Monday, 23 January 2017

The Mystery Of The Sinister Scarecrow, by M. V. Carey

2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published and, to celebrate, I re-read and compiled my all-time Top 10 (safe in the knowledge that it would be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I posted my list here, having previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here).

During 2015 and 2016 I decided to re-visit some of the books I'd missed on that second read-through, without any intention of posting reviews but, as is often the way, it didn't quite work out like that.  I'm happy to say that's continued into 2017 and so here's an additional review...
Armada Format B paperback, first printed in 1982 (my edition), last reprinted 1984, cover art by Peter Archer
cover scan of my copy
Jupiter stopped dead in his tracks.  A living river of giant insects was pouring towards him over the doorstep - thousands and thousands of them, marching in a horrifying column across the floor and furniture.  One chair was already swarming with the creatures, like a waving undulating carpet.  There was no way out - Jupe was trapped!

At a lonely house in the mountains, a crime is committed.  Who is the culprit - the eccentric scientist, the neurotic woman, or the scarecrow that prowls in the night?  For The Three Investigators, the web of terror tightens…

detail of the US cover art by Robert Adranga
On their way to the Santa Monica Mountains, where Jupiter is about to embark on his first solo buying expedition for the Jones Salvage Yard, Hans has a blow-out on Chaparral Canyon Road.  Crossing a cornfield to get to a barn with phone wires, they are seized upon by entomologist Dr Charles Woolley, who seems to think Jupiter is a scarecrow.  It soon turns out that Woolley is being funded by Chester Radford, on whose ground the barn is located, to carry out research into army ants which can “easily eat a human - and have!”  Intrigued, they accompany Dr Woolley to the Radford Estate (having heard more about the scarecrow from a man who talks to them in a café), where they meet Chester’s highly-strung It-Girl sister Laetitia, Mrs Chumley, the disabled lady of the house, the Burroughs who are the live-in help and Gerald Malz, who runs the Mosby Museum across the road.  It appears that Laetitia, scared of spiders, bugs and pretty much everything else, is being targeted by the scarecrow but no-one else believes her.  Later, after Jupe is trapped in Woolley’s cabin by some army ants, the entomologist hires The Three Investigators to get to the bottom of things.

This is the eighth book in the series by M. V. Carey, following the wonderful Mystery Of The Magic Circle and, in general, works well.  Taking place almost exclusively around the Radford Estate - there’s a small piece at Headquarters, Uncle Titus appears briefly but Aunt Mathilda is only mentioned - it makes good use of that location, as well as Woolley’s barn full of experiments and the brutalist stylings of the Mosby Museum, which has no windows.  The characters are vivid and fleshed out well, enough to put them all under believable suspicion (Mrs Burroughs, for example, could easily have become a cartoon house-keeper), with Woolley and Laetitia coming off the best.  There’s also a nice, brief little cameo from Dr Barrister, one of Carey’s recurring characters, who first appeared in The Mystery Of The Singing Serpent.

The book isn’t without its flaws though.  Everyone is quick to accept the normality of a scarecrow wandering about (though it does become obvious why a little later on) whilst Jupiter is uncharacteristically remiss on picking up certain clues (though he comes good in the end) and one rescue has a bit of an unfortunate ‘with one bound he was free’ moment to it.  Having said that, the atmosphere helps tremendously - the book takes place in either bright sunlight or shades of twilight which are superbly described - and the whole piece has a great pace that helps paper over some of the cracks.

Well written - as we’ve come to expect from Ms Carey - with a good tone and some decent set pieces - the rampaging scarecrow bearing down on Pete in particular - this is perhaps slighter than some of her other entries in the series but still great fun.  A decent, entertaining read, I’d recommend this.

There were no internal illustrations for the UK edition (or the US one, for that matter) and this was the first book in the series to not have a hardback edition.

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

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