Monday, 29 November 2010

The Mystery Of The Sinister Scarecrow

The boys are on their way across the Santa Monica mountains when the truck has a blow-out. Making their way to a nearby barn to use the phone, Jupe is mistaken for a scarecrow, which is plaguing a local socialite, who has a big phobia of bugs and spiders. The mystery deepens when an entomologist, who is studying army ants, has samples stolen and everything seems to tie in with the nearby Mosby museum. Filled with vivid, exaggerated characters, this suffers somewhat in that everyone accepts the scarecrow is wandering around, which doesn’t help the suspense at all. Laetitia, the socialite, is very irritating and it’s hard to feel sympathy for her and, whilst all the characters seem to have a motive, Jupe is uncharacteristically dismissive of them. Worse, when the book reveals the true mystery - a double-attempt at art theft - you’re left wondering why the criminals decided that dressing up like a scarecrow would work. As polished as ever, this seems very slight in comparison to its immediate predecessors and a lot of the detection is left to chance (including one rescue of the boys, which is almost an ‘with one bound he was free’ moment). This isn’t bad and the quick pace helps to paper over some of the cracks, but this certainly isn’t a strong entry in the series.


  1. Conventional wisdom among 3I readers is that the good books in the series ceased after the publication of #28, Deadly Double. However, yesterday I read the 29th in the series, Sinister Scarecrow, for the first time in 28 years. I have to say that it has its good points and is actually a pretty good story. It centres around Letitia Radford, a rich girl who has returned to her family's mansion in California. Nobody seems to want her around and she is being plagued by two old childhood fears: scarecrows and bugs, of which she is mortally afraid. Across the street is a museum filled with priceless paintings. The boys blunder onto the scene and Jupiter is attacked by a near-sighted man who threatens to kill him with a rock and calls him a scarecrow. This man turns out to be an entomologist who is researching a new strain of ants. The mystery is: who is the sinister scarecrow that is haunting Miss Radford and what is he up to? There are a lot of suspicious characters about: Mr. and Mrs. Burroughs, the new houseman and maid; a mysterious watcher in an abandoned old house who is watching the mansion; the curator of the museum; and and even Mrs. Chumley, Letitia's ageing servant who is in a wheelchair. The story is fast-paced and the boys do their detective work. But it is impossible for them to pinpoint who the scarecrow really is as every suspect has an alibi. The solution is quite surprising and keeps us guessing right to the end.

    This story has a number of good points. First of all, the three boys are given a lot to do. Some of MV Carey's stories concentrate too much on Jupiter, but in this case they are all kept busy. Another point, and one that is unusual in the 3I books in general, is that there are a number of red herrings and many suspects. Although the reader is given a lot of information, the solution to the case is not obvious and the story is a real page turner.

    But there are negative points too. The mysterious watcher in the abandoned house turns out to be the pool maintenance man who was fired but came back to keep an eye on the women of the house because he was worried about them. That's taking the loyal servant thing a bit too far. Chief Reynolds is on the scene in one of his grumpy moods and gets angry with the boys for taking the case even though he suggested them to their client in the first place. And there is a scene where Jupiter is "attacked" by the so-called killer ants. This scene is not very well written and lacks credibility. It was obviously included as a page filler and was unnecessary in an already crowded scenario. Furthermore, Jupiter doesn't make the connection that the criminal activity that is going on could have to do with the priceless treasures in the nearby museum.

    One positive point worth adding is the scarecrow himself. In other reviews I've read, the use of the scarecrow is criticized. This is indeed a persistent trait in MV Carey's 3I books (Monster Mountain, Haunted Mirror and especially Wandering Caveman), this insistence on forcing a mysterious phenomenon into the plot just to give it an exciting title. But here the scarecrow is not as unbelievable as you might imagine. He plays on Miss Radford's childhood fears to keep her from going to the police and also provides Jupiter with the important clue as to who is really behind the whole crime that is being committed in the story. So in this case I would say the use of the phenomenon is justified.

    So there we have it. It might be fairer to say that #29 should mark the turning point in the Three Investigators series. It has a few flaws, but is quite a good read.

  2. Just revisited this one recently. This was one of the more boring Investigators stories. The plot didn't move well and was resolved really quickly and with a simple solution. I am about to start reading some of the titles after Mr.Hitchcock died (I know the creator of this site is partial to the first 30 books as I am, but there are some good additions after his death as well).

  3. This was a poor entry that didn't have much excitement in it. It is a shame because it could have been so much more. There was a movie made in the early 80's called Dark Night of the Scarecrow which was one of the best made for tv suspense/horror movies I have ever seen and an example of good storytelling. The first 10 to 12 Investigators books are great and then after that it is a mixed bag (with stuff like The Deadly Double being compelling) and five or six really strong entries after the passing of Mr.Hitchcock.