#422: Minor Felonies – The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage (1943) by Enid Blyton

Mystery of the Burnt Cottage

As is my standard modus operandi, I started Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers series midway through with something featuring an impossible crime, and now return to the beginning to read them in order.

And, two books in, I have to say that I’m already convinced I’m going to love this series.  I enjoyed this book so much, I don’t even know where to start talking about it, and I’m kicking myself that at a time when I was the target audience for this kind of thing Blyton was to me the adventures of Moonface, Silky, and Cousin Dick in the Faraway Tree.  Still at the ripe old age of however old I’m claiming to be this month, it’s another kind of joy to discover these books and be able to put them in the pantheon of legitimately superb detective fiction written for intelligent younger readers.

1-the-mystery-of-the-burnt-cottageLet’s not kid ourselves that as mysteries they’re going to challenge the faculties of anyone who has forged their fictional detection experience at the anvil of Christianna Brand, Anthony Berkeley, John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts, Michael Innes, Ngaio Marsh, John Rhode, Dorothy L. Sayers and their ilk.  These are books aimed at a — what? — eight year-old audience which must therefore deal in fairly broad strokes that most adult minds will form into a picture pretty quickly.  What is absolutely delightful, however, is just how firmly these books sit in the detective fiction firmament.  Proper clues, decent logic, intelligent psychology, neat red herrings, rigorous construction, and genuine classic GAD misdirection.  It is from here a shorter hop to those names listed above than I ever suspected possible; someone picking these up at a young age is getting a lesson in detective fiction that could easily lead to the very best the genre has to offer.  I’m telling you, Enid Blyton was an acolyte of the detective novel.  No way in hell could she have written these otherwise, so classic are they in every single regard.

We start, as the title promises, with the burning workroom of the irascible Mr. Hick, a cottage at the end of his garden in which he keeps the many valuable papers that form the basis of his ‘work’.  Four friends — well, three friends, being siblings Larry and Daisy, and Pip, and Pip’s albatross of a younger sister Bets — are lured to the blaze as are the rest of the town, and as the cottage collapses Mr. Hick returns having been collected off the train by his chauffeur too late to be able to save anything.  The friends determine to establish what happened and who could have possibly wanted to turn down Hick’s cottage — there will be no shortage of suspects and motives — and in doing so must contend with a new arrival, the arrogant young braggart Frederick Algernon Trotteville, who also wishes to muscle in on the investigation.  Oh, and there’s ol’ Clear Orf himself, the town’s Constable Goon, who of course has no truck with meddling kids getting in the way of his own investigations.

Essentially that’s it.  It runs on fairly familiar rails and hits all manner of expected notes and impediments, including the Five Find-Outers beating Goon to the culprit and Goon being suitably chastened by the close of play.  It exists in that halcyon daze of endless summer holiday with no burden of parental observation to prevent any snooping (interestingly, there’s even some arch subtext about the Trotteville’s neglect of their son, with more than one comment being made about how he’s free to do whatever he likes and — when he and Larry are planning a night-time excursion — we’re told that “Fatty didn’t go to bed, though Larry did.  But then Larry’s mother usually came in to tuck him up and say goodnight, and Fatty’s didn’t” with what feels like deliberate pointedness to me).  And even this lack on overwatch and consequences becomes part of the narrative arch of the story, with one particularly awkward encounter with adults made all the more devastating by how implicitly free from discovery the whole enterprise has been made to feel.

the-mystery-of-the-burnt-cottage-1Outside of such touches, however, there’s so much here structurally that feeds back perfectly into the universe Blyton is creating.  The three friends and Bets are initially reluctant to allow Frederick — soon christened Fatty on account of his initials, which he accepts with a forbearance of the inevitable and captures perfectly the sometimes-spiteful nature of the kids that evinces itself throughout this book — into the detection club, but because they decide to keep him around for the simple reason that they like his dog.  Nevertheless, much scorn is poured on Fatty and his suggestions, and it will take a few shared experiences before they come to accept him as one of their own.  At a later point in the story, it’s suggested that they in fact ditch Fatty altogether and investigate without him, but Bets — constantly down-trodden on account of her junior years — stands up for him as she remembers how horrible it feels to be excluded from something you dearly wish to be involved in.  This doesn’t just come out of nowhere, it’s a legitimate thread built into the narrative, and, of course, it will be something that pays off not just in this book — with both Fatty’s and Bets’ own contributions to solving the puzzle — but in the series as a whole where Fatty appears to become the de facto leader of the group and apply himself to all manner of intelligent reasoning.

Equally, too, the investigation is managed in a manner that feels like a bunch of 12 year-olds doing it.  None of the children are suddenly possessed of a convenient knowledge beyond their years, even when it comes to disagreeing with the conclusions the adults around them are prone to leap two-footed into:

“He was a sly one,” she said. “He’d come down at nights, when everyone was in bed, and he’d go into my kitchen and take out a meat pie or a few buns or anything he’d a mind to.  Well, what I say is, if someone can do that, they’ll set fire to a cottage too.”

Pip remembered with a very guilty feeling that once, being terribly hungry, he had slipped down to the school kitchen and eaten some biscuits.  He wondered if he was also capable of setting fire to a cottage, but he felt sure he could never do that.  He didn’t think that Mrs. Minns was right there.

The Find-Outers also resort to some fairly transparent-yet-unsuspicious tactics to enable them to further their investigations, like throwing a ball into the garden of a suspect, and taking fish heads round to the cat of a chatty housekeeper.  Sure, everyone is also just happy to spill out convenient information when they do (“people talk to children without thinking about it” being, in fairness, fairly unarguable), but even here Blyton reverts to the gold standard ‘clue in conversation’ that was such a favourite of Christie’s (indeed, the dominant clue is a perfect example of this, spoiled only by the fact that it relies on information that we, the reader, do not possess).  There are, by my count, no fewer than four instances of information relayed in conversation becoming crucial in the understanding of what happened and why — possibly over-egging the pudding, but remember the target audience — including a stone-cold ‘misunderstanding that powers the investigation in the wrong direction for a while’ and I loved how the core ideas for every instance of this were both planted and explained very naturally.

c5d07c9940437-560dcc1900fafAnd then there’s the actual physical investigation itself, relying on solid physical clues (or “glues” as Bets hears the word, much, of course, to the consternation of the others) and what I’m going to call a nimiety of interpretation that is perfectly borne out by the information available.  To wit: early on, a footprint is discovered at the scene that must have been made on the night of the fire, but since the entire town turned out there are thousands of footprints around the cottage and so there’s no reason this particular one should be notable.  This is discussed back and forth until it’s reasoned that it is deserving of attention and, Freeman Wills Crofts-like, the search for the shoe that made the footprint becomes the raison d’être of the whole book.  Plenty happens around that, naturally, but the regular recourse to the well-reasoned piece of logic is what helps power the other developments: someone who’s feet are too big obviously couldn’t have made it (now, sure, there exist examples of this proving fallacious, but remember the target audience), or someone who only possess a single pair of shoes that don’t match the print, or…and so on and so on.

Jeepers, I have gone on, but I really did love this.  As an opening salvo into the career of the Five Find-Outers it is exceptionally promising.  You, probably an adult, will most likely spot the culprit at an early stage (hell, I knew they were guilty the moment they first appeared on the page), but seeing how and why that answer is reached through application of rigour and smarts is a complete joy to those of use who want some detecting from our detectives.  These children certainly aren’t as Famous as Blyton’s other quintet, but for my money they do a much better job in a more entertaining way, and anyone with an interest in the genre could do considerably worse than checking out what else this series has to offer.

~

The Five Find-Outers series:

1. The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage (1943)
2. The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat (1944)
3. The Mystery of the Secret Room (1945)
4. The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters (1946)
5. The Mystery of the Missing Necklace (1947)
6. The Mystery of the Hidden House (1948)
7. The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat (1949)
8. The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950)
9. The Mystery of the Vanished Prince (1951)
10. The Mystery of the Strange Bundle (1952)
11. The Mystery of Holly Lane (1953)
12. The Mystery of Tally-Ho Cottage (1954)
13. The Mystery of the Missing Man (1956)
14. The Mystery of the Strange Messages (1957)
15. The Mystery of Banshee Towers (1961)

~

So taken am I with the detection in this book, I’m going to submit on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card under the category An amateur detective.

21 thoughts on “#422: Minor Felonies – The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage (1943) by Enid Blyton

  1. I’ve been enjoying your reviews on younger mystery fiction, as unfortunately I managed to miss it all when I was that age. I have been sufficiently inspired to review another minor felony I came across called The Secret Key by Lena Jones. Hopefully get around to it this month.

    • My fascination with these books is partly fuelled by having missed them first time around myself — who knew Enid Blyton was a legit detective novelist?!

      Looking forward to your own investigations in this field; I keep wondering how much of this stuff there is for younger readers — stuff built of proper detection and actual clues — and just as I worry I may run out there always seems to be more that crops up. True, the trend tends to be more for adventure stories (or, in more modern times, dystopia and/or magic stories) but there’s been a rich seam of this stuff around for years, and somehow I managed to overlook all of it and read about talking animals and magic trees…

  2. I have extremely fond memories of reading this story and your review brought them all flooding back to me. I do appreciate that this is not only a very good story but that it also sets up the series so well.

    • I think this sort of thins, utilising younger people in the “cast”, stands and falls on how well it captures the relationships in such a group. And Blyton really understood — or at least new how to give a convincing portrait of — young people and their fickle and sometimes unpleasant ways. There’s a drinking games in this for every time someone says “Shup up, Bets!” or equivalent, but there’s also very canny young person thinking (that thing with the ball being kicked into the neighbouring garden, for starters).

      And it’s a very well-built plot. Stuff goes wrong, they get caught in places they shouldn’t be and are forced to face consequences, not every lead or idea pays off…and they reach the answer through the amassed observations and conclusions of these undertakings. I’m loving having found this series, and I’m staggered that it doesn’t have more of a reputation for doing this stuff so well.

      • I wonder if it is availability. I read these because they were just being reissued when I was in prime-Blyton age but I don’t recall seeing them on store shelves even a few years later whereas there were always Secret Seven and Famous Five available. In any case I do agree that this series does a great job of imagining how children could actually solve crimes and the dynamics of a small group of friends. I am glad you are enjoying them so much!

        • I dunno, if you google any title in the series you get plenty of different editions so it seems unlikely they’ve ever been OOP. Probably more due to fashion and perception than availability…

  3. I remember reading these when I was round about the target audience age some (gulp!) 50+ years ago. I think I credit them ( and reading the hollow man when I was 16) for my love of ‘proper’ detective stories. Saw a pack of them in TkMaxx a couple of years ago when grandson No 1 was the right age so bought them for his birthday. Didn’t get much of a response but do you ever from kids. Anyway reading your review I think I might have to ask him to lend them me if he’s still got them😊

    • I wonder how I would have responded to them if I’d read them at the intended age — I loved the Faraway Tree stuff for the fantastical element of it, and was reading stuff about talking animals when 8ish…so while I like to think these would have given me a much earlier leg-up into detection, I honestly wonder if they’d’ve been a bit dull for me.

      And, well, I can’t believe I would have enjoyed them as much back then as I am now, so there’s always that consolation!

  4. I never really did read mystery stories made for kids when I was younger. I remember reading a few Nancy Drew books and being fascinated by the idea of a mystery and not being fascinated by the way it played out in the series. As a result – I started reading juicy book’s filled with murders at the impressionable age of 8, with a certain very, very famous writer from Great Britain. Who? I’ll let you guess 😜

  5. I loved these books when I was target age, and am convinced my later love of detective stories was fired up by them. I introduced my own children to them and they liked them a lot, though not with the great affection I had. I could still recite to you any number of clues and plots and incidents from this series. They were tense and exciting and fun, and I learned all kinds of things about invisible ink and how to get out of a locked room. When you get to the Spiteful Letters, I will direct you to a blogpost I did on poison pen books, where I make a perhaps surprising comparison with a very much revered detective author…

    • Awesome! And, hey, I can see a staggeringly short hop from these books to all manner of detective authors — nothing qould surprise me. Well, unless it’s Jo Nesbo, of course. That…that would surprise me.

  6. Your review brought back memories of reading this book for the first time, completely engrossed. I’ve read every Five Find-Outers book and enjoyed them all along with dozens of other Enid Blyton books when I was a child. I credit the Find-Outers with piquing my interest in other young sleuths, such as the Hardy Boys and the Three Investigators. I became more interested in other genres as I grew up, but those detective books hold a special place in my heart. And I still remember how to get out of a locked room with just a piece of newspaper (although both newspapers and locks with keys in them are going out of style).

    • Yeah, I don’t quite think hotel key cards and ipads would work in quite the same way, hey? 🙂 Aaaah, how times change…

      I can see how the interested young person could really take these to heart, and I’ve only read two of them — to a certain extent, being able to appreciate them with an, er, older (I hesitate to say “grown up”) eye almost makes them more enjoyable to me, because I can see how good a job Blyton has done in the construction. This would most likely have passed me by when younger, though I have no doubt I would have read them just as avidly (I demurred on this point before, but I’ve since been given to reflect on the sort of thing I read at that age…and, honestly, I think it was just everything).

  7. Lovely to see how enamoured you are with Blyton. When I was of the right age to read these – oh, so many years ago during the early 80s – they were very much spat upon, because Enid Blyton was old-fashioned and not “good reading”. (See the leftist 70s influence there?) They were in fact not available in libraries due to this.

    Not that that stopped me, of course. My grandmother had three of them – books 2, 4 and 9 in the series (still the ones I remember most fondly) – and I managed to get hold of another handful of them through second-hand bookshops.

    This was my second favourite Blyton series during those years, and is probably the most “mystery like” of all her series. My favourite series back then were the “Adventure” stories, which are quite aptly named. Nowadays, I’d probably rank the Barney series above both of them – it too is more of a detective mystery series.

    I guess I can credit these series for my interest in mystery fiction and adventure thrillers.

    • Barney stories? I don’t even know what you’re talking about, but if they’re detectivey and from Blyton then I’ll be sure to do some research.

      I shall consider myself very lucky that fashions changed and attitudes shifted and so these came back into being. I’m not even sure how I came to hear of them — I think I just saw one in a secondhand shop, but it was a while ago now — but I’m loving them and hope to continue doing so.

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