After seeing an item in the paper about an auction, Jupiter Jones, leader of the Three Investigators, a junior detective firm in Rocky Beach, California, convinces his partners, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews, that they should attend. “Every new experience helps broaden our background as investigators,” he says.
At the auction, Jupe decides to bid on an old theatrical trunk. His winning $1 bid ends up costing the boys plenty in terms of danger in The Mystery of the Talking Skull, the 11th book in the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators Mystery Series.
The trunk belonged to a magician called The Great Gulliver and almost immediately after it becomes the boys’ property, a lot of people start to take an interest in it. Moments after the sale, an old woman tries to buy it for $25, but Jupe refuses to sell.
The mystery takes a turn toward the otherworldly when the boys discover a key component of the Great Gulliver’s act— a skull named Socrates that could supposedly talk. A skull that gets their undivided attention when it sneezes.
Later, when Jupe is alone with the skull at night, it tells him to go to a certain address. When he does, he learns from a Gypsy woman named Zelda that Gulliver “has vanished from the world of men. He is dead, yet he lives.”
She also asks Jupe to help find Gulliver and bring him back.
The boys learn that Gulliver spent time in jail for fortune telling and that his cellmate, Spike Neely, was a now-deceased bank robber who hid $50,000 somewhere. Jupe concludes that Gulliver vanished because criminals thought he knew the location of the money. He also realizes those criminals have likely reached the same conclusion about the Three Investigators, especially since the criminals had the opportunity to search the trunk and didn’t find any clue to the money’s location. For their own safety, the boys must figure out where Spike Neely hid the money and, if possible, what became of the Great Gulliver.
As I’ve said before, The Three Investigators is one of the best juvenile mystery series. The series, which ran from 1964 to 1987, was created by Robert Arthur, whose credits include co-creation of the radio program The Mysterious Traveler and editing or ghost-editing various Alfred Hitchcock short story anthologies.
The Mystery of the Talking Skull was the last Three Investigators book Arthur wrote before his death in 1969. It was also the first book in the series that I read, back in fourth grade, so I have a particular fondness for it. I reread the book recently and found that the story remains engaging. I will say the truth about one particular subplot seems obvious and I can’t help but wonder: Did I recognize that truth as a kid or accept things at face value, as the boys do?
In fairness to Jupe, once he learns he’s been tricked, he mentally kicks himself for not having noticed the obvious red flags.
Robert Arthur respected his readers’ intelligence, which is one reason I can still read and enjoy a Three Investigators book today. Bearing that in mind, maybe he expected readers to be one step ahead of the boys regarding that particular subplot.
Young readers probably also enjoyed the challenge of trying to decipher the hidden message Jupe is sure exists within the words of a short letter from Spike Neely to Gulliver. Really alert readers may have caught a clue in the frontispiece.
In addition to a well crafted mystery, The Mystery of the Talking Skull has some nice character moments. The whip smart Jupe falls for a practical joke by his uncle because he jumps to conclusions. He also misreads a key clue for the same reason. Though, his reasoning involving the clue is relatively sound.
All in all, The Mystery of the Talking Skull is an enjoyable read.
Copyright 2016 Patrick Keating.