Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Books That Made Me - Part 1

Jupiter, Pete & Bob. My best friends in childhood.

I had an exchange of views on Twitter last week. No, not one of those I-can-scream-louder-than-you, or My-outrage-is-better-than-your-outrage exchanges so popular on that Hellsite. This one was about a particular series of books and why they -The Three Investigator Novels – were the most successful gateway drug in history. And finding out I was not alone in my love for these books, or in  my firm belief that they made me a better person and helped create the writer I am today made me very happy.
And since I figure there aint enough happy or simple joy in the world these days, please forgive me a thousand words or so of complete Stanning...

I was a quiet kid, with an obsession for books of all kinds.
I loved the anthropomorphic cats and bears in Richard Scarry’s works, read the Famous Five books, enjoyed The Hard Boys and Nancy Drew, and then something amazing happened:
My Dad bought me one of the Three Investigators books. It was The Mystery of The Laughing Shadow (Book 12 in the series).
My dad and I loved Alfred Hitchcock movies, and the books – in an early approach to celebrity endorsement / branding – were introduced by the Auteur, who often featured as a character in them. By the time I was introduced to Jupiter Pete and Bob, the series had already been running for 13 years, having commenced in 1964 when Robert Arthur – who had previously edited several short story collections attributed to Alfred Hitchcock – sold the idea of a series of teenage mysteries to Random House.
Over time, other writers had contributed to the series, principally William Arden (who wrote The Laughing Shadow amongst others), Nick West, and Mary Virginia (MV) Carey, who wrote many of my personal favourites.
The head investigator, Jupiter Jones, lived with his Aunt and Uncle in a vast salvage yard, and had built – amongst the scrap and salvage – an operations centre with hidden entrances; a true boy’s den. The boys, too young to drive, were driven around – thanks to a competition win – in a chauffeur driven limo, while the animosity between the boys and their sworn enemy, the perma-cocky Skinny Norris, whose bullying attempts to spoil their plans felt, so often, like a replay of my daily life, resonated with me.
But unlike my life, the boys got to hang out with Alfred Hitchcock; they seemed, permanently, to be on some extended school vacation; and they lived in Southern California.
Many of the normal mundanities of life – school, homework, the general depressions of a childhood in 1980s Dublin – could simply cease to exist for as long as my nose was buried in a Three Investigator book.
I stopped buying them in 1986 when I moved to London and began working. I guess I figured I was grown up now, and it was time, as they say “To put aside childish things.”
But some years later, on a visit back to Dublin, I packed my entire collection into a suitcase and brought them back to London with me, their presence in my flat symbolising the fact that I had settled, that where I was – now that The Three Investigators were there with me – was finally home.
The investigators are lead by Jupiter Jones, a chubby, smart mouthed intelligent kid, who is a former child actor named "Baby Fatso” (although he hates it when people mention this). Jupiter is a prolific reader, often rubs his peers up the wrong way and is driven by his own morality and belief in the power of logic and creative thinking (So: not much psychology required there to figure out why I fell for this series).
Jupiter was joined by Pete Crenshaw, the athletic leg of the trio, more likely to be the one who tackled the escaping criminal to the ground, though Pete was never drawn as being pure brawn without brains; he was as capable of challenging assumptions and of suggesting possible motives or viewpoints as the lead investigator.
Bob Andrews made up the trio. The researcher, who – in pre-Google days – would scour newspaper morgues, school libraries, and interview witnesses face to face, produced, often, the killer clue that Jupiter and Pete would then extrapolate into a solution to the mystery. Bob did all of this, in the early books, while wearing a leg brace to heal multiple leg fractures, thus – in late 60s / early 70s fiction – presenting a differently abled person as a positive independent and equal contributor to the endeavour, and doing so in a way which never felt shoehorned in.
In fact, the boys also faced off against menaces which, whilst entirely present in much of today’s YA market, were definitely unique at the time.
I can barely imagine any of Enid Blyton’s detective gangs facing down someone trying to swindle a Mexican family out of their ranch purely because of their race, let alone the Secret Seven dealing with obsession or the supernatural (Whispering Mummy), and in “The mystery of The Magic Circle,” Carey dealt with the sad isolation of faded Hollywood Fame in the same stark fashion as ‘Sunset Boulevard.’
The books were written by the various authors in a style that could be described as Pulp-Lite. The story started almost on the first page (if not the first line), the writing was snappy and direct. There were outlandish titles (“The Secret of Skeleton Island,” “The Mystery of The Moaning Cave,” “The Mystery of The Headless Horse” to name a few) designed to pull the readers in, and reveals that – at the end of the book – made absolutely perfect sense in light of what had been planted through the plot up to that point.
Chapters ended, mostly, on cliffhangers, and the danger was real. In “The Magic Circle,” for example, Bob is bashed on the head, knocked unconscious, dumped in the trunk of a car in the middle of a scrap yard in Southern California, and left to die of heat stroke. Beat that, Hardy Boys.
And now I write books. Mystery books. Books peopled with characters who run the gamut from loveable to quirky to monstrous, and who are all (or mostly) comfortable in their own skins.
I owe Robert Arthur and MV Carey particularly a great debt, and one I hadn’t fully realised until recently.
The books have been somewhat bogged down in legal wrangles in recent years, but I still firmly believe they have a place in the pantheon of great often overlooked crime writing and can’t imagine my life – as a kid, as an adult, or as a writer of crime fiction that entertains and celebrates life in all it’s difference – without The Three Investigators.
So: What are the books that made you? Which childhood favourite has stayed with you til today, and which parent, relative, librarian teacher turned you on to the sheer joy of a brilliant story well told? I'd love to know.

A small selection of my most treasured posessions.

(Portions of this post originally appeared on the blog


Jim Wilsky said...

Thanks for the memories, really enjoyed this post. I had a very similar reading relationship but being the ancient fossil that I am, Frank and Joe Hardy were my guys way back when. I don't know how many I read but it was verging on an unhealthy obsession - and you could do another post just on the covers and artwork. Btw, a good and prolific writer friend of mine has a wealth of knowledge on old mags and books. James Reasoner has a blog named Rough Edges. While he writes mainly westerns, he features posts on old books and covers across all genres. If you have an interest in old publications, it's worth a visit. Thanks again for posting this.

Derek Farrell said...

Thanks Jim, so glad you enjoyed it. Lots of love for this series and the Hardy Boys (&Nancy Drew) on Twitter right now. Isn’t it brilliant in a world as grim as ours is right now when something as simple as the books that made us can bring such an outpouring of love an positivity? Will definitely check out Rough Edges.

Scott D. Parker said...

Loved this post! As a kid of the 70s, these three were my friends. I read the Hardy Boys of course, but I identified with T3I. Heck, I even built a fort in my backyard accessible only from underneath the floor.

I read them all during late elementary and middle school years, often walking to school with a book in front of my face, relying heavily on my peripheral vision not to get hit by cars. I loved finding the original versions because of the illustrations. The drawings would often be omitted in the Scholastic versions.

I still own all my T3I books. A few are on my boy's bookshelf although he doesn't read them. I re-read the first one a few years back. And in a bit of wonderful coincidence, I have one of my old books on my summer TBR pile. I think it was Haunted Mirror.

The sensibility of T3I books must have sunk in deep because I tend to write books that are lighter and more fun rather than dark and gritty.

I echo Jim's comments on James Reasoner's blog. Essential reading because he's a lifelong reader who seems to forget nothing he's read.

Thanks for this post.

BTW, he's that link to my review of Secret Castle:

HC Newton said...

Growing up in the pre-Internet age, I'd always hoped there were T3I fans out there in the world besides myself, but wasn't sure. Glad to see I wasn't the only one (despite what my library's circulation and nearby bookstore offerings would suggest). Great post!

And excellent point about Bob's brace. Hadn't thought of it in those terms before.

Derek Farrell said...

@scott, I loved that review. The Nero Wolfe thing was sharp, and helps explain why I love those stories too. And the age thing definitely had something to do with me associating with them as well as I did. So brilliant that my posting has brought out so much love for T3I.

@HC Newton, yes, I fear the legal issued have made the books almost unfindable in recent years, so I'm really glad I kept my old versions (even if my mother's "When are you going to get rid of these old books?" Still rings round my head every time I look at them 8-)