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TODAY

Saturday, December 14

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Airbags

While others were preoccupied with the smarm of F.W. Dixon and the all American home economics of Nancy Drew, I was after more challenging fare -- mysteries for the thinking young person, The Three Investigators.

With the Hardy Boys out in Chet's jalopy, their hair neatly slicked with pomade, the Investigators huddled in their secret junkyard base, there to analyze fingerprints, keep up their dossier of suspicious persons and digest the wisdom of Alfred Hitchcock, a master of suspense and patron of youth criminology.

It was 1987. At the annual Newberry Library book sale (in true Chicago fashion, I got in on the members preview thanks to a family connection) I found an entire box of Three Investigators adventures. That there might be duplicates was of no concern. I dragged the whole lot over to the checkout table and waited for Mom to produce cash.

There I uncovered a mystery that was to plague me for years: the disappearance of Hitchcock from the Investigators lexicon.

They were subtle about it at first. The cover designs were untouched, but the logo for the series changed subtly. Where the classic bust of Hitchcock once graced the upper left corner of each tattered paperback was a simple keyhole, its bulbous form not altogether dissimilar from Alfred's jowled profile.

10172003_books.jpg

Fig1. Note differences in the logos at top right.

And where each novel once ended with moral advice from the acclaimed director (the absurdity of this we'll leave for another article), later editions featured a bland stand-in who lacked Hollywood connections and had no penchant for blondes.

Unfortunately, at 10 years old I lacked the sophistication necessary to figure it all out. Though I'm reluctant to admit it, I wasn't familiar with Hitchcock's oeuvre until my teen years.

I'll put off the histrionics for a short while and give you the simple answer up front: Hitchcock died in 1980. Thinking it unwise for the young sleuths to consort with a deceased mentor, Alfred was written out of the series.

But as a film scholar, I'm not content to accept such a simple and straightforward answer.

By 1980, the brand of Hitchcock was in decline. Young adults  raised in the comforting glow of Atari games and an Easy Bake Oven weren't nearly as interested in an acclaimed director as their parents and older siblings were.

The image of an overweight and eccentric British filmmaker wasn't selling. Hence the keyhole where the once invaluable silhouette used to be.

What's extraordinary, however, is that there was a time when Hitchcock could sell a series of children's books. Were such a thing possible today, we'd see Tarentino branded cereal and things like "Coppola & Friends: A Magazine for Young People."

So The Three Investigators represent Hitchcock at the height of his prowess. With a cameo in every film and a popular television series, Hitchcock built himself into a franchise. While Ingrid Bergman, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant lent star power to his films, it was Hitchcock himself who packed them in.

That he died in 1980 was incidental. Hitchcock was written out of the Investigators because he wasn't moving product.

There's a lesson here, one Michael Jordan, Britney Spears, Gwyneth Paltrow and J.Lo might be wise to heed.

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Comments

Pete / December 5, 2003 11:44 AM

And the lesson is: Ashton Kutcher, your bus is leaving. Better grab what you can while you still have time.

 

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