There’s clearly a Sophomore Clause for youthful detection collectives: Must Involve a Missing Animal. The Three Investigators sought a stuttering parrot, and now the Five Find-Outers are herding cats having solved a case of arson first time out.
Add to that a sub-clause: Must Also Slightly Underwhelm. For while elements of this are clever, and while it retains the admirable intent of the two other entries in this series I have read in trying to present clues and then fashion them into a logical narrative, this is decidedly thinner tale that The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage (1943) and The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950). Which is not to say that it’s entirely without merit, but while my 2016 Hodder and Stoughton paperback editions with the above cover art (though different layout and colouring) are a comparable length, this second volume is decidedly shorter on content and ideas.
Case in point: …Cottage gave us the burning cottage on page 1; The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat (1944) doesn’t actually disappear said cat until page 51. In those pages, we’re taken through all the characters who will feature in the piece before they have any real narrative significance, whereas …Cottage was happy to introduce them as they appeared, and the more adept use of characters and clues in that first story is noticeably lacking here. The longer setup is really just padding, and accounts for the paucity of plot in a slightly greater number of pages — the problem here is much less varnished, and far less complex.
Said plot runs thus: Lady Candling has bought the house next door to Pip and Betsy and, with the four ‘big’ children back for the summer and 8 year-old Bets excited to be involved with them again, they befriend the 15 year-old Luke who is working in Lady Candling’s garden. One day, when Luke is alone in the garden, one of Lady Candling’s prize Siamese cats vanishes from the specially-constructed, locked cat house (not that kind of cat house…) and suspicion falls on the young gardener. Cue the Five Find-Outers setting about the task of clearing their friend’s name, even if it does look pretty black against him:
“He was digging over that bed,” said Fatty thoughtfully, “he couldn’t have been working any closer to the cat house than that! He would have seen anyone coming or going to the cats, wouldn’t he? He couldn’t have helped it.”
The children went and stood where Luke had been working. They could see every cat from where they stood. It would surely have been impossible to take a cat out, and lock the door, without being seen by Luke.
And yet a cat had gone, and Luke swore he hadn’t stolen her — so who in the wide world could have taken Dark Queen?
Yup, there’s the i-word, and this could indeed be considered an impossible crime: the cat is there at 3pm, Luke can see that no-one approaches over the course of the next hour, and the cat is not there at 4pm.
“I love a happy ending.”
For suspects, you have a good set, which makes an improvement on …Cottage where the guilty party was obvious to the adult reader as soon as they appeared. Could it be head gardener Mr. Tupping, who is resentful of these ‘orrible kids from next door who keep jumping over the wall and using his precious garden as an extension of their own? Or how about Miss Harmer, who is specially employed by Lady Candling to look after her cats, and who seems possibly far too casual in offering Pip her train ticket — apparently proving she was elsewhere at the time of the theft — for his collection? Or there’s Miss Trimble, Lady Candling’s companion, whose glasses seem to never quite stay in place, and who is in such a perpetual state of nerves that Luke has christened her Miss Tremble? And then, of course, why not Lady Candling herself?
“She wouldn’t steal her own cat, silly,” said Daisy.
“She might,” said Larry, “it might be insured against theft, you know. She would get a lot of money. You’ve got to think of all these things.”
We have, in such considerations, a continuation of the same solid traditional detective staples that started this series off so well and, while these kids need to learn a thing or two about the chain of evidence, there’s again a solid focus on the interpretation of physical clues. Equally, there’s a moment — only one, and a very small one, but a moment nonetheless — of reflection on the Five’s potentially naïve faith in Luke’s innocence when one of their mothers scolds them that “You are none of you old enough to know whether anyone is really honest or not. I’d rather you kept away from Luke until this matter is cleared up,” and then never checking again whether their children are heeding this scolding (man, parenting was easier back then, eh?). They’re reluctant to suspect him, but Suspect Everyone must be observed.
And, of course, no Find-Outers book with its focus on Fatty’s hubris, Bets’ insecurity at being left out by the bigger kids, and the mixture of luck and intelligence that betokens their very charming adventures would be complete without old Clear Orf himself, Constable Goon. Out intrepid, resourceful heroes, not content with merely finding (and taking) what they consider to be genuine clues — and running around at one point sniffing aerosol containers like a bunch of hop-heads in a supply chain crisis — also take the time to plant a collection of false clues at the scene of the crime so that Goon has an especially agonising time once Inspector Jenks gets involved. And then there’s a second, equally impossible, disappearance…
“This gets better and better.”
For all the sparsity of actual plot, this is a lot of fun, and I’ve read all three books with an increasingly delighted grin on my face for every page. It’s not fair play in the typical sense of the word, but it is actually a pretty niftily-devised crime and shows there’s no need for ritzy pretensions when writing for younger readers: an engaging situation and some lovely narrative asides to give each of the central five characters a bit more of an inner life will more than suffice. It’s also pleasing to see, as with Jupiter Jones’ unconventional homestead setup in the Three Investigators books, practically no issue at all being made of the shortcomings of Luke, who though older than the Five is deprived the opportunity of boarding schools and the expensive education afforded to Daisy, Fatty, Larry, and Pip. The sole acknowledgement of any social difference between them is a sentence at the start of an early chapter that Luke “couldn’t read or write well, but he knew all kinds of things that the children didn’t know”…and that’s it. It never becomes a plot point, it’s never necessary for him to read some crucial clue or memorise a letter or something equally as tawdry. Blink and you’ll miss it, and that’s how I like my reminders of the differences between people: they exist, now on to more important things.
Add in a visit to the circus, a moment of delightful wordplay with the idiom ‘let the cat out of the bag’, and a fairness in the clewing to allow you to play along at home, and you’ve got another case of this series proving quite the marvellous surprise as I seek out quality detective fiction for younger (and older) folk. I know that The Mystery of the Invisible Thief restores a balance of clewing and plotting, so it’s to be hoped that this second outing suffers purely on account of Blyton finding her feet as a detective novelist amidst the 14 other books she would have published that year. If you’d’ve told me three years ago that I’d be a huge fan of not just Freeman Wills Crofts but also Enid Blyton now…well, who could have predicted that, eh?
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)