When people ask me how I got to be such a mystery fan, I usually say, “Alfred Hitchcock.”
However, it wasn’t because of his movies; I was in college before I ever saw one. (North By Northwest, still my favorite.) It wasn’t the TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, either, though I did like that when I finally saw a couple of reruns in high school.
No, it was his series of children’s books that got me, back in the third grade.
Wait, what? I hear some of you saying. Hitchcock wrote kid’s books?
No, not really. I don’t think he even read half the books his name was attached to. But what you have to understand is, back in the fifties and sixties, when his movies were in theatres and his TV show was airing, Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t just famous, he was a BRAND. Complete with his own logo, even.
In addition to the weekly TV show, there were records, there was Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and starting in 1959, there was a series of hardcovers from Random House. These were collections of short stories featuring the same sort of macabre sucker-punch suspense and wicked wit that the TV show made famous.
These were really terrific books, edited by Robert Arthur and featuring work from Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Gerald Kersh, Henry Slesar… really it was a who’s who of the suspense and horror fiction stars of the day. The books were hugely successful.
Random House, and Robert Arthur, didn’t need a house to fall on them. In 1961, they followed up with a line of similar anthologies, these aimed at the young-adult market. And those were the ones that got me, at the tender age of eight. I found this one in the Lakewood Elementary School library, and I was hooked for life. Alfred Hitchcock’s Solve-Them-Yourself Mysteries.
This is still my favorite of them all, because Robert Arthur not only wrote five extremely clever mystery stories, but he had “Alfred Hitchcock” introduce them, and even show up in the middle every so often to tease a clue, as in this moment from “The Mystery of the Seven Wrong Clocks”–
I wasn’t going to tell you, but carried away by a spirit of generosity, I shall reveal that an extremely suggestive clue made a brief appearance early in our drama and will not be seen again. Having said that much, my lips are sealed.
(Honesty compels me to admit that, despite poring over the preceding pages, I did NOT get this damn clue and I felt extremely stupid when the answer was revealed. But the story was still awesome.) I loved puzzles, I loved action, I loved suspense, and in this book, even more than other juvenile mysteries I had seen, there was a chance to participate. These weren’t bloodless two-pagers like Encyclopedia Brown, either. These were hardcore murder mysteries where you got to match wits with a killer.
The illustrations by Fred Banbery were amazing too.
Banbery is probably most famous for his work on Paddington Bear, but there’s nothing cuddly about these. I adored the weird angles and the sinister atmosphere he gave everything.
I immediately sought out the others in the school library. Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Houseful…
These were not mystery anthologies, but rather collections of supernatural horror and suspense fiction. Both of them wonderful books as well, showcasing authors ranging from Mark Twain to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to H. G. Wells, interspersed with more modern tales from Henry Kuttner, and, of course, Robert Arthur himself. Both came with more delightfully atmospheric illustrations from Mr. Banbery. Shortly thereafter, the library acquired a brand-new one, Alfred Hitchcock’s Sinister Spies.
This was another great collection, this time illustrated by Paul Spina. He was no Fred Banbery, but he did okay.
There was one that eluded me for months, though. Occasionally I would see a kid with Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum but every time I asked school librarian Mrs. Hunter about that one, it was checked out. I imagine it was the word “monster” in the title that made it such a hot item.
Finally I filled out a reserve slip for it, and my turn came.
I gotta tell you, that book just freaked my shit right the hell out. When the cover copy suggested that it would take daring to read this book, it did not exaggerate.
Part of it was the illustrations by Earl Mayan. They were in a weird photo-collage style that was extremely unnerving to eight-year-old me.
Hugely atmospheric and effective, but… so creepy.
Editorially the style was different as well. These stories drew far more heavily on the SF and pulp community, writers like Paul Ernst and Theodore Sturgeon and Ray Bradbury, and those guys brought it. That book honestly gave me nightmares, and to this day I still get a little visceral shudder when I look at those Mayan pieces. But I still loved it. It was BAD ASS.
The really great find, though, was the Three Investigators series.
Robert Arthur, seeing the potential in a Hitchcock-themed series like the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, launched the Three Investigators in 1964 with The Secret of Terror Castle.
It is impossible to overstate the impact the Three Investigators had on me. For a kid like me who had found the Hardy Boys vaguely bloodless and unsatisfying, this was the real stuff. As “Alfred Hitchcock” put it in his rather arch introduction…
I SEEM TO BE constantly introducing something. For years I’ve been introducing my television programmes. I’ve introduced motion pictures. And I’ve introduced books of mystery, ghost and suspense stories for my fans to shiver with.
Now I find myself introducing a trio of lads who call themselves The Three Investigators, and ride in a gold-plated Rolls-Royce, solving mysteries, riddles, enigmas and conundrums of all kinds. Preposterous, isn’t it?
Frankly I would prefer to have nothing to do with these three youths, but I rashly promised to introduce them. And I am a man of my word – even though the promise was extorted from me by nothing less than sheer skulduggery, as you will see.
To the business at hand, then. The three boys who call themselves The Three Investigators are Bob Andrews, Pete Crenshaw, and Jupiter Jones, all of whom live in Rocky Beach, a small city on the shore of the Pacific Ocean some miles from Hollywood.
Bob Andrews, who is small but wiry, is something of a scholarly type, although with an adventurous spirit. Pete Crenshaw is quite tall and muscular. Jupiter Jones is – well, I shall refrain from giving you my own personal opinion of Jupiter Jones. You will have to decide about him for yourself after reading the pages that follow. I shall simply stick to the facts.
Therefore, though I would be surely tempted to call Jupiter Jones fat, I will simply say, as his friends do, that he is stocky. As a very small child, Jupiter Jones appeared in a television series about a group of comical children – a series I am happy to say I never encountered. However, it appears that as an infant he was so fat and comical in appearance, he was known as Baby Fatso and made millions laugh at the way he kept falling over things. This gave him a deep aversion to being laughed at. In order to get himself taken seriously, he studied furiously. From the time he could read, he read everything he could get his hands on – science, psychology, criminology, and many other subjects. Having a good memory, he retained much of what he read, so that in school his teachers found it best to avoid getting into arguments with him about questions of fact. They found themselves proved wrong too often.
If at this point Jupiter Jones sounds rather insufferable, I can only agree with you heartily. However, I am told he has many loyal friends. But then, there is no accounting for the tastes of the young.
Now I could tell you a great deal more about him and the other boys. I could tell you how Jupiter won the use of the gold-plated car in a contest. I could tell you how he established a local reputation for finding lost articles, including runaway pets. I could – But I feel I have done my duty. I have more than lived up to my promise. If you haven’t skipped all this long ago, you are probably even gladder than I am that this introduction is ended.
I longed to be a detective with a secret junkyard headquarters and a Rolls-Royce, hanging with Hitchcock the way these boys did. It was an intoxicating premise, and Robert Arthur was no slouch at plotting mysteries, either, which helped. Lakewood had the first four: the aforementioned Terror Castle, The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot, The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, and The Mystery of the Green Ghost.
I devoured all four, repeatedly, and for a couple of years I thought that was all there were. Then one day at K-Mart I ran across the ELEVENTH in the series…
…The Mystery of the Talking Skull. Galvanized, I somehow managed to wheedle the buck and a half out of my parents to purchase it, and it became my quest for the next couple of years to acquire the others listed on the back cover.
Sadly, Talking Skull was the last one from Robert Arthur. He passed away in 1969. The series did not end with him, though. There were thirty-two more books from other writers that followed, and I confess I’m very partial to the ones by Mary Carey– The Singing Serpent and The Flaming Footprints, in particular.
Even the passing of Alfred Hitchcock himself in 1980 did not slow down the Three Investigators.
The Hitchcock references in the early books were taken out, and replaced with the fictional “Hector Sebastian.” The familiar Hitchcock silhouette was replaced with a generic keyhole logo. But the series kept on, finally ending with The Mystery of the Cranky Collector in 1987.
There were even a couple of movies, The Secret of Skeleton Island and The Secret of Haunted Castle, respectively. They came out long after I was in the third grade and really able to appreciate them, but when Julie and I acquired the DVD of Skeleton Island a while back we thought it was pretty good.
I missed Alfred Hitchcock, though. Even if it WAS really Robert Arthur doing his best Alfred Hitchcock impression in the original books, nevertheless, without Hitchcock… it’s just not the same.
Back next week with something cool.