As with any group of elementary school kids, my mid-1970s playground pals had a wide assortment of heroes. Some of us wanted to be Evel Knievel. Some of us idolized Joe Namath. Some of us modeled ourselves on “The Fonz.” And there was at least one kid in our gang who wanted to grow up to be Gene Simmons of Kiss. But from the ages of 8 to about 10, I really wanted to be Jupiter Jones.
“Jupe,” as he was known to his friends, was a former child actor living in the fictional Southern California town of Rocky Beach, who’d developed a penchant in his early teens for solving mysteries of the seemingly paranormal variety, often via the use of gadgets that he’d invented or built himself.
Well-read and exceptionally erudite for a junior high school student, Jupe was the kind of kid who could effortlessly toss “erudite” into a sentence, much to the shock of adults and the endless amusement of Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews, his partners in the junior detective group, The Three Investigators. Pete was a talented athlete who provided the muscle of the partnership, and Bob was a bookish kid with a flair for intensive research; but more often than not, it was Jupe’s stellar intellect, irrepressible curiosity and innate ability to zero-in on the most logical solution that brought their investigations to a successful close.
I first discovered Jupe and his friends at an elementary school book fair, around the time I graduated from second grade. I’m not sure what first caught my eye about that copy of Robert Arthur Jr.’s “The Secret of Terror Castle” — maybe it was the shiny silverback binding, or the cover illustration of three boys running screaming from what appeared to be a haunted house, or the fact that Alfred Hitchcock received top billing on the cover. I hadn’t even seen an Alfred Hitchcock film at that point, but I already knew he was considered a master of horror and suspense; and as I had already acquired a burgeoning taste for such things, I forked over a dime for the used paperback and took it home.
Thus began my obsession with The Three Investigators — or Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators, as they were indeed billed on the book’s cover. Hitchcock, who had already lent his name to a series of horror anthologies edited by Arthur, gamely allowed Arthur to include him as a character in the author’s new book series for young adults, of which “The Secret of Terror Castle” was the first installment. (Begun in 1964, the series was already up to over 20 books by the time I stumbled upon it.)
Film director Alfred Hitchcock is seen in 1968. (AP Photo)
Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators in “The Secret of Terror Castle” (Windward/Random House) (Image courtesy of threeinvestigatorsbooks.com)
Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators in “The Secret of Skeleton Island” (Random House) (Image courtesy of threeinvestigatorsbooks.com)
Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators in “The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy” (Random House) (Image courtesy of threeinvestigatorsbooks.com)
Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators in “The Mystery of the Talking Skull” (Random House) (Image courtesy of threeinvestigatorsbooks.com)
Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators in “The Mystery of the Green Ghost” (Random House) (Image courtesy of threeinvestigatorsbooks.com)
Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators books (Windward/Random House editions) (Image courtesy of threeinvestigatorsbooks.com)
But while the film director’s appearances in “The Secret of Terror Castle” provided the book’s most humorous moments, it was the boys’ investigation of Terror Castle (an abandoned and allegedly haunted mansion that had once belonged to a film star from the Silent Era) that really captured my imagination. Despite being confronted by everything from threatening phone calls to a machete-wielding old man to the “ghost” of a hanged woman — depicted in a creepy pen-and-ink illustration by artist Harry Kane that haunted my dreams for years afterward — Jupe, Pete and Bob refused to be deterred, somehow managing to keep their cool and forge ahead with their inquiry into what was really going on in the old house. (Spoiler alert: The old actor turned out to still be living there, and had concocted an elaborate array of frightening props and effects to keep the public away.)
By the time I finished the book, I was hooked. For the next couple of years, there would be no happier feeling in the world for me than walking home from school on a Friday afternoon with the weekend stretched out before me, and a Three Investigators book newly checked out of my school’s library tucked under my arm. I loved getting lost in their adventures, but my affinity for The Three Investigators ran deeper than simple escapism. As a scrawny little kid growing up in a Big Ten college town where athletic ability was prized over everything else, it was incredibly affirming for me to find a series of books whose young heroes achieved their success using brains instead of brawn. The Three Investigators made it seem really cool to be smart and inquisitive, as well as to be the sort of loyal friend who could always be counted upon to pull a peer out of a jam. Likewise, though they were continually condescended to and underestimated by the adults they dealt with, Jupe, Pete and Bob inevitably responded not by flipping them off or leaving a flaming bag of dog doo on their porch, but rather by simply outsmarting them — a very empowering message, indeed.
My friends and I often debated the merits of the various books in the Three Investigator series. Though they all followed a similar formula — usually with Hitchcock making a brief cameo to point them in the direction of a new mystery — the general consensus was that the books penned by Arthur before his death in 1969 (the first nine, plus 1969’s The Mystery of the Talking Skull, which was the eleventh book in the series) were the best. Still, when the creeping autumn shadows inspired me to revisit some of my favorite scary books from my youth this year, I was gratified to discover that the Three Investigators series eventually grew to 43 books, many of which have also been published in other language editions in Europe and Asia. (There have even been a couple of Three Investigators movies made in Germany.) Clearly, my friends and I weren’t the only ones who dug hanging with Jupe, Pete and Bob.
I never did grow up to become Jupiter Jones. I’m more of a romantic by nature than a logician; setting up a stereo system is about as far as I can go on the “tinkering with gadgets” spectrum; and anyway, by the time I hit fifth grade I was much more interested in things like music, baseball and movies than in trying to solve mysteries. Even so, it’s clear to me in retrospect that Robert Arthur Jr.’s book series had a profound influence on my life, instilling me with pride in my own intellectual abilities and a deeper appreciation for the sort of friends who’ll stick with you through thick and thin, all while providing a few good thrills and chills besides. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.