"And now, Jim, we're to go in for this here treasure-hunting, with sealed orders too, and I don't like it; and you and me must stick close, back to back like, and we'll save our necks in spite o' fate and fortune."- Long John Silver (R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island, 1883)
Dennis Lynds was an American author who wrote under a number of pseudonyms, such as "Mark Sadler" and "John Crowe," but his most well known penname was "Michael Collins," under which a series of novels was published about a one-armed private-eye – named Dan Fortune. One of the Fortune stories, "No One Likes to Be Played for a Sucker," is favorite locked room short of mine and was anthologized by Edward D. Hoch in All But Impossible! (1981).
So I was slightly astonished to learn Lynds, a writer of hardboiled private-eye stories, was the man behind the name of "William Arden," which appeared on the cover of more than twelve juvenile mysteries in The Three Investigator series.
Last year, I reviewed The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965) and The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966). They were among the first half dozen entrants in the series and were penned by the creator of the three boy detectives, Robert Arthur, but for my next read I wanted to sample something by one of the authors who continued the series after his passing and Lynds had credentials as a bone-fide crime novelist – which helped settling down on my next read.
The Secret of Phantom Lake (1973) is a treasure hunt story in the tradition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Musgrave Ritual," from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893), which begins when Jupiter "Jupe" Jones, Peter Crenshaw and Bob Andrews are chartered by Jupe's aunt, Mathilda Jones, to help move a collection from a closed down roadside museum. The place had "specialized in relics from old seafaring days" and the small collection was bought for resale in The Jones Salvage Yard, which included "an ornate Oriental teakwood chest" that's "bound with heavily decorated brass." It's a chest with a long, storied history and holds many secrets: one of them being a hidden compartment with a spring-powered contraption that hurled a dagger at Jupe. A booby trap that had been sprung over a hundred years ago, but still worked like it was rigged up yesterday. That's some old-fashioned craftsmanship for you!
However, even more important is the story surrounding the old sea-chest and the secret that was tucked away in the hidden compartment. But first...
There's a name stamped on the chest, Argyll Queen, which turns out to belong to a square-rigger that "sunk just off Rocky Beach about a hundred years ago." The ship wreck has always attracted whispered and hopeful rumors of possible treasure. Rumors that can be linked to another tragedy that seemed to be connected to the Argyll Queen: one of the survivors, "a Scottish sailor named Angus Gunn," settled not far from Rocky Beach, but was murdered there by four men in 1872 – all four of them were lynched before they could tell why they had done it.
A salient detail was that one of the men was the Captain of the Argyll Queen, which fueled the rumors he was after something Gunn had taken from the ship. There may be glimmer of truth behind these rumors, because what they found in the compartment was a long-lost journal that belonged to Angus Gunn and the seemingly mundane notations turn out to be hints to Angus' long sought after treasure. But they have some work to do and dangers to face down before they can lay their hands on their reward.
One of those dangers is an old, scar-faced sailors, named "Java Jim," who has an aura of the Old Sea Cook about him and appeared on the scene to claim ownership of the sea-chest the moment they laid eyes on it, but they refused to hand it over unless he could show proof of ownership – which did not sit well with the sailor ("there's danger in that chest, you hear?") and comes back on several occasional to attempt theft. But he's not the only one interested in the search for the treasure: a mysterious individual is following them around in a green car and is identified by the local historian, Professor Shay, as one of his former assistants who served a prison term for attempting "to sell valuable historical items from the Society's museum."
They also meet Mr. Rory McNab, a distant cousin of the direct descendants of Angus Gunn, which are respectively Mrs. Flora Gunn, a widow, and her young son, Cluny, who still life on the estate he left behind – which is called Phantom Lake. As the Gunn family explained, the valley where their castle-like home stands reminded Angus of his old home in the Scottish Highlands and therefore built a replication of Gunn Loch there. They certainly could use the money that a treasure brings with it for the uptake of the place, but Rory is perpetually skeptic of the entire operation and does not believe anyone could succeed to find the treasure after more than a century. If there ever was a treasure.
Well, these people seem to turn up wherever Jupe, Pete and Bob seem to go, which includes an abandoned mining town and a mist enshrouded island with phantom-shaped trees.
Of course, they find themselves in several tight or uncomfortable spots as someone, obviously, tries to slow them down, but the most eye-catching aspect of the plot is how a bunch of teenagers accurately reconstruct seemingly meaningless notes from over a hundred years ago. Simply notes about purchasing lumber, stone and other items. They even track down several stores that are still being run by descendants of the tradesman who sold Gunn those items in the 1800s and there are several references how some archives and records from "before 1900 were lost in an earthquake."
So I really liked that aspect of the plot and reminded me somewhat of Katsuhiko Takahashi's Sharaka satsujin jiken (The Case of the Sharaka Murders, 1983), in which an attempt is made to figure out the true identity of a famous woodblock printer from the late 1700s and the clues were equally old and nebulous.
In short: The Secret of Phantom Lake is not as filled with the kind of dangerous or exciting situations as the previous two books I read, but enjoyed the historical frame of the plot and appreciated the larger cast of characters that Arden played around with. The revelation of the culprit and how some of the characters were not what they seemed came straight out of the least-likely-suspect playbook, but somewhat dumb down to accommodate a younger reading audience. Still, it was fairly well down and liked the overall story. So that's really all for this lackluster review.
Finally, I want to draw your attention to the review I posted just only yesterday, which took a look at one of John Dickson Carr's most overlooked historical mysteries.