“Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” went the byline of one of the most famous recruitment posters produced during WWI.
Tintin creator Hergé’s answer for WWII would have been “writing and drawing The Seven Crystal Balls“. Written in the hate-filled atmosphere of occupied Belgium, Hergé concentrates on comedy and magic rather than real-life conflict.
It’s one of the funniest books in the series, despite the fact that Hergé always uses the same jokes (Haddock getting angry; Snowy getting into mischief and Professor Calculus mishearing everything). He gets away with it because of his perfect comic timing.
One of his other great gifts is the ability to make interesting panels that draw in the reader’s eye despite not actually containing anything of note (see the third panel below for an example). This book has the slow pace of old-fashioned storytelling, but it takes us from the familiar domestic environment of Belgium into the hurly-burly of a cross-continental caper.
The Seven Crystal Balls also has all the elements of a Victorian potboiler: supernatural threats from abroad menacing wealthy Europeans in their mansion houses. However, the mystery is unique.
Seven archeologists return from Peru having found an ancient Inca mummy still adorned with its gold jewellery. One by one, they slide into a coma, with the only clue as to its cause being a small scattering of crystal shards by their side. The last three members of the expedition remain at large as the story opens, although one of them has the misfortune to be under twenty-four guard by the hapless detectives Thomson and Thompson.
European arrogance in the seizing of these precious objects gets a firm reprimand from Hergé. It feels all the more powerful coming from an ordinary man reading about the archaeological find on the train.
If the man on the street is so incensed, how can the so-called experts act with such disrespect for the property of other peoples and cultures?
As a further surprise, the story is not actually resolved in this volume. The Seven Crystal Balls is one of several two-parters in the Tintin canon, with the action picking up again in Prisoners of the Sun.
No reader can seriously leave the plot at this stage because it hinges on one of the things that makes the Tintin series so precious. People love it because it is ultimately about unconditional friendship, friends who will do anything for each other.
In The Seven Crystal Balls, Professor Calculus goes missing, and Captain Haddock is distraught at the loss. He and Tintin resolve to travel to South America to find him and solve the mystery of the explorers who still linger under the mummy’s curse. They never even discuss whether they have any other option.
Although I prefer The Crab with the Golden Claws, some people say The Seven Crystal Balls is the best of the Tintin books, and it certainly delivers everything you would expect in one of the boy detective’s adventures, with a few surprises thrown into the mix as well.