"You know, we do make a pretty good team... especially when the chips are down."- Jonny Quest (The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest)
Robert Arthur was the literary father of those three young lads, Jupiter "Jupe" Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews, who together form The Three Investigators and they were formerly introduced to the world in The Secret of Terror Castle (1964).
The Secret of Terror Castle was the point of departure for a successful, long-running series of juvenile mysteries that covered a large chunk of the second half of the previous century and would finally comprise of forty some volumes written by five different authors – such as William Arden, M.V. Carey, Nick West and Marc Brandel. Additionally, there were two, short-lived spin-off series, published as Find-Your-Fate Books and Crimebusters, several audio-plays, puzzle books and even some recent TV-movies from 2007 and 2009.
All of that began with Robert Arthur and his very Scooby Doo-like mystery-and adventure novel, which, after this clunky, rickety written introduction, is going to be the subject of this blog-post.
The Secret of Terror Castle opens, like most of the stories from this series, with an introduction from that famous film director, Alfred Hitchcock, who is a recurring side character in these books. There is, however, an obvious difference in their first outing: the reader is told how this unlikely partnership exactly came about and according to Hitchcock it was accomplished "by nothing less than sheer skullduggery." He sort of has a point.
Jupe, Pete and Bob were probably not the first boys to try their hands at the detective business, but very few kids had the starter-kit they had: a damaged, thirty-foot mobile home trailer hidden among the piles of junk in the Jones Salvage Yard. The boys have converted the trailer in a headquarters and equipped the place with "an office, laboratory and photographic darkroom" with "several hidden entrances." On top of that, they've stack of professional looking, evocatively worded business cards in their pockets and an unrecorded case to their credit – which involved the recovery of a lost diamond ring. There was only one thing missing: a client. Luckily, they've a plan!
A local car rental company held a contest: a big jar full of beans stood in their window and offered the use of a luxurious Rolls-Royce and a chauffeur for thirty days to whoever guessed the nearest to the right number of beans. Jupe spent several days "calculating how much space was in the jar" and "how many beans it would take to fill that space." Suffice to say, he won the thirty day use of the gold-plated Rolls-Royce and the services of an English chauffeur, named Worthington, which are used as a respectable front to get pass the gates of World Studios. It also helped that Jupe drew on his background as a child actor and pretended to be Hitchcock's nephew.
Hitchcock is searching for "an authentic haunted house," which he wants to use as a setting in his suspense movie, but location scouts are scattered across various states and the boys offer to help find a haunted much closer to the film studios – in exchange Hitchcock has to introduce their first case. It takes some additional effort to convince the movie director, but they eventually leave the film studio with a genuine assignment in their pockets.
Well, not surprisingly, the boys already had a location in mind: Terrill's Castle. A strange, castle-like building located in a narrow gulch, called Black Canyon, which became known as Terror Castle in the wake of the owner’s disappearance.
Stephen Terrill was "a big star back in the silent-film days" and played in all kinds of horror pictures about ghosts, werewolves and vampires. He was basically the Vincent Price of his days and loved to frighten people, which is reflected in the construction of his home: Terrill imported construction materials from supposedly haunted buildings world-wide, which included Japanese timbers "of an ancient, ghost-ridden temple" and stones from a haunted castle on the Rhine – stuffing the place with ancient suits of armors, unsettling portraits and Egyptian mummy cases.
On a quick side note, one of the first chapters referenced Ellery Queen and the character of Terrill, in combination with his private "castle," recalled Drury Lane and his castle-like home on the Hudson. A sly nod to Ellery Queen? Anyway...
The dawn of the talkie spelled the end of Terrill's movie career and this devastated the Man of a Million Faces, which caused him to lock himself up in his castle and brood, before he completely vanishing from the face of the earth – leaving only an empty car at the bottom of a cliff and a threatening note behind.
In the note, Terrill placed a curse on the house and promised that nobody would be able to live there. His spirit seems to have made good on that promise, because everyone who tried to stay there ran out of there faster than a bat out of hell. And that scared off a lot of potential buyers.
Jupe, Pete and Bob make several assaults upon the haunting entities of Terror Castle, but they first have to overcome "a sensation of extreme terror" and "impending doom" that befalls everyone who crosses the threshold of the castle. The first time they experienced this they left cartoon smoke behind. Regardless, they slowly penetrate through "the fog of fear" and begin to gauge the truth behind the paranormal activity of the place, which includes a nifty spectral appearance in the projection room – namely "a shimmering blob of misty blue light" that conjured "ghostly wheezes and screeches" from a ruined pipe-organ. A large chunk of these apparently paranormal events can be labeled as semi-impossible problems, but their explanations were of the obvious, timeworn variety. Only how the sense of terror was achieved was somewhat fresh and original. But hardly enough to quality the book as an impossible crime story.
The first explanation offered for the identity of the ghosts and the motivation for creating a haunted house is obvious one, but then Arthur surprises both the boys and the readers by springing a surprise twist on them – which was not foreshadowed and very, very hackneyed. It showed Arthur had his roots in the pulps, but this was pretty bad and the only positive part was that it placed Jupe and Pete in very tight spot. And that always makes for a good scene or two in this series.
Luckily, the second twist rectified all that was wrong with the first twist and provided an overall satisfying explanation for the plot. There was, however, one obvious flaw in the overarching plot: why were Hitchcock's location scouts not aware of a haunted castle so close to the film studio?
The Secret of Terror Castle is, ultimately, a very simplistic story, but therefore not a bad one and for an opening salvo to a long-running series it was actually pretty good. I've read some pretty bad debuts from regular mystery authors and this was definitely not one of them. So this was an auspicious beginning of the series.
Other books reviewed in this series: The Secret of Terror Castle (1964), The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965), The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966), The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966), The Mystery of the Moaning Cave (1968), The Mystery of the Shrinking House (1972), The Secret of Phantom Lake (1973) and The Mystery of the Invisible Dog (1975).