And so the Tuesday Night Bloggers examination of the Greatest Fiction Detectives resumes – last Tuesday, I looked at Anthony Bathurst, while my fellow bloggers looked at some sleuths you might have actually heard of. JJ at The Invisible Event has kindly indexed all the Week One posts here.
This week, I thought I’d take a look at a sleuth often overlooked in such lists, despite her stunning sleuthing prowess. Ably assisted by her friends, two men, one woman, and their loyal, if somewhat cowardly dog, she has solved mysteries that Poirot wouldn’t go near. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you – Velma Dinkley. Zoiks!
Last time, I examined the entire career of my chosen sleuth, but this time I’m going to highlight a single case, due, in part, to some confusing chronology. This is from one of her earliest appearances, titled, with all the consummate skill of John Rhode’s publishers, “Go Away Ghost Ship”. I’ve looked at it before, from a general point of view, but this is a different take on it.
From the start, we see Dinkley’s sleuthing prowess. As with the great sleuths’ ability to spot a murder where the local constabulary assume accident or murder, Dinkley spots straight away that there is a mystery to be solved when local authorities, faced with a number of raids on local shipping, have simply assumed that it’s the ghost of Redbeard the Pirate. Refusing to write it off as just an attack by a spectral brigand, Velma and friends are determined to find the truth.
Demonstrating a stunning knowledge of the state of the local shipping companies, Velma and friends offer their services to Mr Magnus, the owner of the company that the ghost has been targeting. You see? Local police and journalists fail to spot the incisive clue that a ghost has no reason to target a businessman, but not Velma!
Using the traditional sleuthing ability to get through any door and speak to anyone (admittedly by dressing up as a maid and wheeling her friends in hidden on a trolley – echoing Sherlock Holmes’ mastery of disguise, although, to be fair, all she does is put on an apron), they find that Redbeard has an actual motive as Magnus’ ancestors brought him to justice. Velma and friends are hands-on sleuths, echoing the hard-boiled school, and decide to try and find the pirate directly, with a stunning plan to impersonate a freighter using a motor boat and a megaphone. How creative.
Sneaking on board the ship, after a near death collision, they decide to sneak into the lion’s den – onto the ghost ship itself, only to be faced with an impossible crime worthy of Carr himself (on a bad day) – a floating sword with a mind of its own. Velma soon displays a cunning deductive ability. Following Redbeard down a corridor, he turns a corner. Her two friends are baffled how he has vanished, but Velma quickly spots a solution – “Maybe he went through that door.” What a brain! Note, she’s actually wrong as Redbeard has temporarily outwitted them and locks them in the room, but Velma at least spots that two buckets of dry ice that happen to be lying around are a clue.
While Redbeard demonstrates some true psychotic behaviour by threatening to kill one of her friends and their dog unless they can cook him a decent meal – luckily they outwit him and his henchmen by eating soap and wearing a paper hat – Velma and friends discover Redbeard’s secret hideout. At this point they seem to be considering the possibility that Redbeard is a real ghost, despite never having met a real ghost in their lives – “Why would a ghost ship need a secret cove to hide in?” – even, it seems speculating that a ship itself could be a ghost. I suppose that’s no stranger to a ghost wearing the ghost of their own clothes…
Under threat of being turned into ghosts themselves, Velma and co escape from their chains using chewing gum and straws, and find a valuable clue in the paper the aforementioned hat was made of. Deciphering a voice activated password – Redbeard has some hi-tech at his disposal – they disturb the villain. We’re definitely moving towards the noir structure here, as this is the second time that the villain confronts our heroes. Luckily, the villain’s henchmen appear to be blind, not spotting our heroes ducking behind crates, but we find another sleuthing trope, perhaps more often found in modern crime fiction. Two of Velma’s close friends appear to be struggling to overcome an addiction to… well, some sort of dog biscuits, and faced with the impossible sword, relapse and ingest copious amounts of these “Scooby Snacks”. Luckily, rather than spiralling into a drug induced haze – unless the whole adventure is such a thing (an essay for another time) – this gives them the adrenaline to break through a wooden crate head first. Luckily, after drinking a good quantity of oil – don’t ask – the effect wears off.
Somehow – and we’re not privy to these thoughts, so echoes of Holmes again here – Velma deduces that a) the pirates’ trousers are made of very strong material and b) the sink plungers that Redbeard has lying around are extra strong, so the henchmen are soon hanging from the ceiling by their posteriors, and after an altercation between Redbeard’s trousers and a pneumatic drill, the villain is brought to justice.
The coast guard is thankful as clearly he believed the ghosts were real and hence was unwilling to act – “Thanks for uncovering these phony ghosts” – i.e. he thinks there are such things as real ghosts. But the viewer is left to question if Velma deduced Redbeard’s identity before unmasking him? The explanation of the phantom sword isn’t convincing – “it was operated by a wire” but I’ve read worse – Seeing Is Believing for example. But the solution to the crime also echoes not just Christie (more than a few times) but also a very popular modern crime novel as we discover… well, that would be a spoiler.
So, one sleuth and friends, with echoes of Holmes, Christie, Carr and the noir genre, solving a crime that nobody thought existed, risking life and limb to bring a criminal to justice without any help from the law. Truly something for everyone here. And a talking dog.
For readers who want to see more of Velma, there’s a film coming out soon featuring just her and her friend Daphne. Because that’s what everyone watching Scooby Doo thinks – it’s fun, but let’s get rid of the dog…