I love shopping for kids’ books at used bookstores for two reasons – #1). you never know what you’re going to find and #2). it’s a fantastic reminder that the world of children’s literature has always, ALWAYS been gloriously and deliriously WEIRD.
Because sometimes, when it comes to children’s books, we romanticize the past. We look at the current world of children’s publishing – with kids’ books written by celebrities, kids’ books based on toy lines, and kids’ books all about what it would be like if your pets could text you jokes (not making that up) – and there’s a tendency to think, “Sigh, it wasn’t like this in the good old days. Back then, kids read LITERATURE.” Well, I’m here to tell you that kids have been reading weird stuff for AGES, since long before dogs even knew what text-messaging was, and part of the fun of used bookstore shopping is seeing what kinds of literary oddities earlier generations inflicted on their youth.
In my most recent trip to the children’s section at our local used bookstore, I found several books from the 1960s that had odd celebrity tie-ins. There was a dog-eared copy of A Red Skelton in Your Closet: Ghost Stories Gay and Grim Selected by the Master of Comedy, because, if I’m looking for something truly scary to read in 1965, I’m going to hit up a master of comedy… apparently. (Aside from selecting the stories, Skelton also wrote an introduction titled “Of Course I Believe in Ghosts.”) Then there was the pristine copy of Shirley Temple’s Storytime Favorites, with the picture on the cover that made Temple look more like Betty Crocker than the child star she’d been in the 1930s. But, hands-down, the best, the most wonderfully weird ’60s celebrity kids’ book I encountered – and that I just HAD to buy – was all about Alfred Hitchcock, possibly the most acclaimed movie director of all time, teaming up with three kid detectives to solve mysteries.
That’s right. Alfred Hitchcock, director of Psycho and Vertigo, hanging out with three Encyclopedia Brown knock-offs. And did I mention that the kid detectives drive around in a chauffeured, gold-plated Rolls Royce? How could I NOT buy the book immediately? There’s actually a whole series of books in the “Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators” imprint. I picked up the first and seventh volumes of the series, The Secret of Terror Castle and The Mystery of the Fiery Eye, and they’re the best things I’ve bought in a long time.
Here’s a quick excerpt from Hitchcock’s “Introduction” to The Secret of Terror Castle:
I seem to be constantly introducing something. For years I’ve been introducing my television programs. I’ve introduced motion pictures. And I’ve introduced books of mystery, ghost and suspense stories for my fans to shiver with.
Now I find myself introducing a trio of lads who call themselves The Three Investigators, and ride around in a gold-plated Rolls Royce, solving mysteries, riddles, enigmas and conundrums of all kinds. Preposterous, isn’t it?
Frankly I would prefer to have nothing to do with these three youths, but I rashly promised to introduce them. And I am a man of my word – even though the promise was extorted from me by nothing less than sheer skullduggery, as you will see.
I should also probably clarify that Hitchcock doesn’t actually tag along with the kid detectives like Scooby following Mystery Incorporated. Instead, he’s more like their version of Charlie from Charlie’s Angels. He introduces each mystery and writes a little concluding note, although he’s definitely a main character in the first volume, The Secret of Terror Castle. In that adventure, The Three Investigators – Bob Andrews, Pete Crenshaw, and boy genius Jupiter Jones – sneak onto the studio lot to meet Hitchcock, who’s searching for a real haunted house to feature in his next movie. The mystery team promises to investigate a notorious haunted castle in California for Hitchcock, which somehow leads to Hitchcock reluctantly agreeing to introduce a written account of their adventures that the boys hope will make them as famous as “Sherlock Holmes, Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot, all of them.”
These are very, very strange books, but they’re incredibly readable, almost thanks to their weirdness. Their leader is a smug genius who’s trying to overcompensate for his past in which he starred in a demeaning TV show under the name “Baby Fatso.” The group seems solely motivated by their aching desire to find customers and let the world know how intelligent they are. And then there’s the whole angle of the boys coercing Alfred freakin’ Hitchcock to be the Watson to their Sherlocks, introducing the world to their fantastic adventures. What would the modern-day analogue for the Three Investigators look like? Would it be Wes Anderson joining a Girl Scout troupe on their hunt for the Loch Ness Monster? Or would it be the “Marvelous Mysteries of the Coen Brothers and The Hudsucker Detective Agency”? I only wish that there was a kids’ mystery series this weird on the market today.
Here’s the best part – The Three Investigators series has a HUGE cult following, apparently. There are Three Investigator fan sites, bibliographies, and a surprisingly robust Wikipedia page. (After Hitchcock‘s death, his role as the team’s “introducer” was filled by someone known as “Hector Sebastian.”) And, for some reason, the series was immensely popular in Germany, spawning several German language-only mysteries and at least TWO Three Investigators movies (which came out in 2007 and 2009, respectively).
I’ll be honest – my affection for The Three Investigators is an ironic affection, largely derived from their bizarre Hitchcock tie-in. But I love that there are people out there who genuinely adore the Three Investigator mysteries in the same way that I adore Choose Your Own Adventure Books or Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. One man’s weird is another man’s childhood treasure, which, again, is one of the many reasons why I love exploring the children’s section at used bookstores. You simply never know what you might find.