#316: Stand Back, Detective Novelist at Work in The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950) by Enid Blyton

Invisible Thief

No discussion of children’s literature is complete without at least a passing reference to the 14,762 books Enid Blyton wrote in her career.  Somehow I’d heard of this one and its implied impossible disappearance, and it seemed perfect for my Tuesday posts in November on precisely this type of book.  Generally you know what to expect from Blyton — a poorly-dated whiff of imperialism, comfortable middle-class adventures, ginger beer — but prepare for a bit of a shock: the rigour of the detection in this is something to behold.

This is the eighth book in the Find-Outers series, not a set of books I even knew existed until recently (seriously, who can keep track of all the series Blyton wrote? The woman was a machine!).  The five Find-Outers — Fatty (the brains, master of disguise, and general focus of everything), Bets (who’s a little bit infatuated with Fatty), Larry, Daisy, and Pip (who are all just sort of…there) — and their dog Buster appear to solve mysteries, all to the chagrin of the local Constable Goon (subtlety need not apply) and the delight of Inspector Jenks.  That’s probably the form of this entire series, but then why mess with something that plays as well as this does?  A mystery presents itself, Fatty leads the Find-Outers in the investigating of it, Goon runs a parallel and less successful investigation, and Fatty gathers everyone for the big explanation at the end.  It’s as classically-styled a piece of Genius Amateur Detection as you can get.

51b5exkroql-_sx324_bo1204203200_The mystery in this case runs thus: a house-keeper (everyone has a house-keeper, and a Cook) wakes up from her afternoon snooze (all the hired help sleep on the job, it appears…) to hear someone moving about upstairs.  Seeing a ladder propped up against the house outside, she calls the police, shouts up the stairs and, at the arrival of the local baker, sends him up to catch the thief.  No-one comes down the ladder, there’s no other way out, all the other widows are locked on the inside, and yet there’s no sign of the intruder.  That, my friends, is a legit impossible disappearance.  Other thefts follow, all marked by the thief’s gigantic footprints, yet no-one ever sees anything or is able to explain how someone can get in and away time and again without being seen.  Cue, of course, Fatty & Co.

Now, look, yes, you’ll almost definitely solve this; you’re a grown-up who has a perspective on the structure of this kind of thing that the intended 8 to 12 year-old audience doesn’t.  Let’s accept that as a given and move on.  Because for sheer detection this is honestly rather wonderful.

I’m not even sure where to start.  Gloriously, it’s pretty much fair-play: the one thing not explicitly stated is picked up from inference and won’t exactly hamstring you in the solving.  Clues are there in dialogue, in action, in physical form, and in the implication of behaviour — it’s a smörgasbord of how to present the different information necessary to solve a puzzle of this ilk, and nothing is held back from you in order to delay the solution.  Young minds keen to bend themselves to the problem can pitch right in alongside the doughty Find-Outers, and, well, isn’t that rather fabulous?  I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this, but Blyton really is respecting the intelligence of her readership…hell, a lot of modern detective fiction authors could learn a thing or two from this simplified version of the form, they really could.

the-mystery-of-the-invisible-thief-5Once you accept that Fatty & Co. have free rein to go where they like when they like (it’s the summer holidays) and that everyone is willing to answer almost any question put to them (they’re disarmingly, if non-specifically, young), the steady accumulation of clues, and the leads chased down as a result of those clues, shows a completeness that is laudable.  Not every route of investigation pays off, not everything goes their way, and yet each road and avenue pursued feeds into the greater picture of the overall commission of these crimes.  To pick an example, two clues found at the first scene are interpreted in such a way that produces a lot of work to no discernible gain…whether that interpretation is correct remains a key aspect of the plot, as does whether they are indeed clues to the central mystery, but the fact remains that they’re explored and (possibly…) nothing is gained from them.  Equally, chasing down the origins of the boot-marks found at each scene, the Find-Outers follow a lead on where the thief likely got his boots…only to first run into an unhelpful cobbler and then, following the ideas in another direction, for that to peter out into nothing.

Better than either of these, there’s a conversation at a key point — I shall not spoil it — about something that isn’t seen which provides pretty much the key observation at the heart of the whole mystery…the Find-Outers don’t twig for another 20 or so pages, but right then you have everything needed.  Go back over the key points and there’s a proper breadcrumb trail throughout; I love this kind of thing, and here it is in full resplendence.

the-mystery-of-the-invisible-thief-8The trick at the heart of the impossible disappearance — that should probably be tricks, plural, since there are a few — are also a couple of Grand Old Dame classics, and they work in perfect consort: they’re believable, workable, sensible in the context, and perfectly fair.  Yes, once again, grown-up you will solve this very quickly, but consider how much this will explode the mind of the intended audience and it’s kind of difficult not to feel a little but jealous.  If detective fiction is about presenting information to be interpreted in a number of ways, one of which fits the given facts and explains the mystery, then this is a superb preparation for further sojourns into these waters.  Sure, you’re robbed of a Simenon-esque exploration of the motives of the criminal — pathos be damned, there’s the guilty party, constable, arrest them! — but for sheer fun this is pretty difficult to beat.  It a touch staid, sure, and lacks any real heart-pounding excitement, but surely no-one’s picking up Blyton and hoping for a scene where our heroes get chased through a forest by werewolves…right?

A couple of nice contemporary touches stand out, too.  A refrigerator is referred to as a “frig”, and it’s considered the very height of cheeky hilarity to approach Constable Goon when you’ve seen through his disguise and ask him the time, or when the next bus to the nearest town is — I guess in a rural community you take your fun where you can find it.  There’s also that childhood aspiration that Blyton catches so perfectly in her books — the freedom from parents, the showing up of adults, the ability to go all day eating only meringues and chocolate slice and ice cream — that has become somewhat curtailed as fiction for younger readers began to better approximate the normal lives of the focus audience so as to feel more relatable.  And, yes, there is ginger beer.  How would they cope without that?

the-mystery-of-the-invisible-thief-4All told, this was an unexpected delight.  I had half expected to be struck aghast at the liberties taken with common sense, or the laziness evident on the page from this being one of about 17 books Blyton published in this year, and it’s marvellous to instead come away thinking “Damn, maybe Enid Blyton was a frustrated detective novelist after all”.  On this evidence, the Find-Outers might just be as excellent a place to start with young detective fiction as has yet been put in print…I shall return to them before too long, I imagine, and if I like what I see I’ll be sure to report back.

39 thoughts on “#316: Stand Back, Detective Novelist at Work in The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950) by Enid Blyton

    • No, it was a complete surprise to me, too! I knew Noddy, and The Wishing Chair, and The Faraway Tree, and The Famous Five, and The Secret Seven, and St Clairs, and The Naughtiest Girl, and the ‘Noun’ of Adventure…somehow, amidst all that, I completely overlooked these! Still, a delightful surprise in my old age.

  1. Thanks for this post, JJ, which brought back so many memories of childhood. This series was my absolute favourite among the many that Blyton wrote. Bets isn’t the only one who had a crush on Fatty:). One of my friends refused to read the first two books of the series because Larry was the leader of the group rather than Fatty!!! Now my niece has started on the series and quite enjoying THE BURNT COTTAGE. Incidentally, you will be glad to know that Fatty became the leader of the group after he came out of a room, the others had locked him in! Right up your alley, I think:)

    • Well, that makes me even more excited to read more — there are quite a few, so I’ll be kept busy. And if they’re in this sort of vein, and you’d expect them to be, I should have some wonderful reads ahead of me.

    • Well, sure, I can believe some of her stuff being nonsensical, she wrote more in a year than three John Rhodes — poor woman was probably sleep deprived half the time…

      • I was reading one of the Noddy books to a class of 6 year olds, quite a while ago. They loved it but, truly, I could not make out what was going on. Very strange experience. When I was a kid, I used to like Fatty in the “The Five Find-Outers” series as he had skills as a ventriloquist. Even then I was easy to impress

  2. There are 15 books in this series and I read all of them long long long back when I was a child and enjoyed them immensely.
    I still remember In the third book The Mystery Of The Secret Room, Fatty teaches how to write in invisible ink and how to get out of a locked room when the key is on the other side.
    I also read all the books in the Famous Five and Secret Seven series.
    But I doubt whether I will enjoy them now !

    • They’re not for the grown up we’ve all unfortunately become, no, but I love the seeds this sows. Thankfully I’m young at heart. And mind. And sense of humour. So I’ll be fine.

  3. “Larry, Daisy, and Pip (who are all just sort of…there)” – that pretty much sums them up. ☺

    I grew up on these – though I think this particular one passed me by – and they certainly covered a lot of the golden age staples (poison pen letters, for example, made an appearance, though there were fewer torrid love triangles and more pantomime cats.) I have to say, though, that while I have much affection for them, they irritated me too. I remember more than once wanting to yell at the children when they took an age to realise something obvious. I secretly wanted Goon to triumph, at least once or twice, when they were at their most patronising. And the fantasy world they lived in, of perpetual ices and macaroons, of not being told to mind their own business nearly enough by grown-ups and complete and utter freedom of movement irked me more then than it would now, when I can swallow such things as Genre Acceptable Absurdity (possibly sheer envy). Still, didn’t stop me reading them.

    • If it’s any consolation, the diet they enjoyed in this idealised youth now has them injecting insulin three times a day; so there’s that…

      I can see that too much of this sort of thing would become a little trying, but it’s been a good few years since I read any Blyton and so there’s a certain fondness for my youth brought out by this. Those heady days when the weeks of summer holiday stretched endlessly ahead…aaahh, good times…

  4. I’m amazed at how many impossible crime stories we have uncovered, between the two of us, in the juvenile corner of the genre and most of them are not all that bad or even innovative for the time. And yet, they’re hardly known to the people with a special interest in locked room fiction. I don’t think any of the pre-1990 titles we found were mentioned by Adey. So we’re in uncharted territory here. Wait… does that makes us the Lewis and Clarke of juvenile locked room mysteries?

    Anyway, thanks for letting us know about this one. It has been added to my wish list.

      • There’s a lovely slyness in some of the humour; I know we tend to paint Blyton in a sort of condescendingly-unaware role, but the ability to be really quite rude while saying the sweetest things in the gentlest tone is a skill more people need to develop…!

  5. Interesting. I’m another who’d not heard of The Find-Outers. If the series is obscure in the UK, I can imagine it’s like dark matter here in the US, but will go look.

    • The interesting thing is, the series has gone through a lot of reprints — the covers shown in this post are a mere drop in the ocean of what comes up in an online search. Maybe they’re different enough from Blyton’s usual — featuring actual detection and clues and ratiocination — that they’re seen as the black sheep of her library…

  6. Who’s Enid Blyton?

    This, of course, explains why we Americans are neurotic, angry people and all you Brits knew how make a perfect scone by the age of six. I suppose I’ll have to see if I can track down one lonely copy that was left in a dusty used bookstore somewhere by a hobbled ex-pat from the Old Country.

    Honestly, folks, didn’t any of you read Biff Brickheart and the Football Mystery by Shemp Shmidlap? Now there’s a kid’s crime series for you!

  7. Thanks for reminding me of this series. I remember getting people to lock me in the bathroom (or even doing this myself with string and pencils) so I could try to escape via Fatty’s ingenious methods. I must look out some of these books again.

  8. I have very strong childhood memories of the Five Find-Outers as I received some of these each year for Christmas and Birthdays. Like Santosh, I remember the key explanation vividly too so that book clearly made a big impression on me!

      • None whatsoever. Blyton is a gateway read to harder crime fiction but the fundamental elements are all there. 25 years on and I still remember several of the solutions and clues so this series clearly has stuck with me though I admit I haven’t thought about it in a while!

  9. My only connection with Enid Blyton is through my son–fortunately, our public library had copies of her stories in the books on tape section [my son’s preferred method of reading]. He loved these when he was small and I absorbed them that way–mostly Famous Five and Secret Seven. [I don’t know what corner of backwards USA Brad lives in, I obviously live in a much more cultured section 😉 ]

    • I”m from California, ma’am, where men are men and kiddie books are fed to the bulls as swill. There is a used bookstore in Menlo Park with an extensive children’s book section. (Come to think of it, the one in San Mateo has a lot, too.) I know the MP store had some Blyton, but none of them looked like mysteries to me, so I skipped ’em.

    • I read a Famous Five book for a TNB post a little while back, but that was the only other one I’ve picked up in, oh, 25 years or more. Hence my delight at finding such a classically-styled detection yarn — who knew?!

  10. I find it interesting that so many of your commenters here say that they’d never heard of this Blyton series before, since for me it’s one of her big three (the other two of course being “Famous Five” and the “Adventure” series).

    It IS however aimed at children at a slightly lower age than the other two series, so perhaps that might account for that fact. I reread the entire series about two years ago, and they’re good fun. Some of that I suppose is the loving light of nostalgia, but I do think children of today would find quite a lot of joy in these books. Yes, for them it’ll be a description of a time long passed and gone, while for me when I read them, they took place “only” thirty years ago, which made them feel slightly more contemporaneous. But only slightly, because British village life was never the same as Swedish village life (or for that matter Swedish city life, which is the only thing I’d experienced)…

    I’ve taken a break from the GA blogosphere for a few months – working on another GA/Locked Room project has kept me busy – but I like seeing that there has been some more focus on the YA section of mysteries, because they still hold a special place in my heart.

    • Whoa, whoa, you want to talk The Big Three of Blyon, and you’re not including The Secret Seven? Christian, this is a Queens of Crime debate all over again…

  11. The Secret Seven is number four, but was always simply a “children’s series”. If you’re older than eight, it’s no longer read and thus cannot come in for consideration. 🙂

    Still, I’ll do a re-read of S7 soon,, so we’ll see if I’ll upgrade its standing then.

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