June 27, 2010


The Three Investigators: The Mystery of the Laughing Shadow
by Alfred Hitchcock
130 pages, Armada, 1986

From ghost-to-ghost and line-to-line by Pat Black

Alfred Hitchcock? Cobblers!

Anyway, welcome to the world of The Three Investigators. While you will probably be aware of the Hardy Boys without ever having read the books, the ghost-written adventures of this trio of child detectives might be a novelty for you.

The name of Alfred Hitchcock on the front cover is something of a coup on the part of the publishers. The great man isn’t just the supposed author of all the books in the series, but he appears in them as a character, acting as a guiding, grandfatherly presence whenever the young sleuths need a hand.

When I got this particular book, on my 10th birthday, I knew that Alfred Hitchcock had directed Psycho, the film my dad had Expressly Forbidden me from watching... Though from my bedroom I could hear the music and the screaming during the shower murder scene as the rest of the Blacks checked out the late night horror show. It was probably worse than actually seeing it. Isn’t having an over-active imagination a wonderful thing?

Anyway, it’s even stranger to associate Hitchcock’s name with children’s books even now. What’s next – Wes Craven’s Ripping Adventurers? The David Lynch Sport Stars Annual? Lars Von Trier’s Campfire Thrills?

To the boys, then. Their business card – We Investigate Anything! - is always displayed in the opening chapter, and their roles are well defined for the reader. There’s the First Investigator, the stocky, cerebral Jupiter Jones, the brains of the outfit and its de facto leader. He also provides the trio’s headquarters, a trailer hidden in his aunt and uncle’s scrapyard. Next up is the Second Investigator Pete Crenshaw, who is only described as “muscular”, while poor old Bob Andrews gets the “Records and Research” gig. Talk about being last pick at the football, jeez.

What’s less well-defined are their characters. In truth, only Jupiter Jones actually has one. He is quite pompous with regards to the scope of his deductive abilities, although this view is usually supported by his results. In the constant references to his weight, I couldn’t help but wonder if this fellow was a sort of junior version of a certain heavyweight Hollywood director.

The other two, sadly, are blank slates, two total non-characters who are there to react to Jupiter, to join him as he runs away from enemies or to do whatever he tells them. This was something I noted in the Hardy Boys books, where the two lead characters were the blandest, possessed of nothing more than good behaviour. Perhaps this was deliberate on the part of the publishers, giving young readers a character into whose shoes they could comfortably slip. It’s not a bad thing, and it probably does follow the thought processes of children as they engage in any narrative – who’s your favourite? Who would you most want to be? Who will you “go” when you recreate the stories with your friends, or your toys? Though I prefer JK Rowling’s wonderful style of characterisation (even Harry Potter gets some real emotions and frustrations to deal with as he grows up), it’s important to read these books as if you were a child again. There’s method in the blandness.

Like the Hardy Boys, I was surprised by the amount of twists, turns and false trails the book provides in 130 pages. The laughing shadow in the title is more of a screeching shadow, and the boys encounter this terrifying apparition as they try to solve the mystery of a possible hostage in a mansion house, an idol stolen by a mean-looking fellow with a “wicked” knife, a hidden hoard of Chumash native American gold and a shadowy group of people who have a bizarre vendetta against the leader of the Vegetarian League. When things get too complicated for the trio, there’s Uncle Alfred, who works in nearby Hollywood, to give them pointers and to provide some handy exposition over the local history, myths and legends.

I liked the fact that the Investigators were obviously children in this book. Not for them the roaring cars, boats and motorcycles of the affluent late-teenage Hardys – they get around on push-bikes and communicate through toy walkie-talkies, and there’s a Spielbergian sense of a slightly ramshackle outfit, with a very cool den in their junkyard hideout.

They have a sense of fraternity with the other kids in their neighbourhood, too, which made me think of the flying BMX kids in ET or even the Goonies. Whenever they need information from the public, the Investigators use the Ghost-To-Ghost Hookup – basically a network of informants among the children of the local community. Unionised sleuthing? A very nice touch indeed, Mr Hitchcock.

I saw the investigators as being about 11 or 12, right on the verge of high school, adolescence and all that other messy growing up business. There’s no girls in these books; their meddling, interfering presence is kept well away from these pages, thank you very much. Though a part of me wonders if Hitchcock might have had a role in mind for a blonde girl, maybe once the boys get a little older?

Away, away from here!

So it’s kid’s stuff all the way. But the boys do get in trouble and face some deadly peril. Aside from the laughing shadow and his coterie of headless dwarfs (trust me, all will be revealed), they have to dodge some fellows who mean them serious harm with some very sharp implements. There’s one breathless chase up the side of a mountain that had all the hallmarks of a Hitchcock suspense movie, and that’s praise indeed.

One other thing that I liked about this book, and indeed the series, is that the villains have a sort of Scooby Doo quality to them. They aren’t just the snake-eyed (and sometimes foreign) criminals of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books – they’re usually in the guise of monsters, ghosts or other creepy apparitions. These are always guys in masks or some other sort of trickery – and they would have undoubtedly got away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky kids – but this adds a layer of spookiness and “monster-of-the-week” fun to the proceedings that I adored.

Who wouldn’t be freaked out by a shadow shrieking laughter at them in the dead of night? Or an evil-eyed scarecrow, taking a swipe at your with a scythe, as is depicted on the distinctly video nasty front cover of the omnibus edition in front of me?

Cool bananas.

***Our next day out: it’s Choose Your Own Adventure. Yay!***

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