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.
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.
Once 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 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?
All 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.