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Essay excerpt from "Solving Stories: The Timeless Adult Appeal of the Three Investigators YA Series"

Thursday 5/27/21

Were you to ask me which reading experiences I treasure the most, I’d answer you by saying the ones that don’t stop. That is, they were first experienced by me at a given point in life, but they didn’t leave off there. I’d come to them again and again, while in different phases and modes of myself, and each encounter would be a kind of revisit and also a fresh start.


It’s easy to cite massive, learned tomes that fill this bill. For instance, there is no iteration of myself, or my moods, that does not take solace and find companionship in a couple of hours spent with Thoreau’s journals. If a reading experience can be a friend, I’d say those words with their dual citizenship of the Concord woods and the metaphysical plane are boon companions of mine.


At the close of what seems another impossibly hard week, I can repair to the café with my Thoreau—take a tonic, as it were. I regroup, I commiserate with the text, ready myself to get moving again, find the belief that the boulder can be crested over the top of the hill. The journals come with me as I go about my life, because they’re stitched into a changing part of who I am, adapting like friends do to help us in our moments of need, which is sometimes simply a need to grow anew.


But if I have a best friend among texts, I would have to say it’s a series of Young Adult novels that are now not terribly well known, but resound as one of those series that the people familiar with it love beyond bounds.


These would be the Three Investigators books, which were initially launched in 1964, the brainchild—or children—of Robert Arthur, Jr., who’d been known up until that point as a writer of speculative fiction. Arthur wrote scripts for the radio series The Mysterious Traveler, and also the TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the latter surely playing a part in the genesis of his Three Investigators series.


The title characters were a trio of boys named Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews, who live in the fictional California town of Rocky Beach, not far from Hollywood, on the coast. The location was selected for max narrative flexibility and what I call atmosphere-ism, which is what you get in creatively creepy ventures like the early Universal horror pictures, the London of Jack the Ripper, and the moors of Catherine and Heathcliff. Ditto the fictional Rocky Beach. There are various brine-endued adventures atop cliffs and within crags and caves where the echo of the sea can sound like a bellowing dragon, and never should one’s escape-speed on a Huffy fail to be accounted for before plunging into a new job.


Thanks to a Jupiter Jones-led encounter (Jupe is a master talker) with Alfred Hitchcock himself—all of this made up, of course—the penguin-shaped director serves as unofficial sponsor of the boys’ detective team, introducing their cases and getting them work. We’re never really sure how old the boys are, but they can’t drive, they’re in their teens, and the most athletic member of the group—Pete—can sometimes overpower a man, so let’s say they’re about fifteen.


I’ve always viewed the Three Investigator books as the cool YA series for those in the know. Everyone was aware of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and I read all of those books, too, but I knew right from that first moment of discovery that the Three Investigators were for me.

They were my speed, because they felt more interpersonal. The Hardy Boys, for instance, were rich. They had certain airs. They weren’t dicks or anything like that, but certain people—and characters—have a way of making you feel immediately at home. And, more to the point, better at home with yourself. In my life, these people have often come in fiction form, and the first were the lads of Rocky Beach, who also taught me a massive amount about writing.


My first meeting with the Three Investigators was in fourth grade. We’d have to write these short stories, and I took this quite seriously. On the bus on the way to school, you’d not wish to come between me and my story-related thoughts. There I sat, thinking hard about what I’d compose. Would I feature a haunted house? An abduction? What about snakes? Could we do something with snakes?


In class I’d tear through the story I had to write, then busy myself with reading material as the other kids finished. I read Jack London’s White Fang, a biography of Sandy Koufax, Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and then there was the beckoning cover of Arthur’s The Secret of Terror Castle, the first entry in the storied career of Rocky Beach’s finest deductive triumvirate, with an image of intrigue straight out of a horror picture crossed with a dash of Disney’s The Haunted Mansion ride. Two of the boys had just been rescued by the third member of the team, who had apparently brought help to the scene in the form of an adult who held a flashlight, though only an arm was visible. Already I asked myself, “Wait, are we to trust this adult with the flashlight?”


I was to learn that the rescuing boy was none other than Bob Andrews, the brainy, bespectacled member of the group whose dad worked as a Hollywood props and special effects man. Bob suffered a leg injury when he was younger, and retained a limp. He’s slight of frame, but meticulous when it comes to details, which serves him well with his job at the Rocky Beach Library, and as the team’s research honcho, oftentimes dubbed “Records” by Jupe and Pete.


Pete Crenshaw is the team’s Second Investigator, a boy who has reservations and an unease around danger, but he’s fit and strong and he’s always willing to help out his mates.


Then we have Jupiter Jones, and I loved Jupe from the start. He’s an orphan. I didn’t know my own biological parents, and that meant something to me. He’s chubby and had quite a following at one point as a local television child actor dubbed Baby Fatso.


I cringe when I wonder if that detail would be struck from these books now, on account of “fat shaming,” because it would cut into the admiration that one has for these characters. They’re not hardscrabble, but they have no pretense. There’s little in the way of privilege and entitlement. There’s spit and vinegar and this prevailing feeling of three kids pulling themselves up by their collective bootstraps, their ingenuity, their bonds. And their honest-to-goodness, lived-in desire to help people. But also with an element of competiveness and pride—pride in one’s ability, pride in doing a job that others could not. I dug this. And I’ve never stopped.