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.
Let’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.
Outside 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.
And 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.