THE THREE FINGERPRINTS (1940)
1940 Heinemann Press.
"The alligator will have seized Mr. Mocca and eaten him up," said Richard.
"Yes, he's done that, sure enough," said Plum.
"Which they arranged for," said Richard.
"Which the doctor will realise as soon as he sees the bones that the alligator didn't eat," said Scram, who had read most of the best detective stories, and knew all about things like the time of death, and how many grains of arsenic will kill you, and water-tight alibis, and the passing off of rigor mortis, and how coroner's inquests are conducted.
The boys complement each other neatly. Plum is the oldest; he's physically formidable, rather fearless, and quick to action if rather slow to thought. His scrappy younger brother Scram has the intelligence to plot schemes, both long and short, and the two brothers generally get along quite well. They are staying this summer with their cousin Richard, a reliable chap who, age-wise, falls in between Plum and Scram. Their respective parents are conveniently on holiday at the seaside, leaving a good fortnight that the boys have all to themselves. It does not take long for a mystery to present itself.
Reclusive neighbor Mr. Mocca has become a favourite subject of speculation. He has an impressive aquarium shed which houses exotic fish, a conger eel and an alligator. A turbaned Indian servant also arouses curiosity. On an evening visit to the shed, the boys discover the house in a strange state. Investigating, they find bloody fingerprints on a windowsill, black paint spilt haphazardly around a room, and an ominously sated alligator. Three sinister men nearly trap them inside the house during a late-night invasion, but the trio escapes, regroups, and quickly maps out a counterattack. Soon the boys are convinced they've stumbled upon a Nazi spy plot, and though the chief inspector has expressly told them to stay away from the men and the house, they consider it their youthful duty to bring the enemies to justice. Bullets fly, secret codes are intercepted and deciphered, false beards are employed, and through it all the young Britishers fight the good fight and work up quite an appetite.
More notable to me for the story's reality-based dangers than for a particular literary merit, The Three Fingerprints is an early Mitchell "Detective Story for Boys and Girls." (I would lay odds that boy readers of the time would have gained more pleasure with this tale of action and espionage than their female peers.) And it qualifies as a teen novel, filling out 270 pages and taking me slightly longer to read than a Dame Beatrice mystery. Fingerprints has action aplenty, and virtually every chapter features a fresh assault by the boys on poor Mr. Mocca's house. Never ones to be deterred, Plum, Scram and Richard break window panes, climb through tunnels, ransack library rooms and basically rack up various forms of criminal trespass. Added to this, I could not quite stop overlaying 21st century logic onto the scenario that, should the boys be proven wrong, they would have a lot of violent destruction to answer for. By the time the fistfights and gunshots occur, there's little doubt that the shadowy men are true capital-letter Villains. Because of the understandably apoplectic police order for the trio to stay out of the picture, I found myself wishing the boys would heed that sensible advice and think twice before mounting yet another house attack. They're just so willfully plucky, these three.
The presence of an alligator is noteworthy; perhaps it's homage to the crocodile-kin sleuth of Miss Mitchell's adult mystery series, already in existence for a decade before this book's appearance. The secret code the boys uncover and incredibly, amazingly (correctly) decipher within moments is also notable, as the code--mostly ersatz heiroglyphs, reproduced in the book -- would leave military officials thoroughly perplexed. (It's a case of authorial whim and hindsight; you may well explain that drawings of a rectangle, a circle and two number nines translate as "Document in room," but don't expect any sane reader to jump to that conclusion.)
The Three Fingerprints is an agreeable enough book, and it fits right in with the children's adventures Gladys Mitchell penned in the 1950s. The two main differences: the protagonists here are energetic boys rather than resourceful girls (or a mixed holiday party); and -- perhaps because they're boys, or because there's a war on, or both -- there's more action and danger involved. Even with the increased physical threats, there is still very little uncertainty of outcome, as Plum, Scram and Richard are British lads above all, and the Nazi spy characters are as nondescript as the boys' in absentia parents.