castle” fits perfectly, though she is a bit too trusting of the boys as events develop later in the book.

As well written as ever, this has some excellent set pieces - the sabat the boys spy on, the haunted wood, the incident in the wreckers yard and the fire that opens the mystery - and the characterisation is vivid and sharp, with even the minor members of the coven having distinctive personalities.  Beefy Tremayne is well observed as are Jefferson Long - a minor actor with Bainbridge, now a famous crime reporter - and Marvin Gray, Bainbridge’s chaffauer who has an unpleasant air from the start.  Starting with a bang, this has a good pace, a concise plot that unravels well, a nicely nostalgic atmosphere and the boys interplay is brilliant.  Great fun, a terrific read, this is very highly recommended.

Armada format b paperback (published in 1981, last reprinted in 1982), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)

There were no internal illustrations for the UK edition, which is a shame as I'm sure Roger Hall would have done a great job.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)

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