In much the same way that Hercule Poirot, Peter Wimsey, Roger Sheringham, and all other unofficial detectives of the Golden Age were unable to step out of their front doors without stumbling into some criminal enterprise, so The Three Investigators, The Hardy Boys, The Secret Seven, The Famous Five, and all others of their ilk always found themselves embroiled in shenanigans of one kind or another no matter where they went.
Yes! The Tuesday Night Bloggers have returned! And this month’s topic is Children in Crime; be they victims, perpetrators, bystanders, or sleuths, we’re onto it. And with Blyton’s forays into youthful adventure among the most popular of this kind of thing, I thought I’d take a look at one and see what occurred to me.
It’s interesting to note just how many of the tropes of classic detective and adventure fiction it’s possible to find in the Famous Five books: here there’s a secret passage, a ‘most obvious suspect’ reversal, and the ‘surprising’ resurrection of a character believed dead, but elsewhere you’ll find evil-does masquerading as harmless types, a fairly decent least-likely suspect or two, even the use of identical twins to explain away some confusion…in short, if you’re looking for it, there’s a huge amount of crossover.
Not that this is all that surprising when you come to think about it – the nature of these stories inevitably puts them on the same plinth as classic detective fiction, just with the ‘detective’ part reduced and the ‘adventure’ element lifted an extra notch or two. They’re still full of situations that must be taken seriously – kidnappings, theft, illegal activities, and in this particular book there’s even a sniff of international intrigue – but we’re dealing very much with a decidedly more jolly-what-ho-lashings-of-ginger-beer style adventure rather than an outright threatening crime. Instead of danger, what we’re usually given is trepidation – the Five never investigate an out-and-out murder, or a series of poison pen letters, or the theft of over a million pounds from the accounts of a respected cosmetics firm – and while they often find themselves in some kind of risky situation, the way it is handled is very interesting.
In FGIaF, Julian, Dick, Anne, and George descend from their life of white middle-class privilege to go skiing and tobogganing in the Welsh mountains. Over the course of their stay they unearth some unpleasantness at a nearby house and, of course, resolve everything in time for cake and big smiles come the end. As usual, this requires that they go up again a criminal enterprise engineered and run by adults, and of course the nature of the threat presented must be such that it a) is actually threatening but b) can semi-realistically be resolved by a group of meddling kids and their dog. Simply dropping them into a room full of toughs holding guns would provide a) but not b), and so what is needed is evidence of their ability to deal with a) in a way that provides b) come the end.
I think of this as the comfort/threat/comfort model: everything seems fine, then a threat presents itself and is swiftly dispatched, then we move on almost as if it didn’t happen. The ability to cope with a small threatening situation therefore lays groundwork for the larger threats to come.
There is, as always, the chance I’m slightly over-analysing this.
So, two examples: early on, having reached the idyllic farm of old Mrs. Jones and her mountain of a son Morgan, George takes Timmy (the dog, in case you’re unaware) out to meet some of the dogs owned by Morgan. The dogs face off, Timmy is nipped on the neck by one of them, and George jumps in to defend him, the dogs are called off, everything is fine. And then the following, hugely unusual, combination of emotions is written:
[Dick] couldn’t help thinking what would have happened if the three savage dogs had bitten George instead of Timmy. Good old George! She was as brave as a lion!
Now, sorry, but the second and third sentences there do not belong after the first in any normal sense. Instead it’s the slow and careful accumulation of a sense of danger – there is a threat, the consequences of which are considered (never stated mind, just considered), and then Good old George is as brave a lion and so everything must be fine – and events move on. Timmy’s wound s swiftly dismissed, though George continues to fret, but the immediate situation is safe again and Morgan’s dogs are set up as a linger sense of background menace to cast a vague miasma of disquietude over proceedings.
I wouldn’t buy into this myself if we didn’t also get this exchange between Julian and Dick about twenty pages later:
“Gosh – she’s absolutely fearless, isn’t she? I’ll never forget her standing up to those three savage dogs! I was jolly scared myself.”
“I’m going to get a rug and wrap it round me and sit out on the doorstep in the sun,” said Dick. “That view is too marvellous for words!”
Like…actually what the hell? In a weird sort of way – and bear with me here – this could be interpreted as Dick changing the subject as he isn’t comfortable with the idea of Julian expressing concern for George, except that it clearly isn’t: the boys go and sit in the sun and enjoy the marvellous view and the issue of George and the dogs is never mentioned again. But again, the threat is established and dismissed: George was nearly ripped to shreds by three savage dogs, but look at the lovely view. It applies an adjuvant effect to the menace – sure it’s there, but don’t dwell on it, dude, don’t be such a downer. And the same message applies to the reader: sure, they’re not really in danger, enjoy the next 30 pages of skiing and picnics – this is escapism, after all.
I should probably make one thing clear: I think this is very cleverly done. Because the Five, shortly after this, end up staying in a shack on the mountainside all by themselves (there’s an essay on the Orphan Principle here, I’m sure) and end up subjected to threats and sources of discomfort that aren’t so easily dispatched: sudden inexplicable tremors shake the ground, mysterious lights shine up into the sky, various adults offer help and a sense of dislocation at the same time…and in all of this, the sense of these characters being able to cope with a threatening situation – to dismiss it easily when there’s a personal risk, and so cope when the risk is more nebulous – is key to the intended younger readership being intrigued rather than distressed.
Compared to ‘pure’ detective fiction from this time, the contrast is rather marked: putting a dead body up against a bitten dog as the establishment of conflict seems rather tame, but in a way that’s my exact point. The central section – mysterious tremors, lights in the sky, oddly friendly-yet-threatening strangers – could easily be lifted from an ‘adult’ novel (not that kind of ‘adult’ novel, you filthy-minded individual), but in order to work from the perspectives of a younger cast for younger readers the way threat is established and built must inevitably be different from the very start. And while the Famous Five books may not represent great literature, they have a good idea on how these rules can cross both boundaries and so almost uplift this into feeling like a more grown-up read than it really is. No mean feat, let’s be honest.