Monday, 20 October 2014

The Mystery Of The Coughing Dragon, by Nick West

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 between 1971 and 1973), cover art by Roger Hall
Jupiter's smile slowly faded.  "Look behind you," he muttered hoarsely.  Whirling around, Pete and Bob stared, horror-struck, at what had to be impossible.  The cave was slowly opening wider, and something huge and slimy was crawling towards them from the sea.  Backing away, Pete gasped, "It can't be.  It's a dragon!"

Deep in a rocky cavern, a terrifying legend comes to life.  And The Three Investigators are trapped...

Illustration from the Collins/Armada editions,
by Roger Hall
Intrigued by a news report on a spate of missing dogs in the nearby town of Seaside, The Three Investigators receive a call from Alfred Hitchcock who has a case for them.  His friend, Henry Allen, an old-time horror film director, lives there and his dog, Red Rover, has also gone missing, bringing the total to six.  When the boys interview him, he says that whilst looking for his dog, he saw a dragon coming out of the surf and heading for the caves beneath the town.  The boys find it hard to believe - Allen used monsters in his movie - especially when he tells them he also heard the dragon cough but once they start investigating - first with his neighbours and then on the beach - events occur that point towards something very strange happening in the caves below Seaside.

Pete looked at Bob.  “How come he always outvotes us, one to two?”
Bob shrugged.  “He’s just more stubborn than we are. You and I are probably nicer people.”

Working under the pseudonym Nick West, this is the first of two entries in the series by veteran writer Kin Platt - his other being what I consider the worst book of the thirty, “The Mystery Of The Nervous Lion” - and it’s well constructed with plenty of humorous interplay between the boys (Platt started out writing comedy and I once saw his credit on an episode of “Top Cat”).  However, in a similar fashion to “The Mystery Of The Dancing Devil”, which would appear six years later, the central concept is quite preposterous (there’s no other way to put it) and might be difficult for readers to buy into but there’s a lot of pleasure to be gained if you can.

The bulk of the book takes place in Seaside (we don’t see any of the town) with the beach and cave systems being well realised and nicely atmospheric and West builds a plausible history for the city, layering it into the story until all of the (very small) cast are implicated in some way or another.  Headquarters makes an appearance and there’s a welcome return for Mr & Mrs Andrews, with Bob’s dad once again pointing his son on the right track and Pete’s dad helps out by loaning them a projector (I wonder if it was in the same case as the one from “Dancing Devil”?)

Well written and (as mentioned) with some amusing interplay between the boys, this has some excellent set pieces - the gadgetry of Mr Shelby, the collapsing staircase, Bob in quicksand, the odd little cave, the bigger cave, it’s always good to have Worthington involved- and a good pace.  Whilst their client, Henry Allen, only appears briefly, his backstory is well developed and leads into the mystery nicely while his neighbours are well sketched, from Mr Carter and his anger issues - which Bob discovers is tied into family matters when a risky project for Seaside collapsed - to Mr Shelby, his gadgets and the trouble they get him into.  Alfred Hitchcock plays a larger role this time round, running Henry Allen’s dragon film in his projection room for them and at one point, whilst doing his research, Bob finds a book (called ‘Man Is The Prey’ by James Clarke) that’s actually real, which I thought was a nice touch.  West also makes a couple of nice nods to the past, naming one of his thugs Harry (a tradition which, I think, started with “The Mystery Of The Whispering Mummy”) and Blackbeard has one line of dialogue, though he hasn’t been mentioned before and doesn’t appear again.  As for the coughing dragon, I liked the concept of it a lot and I think West uses it well, in terms of suspense (and it’s a chilling image in its ‘lair’), but it doesn’t really make any sense to the scheme that underpins the whole book.  Having said that, it suits the book perfectly and once you know what it is, all of the pieces of the mystery slot nicely into place.

If you can buy into the central concept and accept it for what it is, this is a lot of fun, with a good pace, smart sense of location and nice characterisation.  I did buy into it, I liked it a lot.
Armada format b paperback (printed in 1983 and never re-printed), cover art by Peter Archer
(incidentally, it's the same cover art as used by the format a paperback, printed between 1974 and 1980)
The internal illustrations for the UK edition were drawn by Roger Hall.

All of the images used are scans of my copies, though I would also direct you to Ian Regan's superb cover Art database here

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