#519: Minor Felonies – The Mystery of the Secret Room (1945) by Enid Blyton

Mystery of the Secret Room

My discovery of Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers books simply adds to the problem that is my TBR, because every time I read one of them I want to sit down and read them all.  Sure, First World Problems, but it’s crazy to think how excited I am — and my fourth decade, too — about a bunch of books written by the Faraway Tree Lady.

That excitement is helped by my having started with the eighth book in the series, The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950) where, to be frank, the investigation takes up decidedly more of the word-count than in this opening tranche.  Now, yes, …Burnt Cottage (1943) had to establish the characters and setting, and …Disappearing Cat (1944) was Blyton still trying to get to grips with the concept, so I’m not lamenting the thinness of the plots in those books — and both have plenty to recommend them — but you do start to feel it a little here, it must be said.  My copy is 218 pages long, and we’re on page 70 before the eponymous room even features and, yes, while those opening three-score-and-ten pages legitimately do feature into the plot later on, it’s still a trifle drawn out.

From the perspective of the intended audience, however, it does make sense: we need to spend time on Fatty being enshrined as head of the Find-Outers (temporarily, of course) and him beginning to show affinity for the likes of disguises and canny snooping know-how because they’ll figure into things at a later date and so need to be canonised.  For Blyton, this also provides some of the joyful humour that is so redolent in these books in the way she captures these children as children:

“I shall put on a disguise,” said Fatty. “Just in case.”

“In case of what?” said Bets.

“Oh, just in case,” said Fatty.  “I don’t want to be recognised, do I?”

“Oh! — you mean Mr. Goon might see you,” said Bets.

Fatty didn’t mean that at all.  He just wanted to disguise himself because he liked it.  What was the good of buying disguises if you didn’t use them?

Yes, he’s the smartest and the bravest — or possibly just the least-parented — of the Find-Outers, but Fatty is also still a child and so comes unstuck when faced with real world situations: trying to shanghai an estate agent by claiming to have £500 to buy a house (approximately £17,800 or $23,000 US in today’s money) or the gorgeous sequence in which his faithful Scotty dog Buster is charged with keeping watch while the Find-Outers investigate the mysterious Milton House at the core of the story:

“Buster can keep guard,” said Fatty.  “Here, Buster, stand at the gate and bark if anyone comes.”

Buster stood by the gate, near Fatty, looking up into his master’s face as if he understood every word.

“There!” said Fatty, pleased.  “He’ll stay on guard all the morning if we want him to.”

But as soon as they went down the drive again, Buster scampered after them!  He didn’t want to stand at the front gate if they were all going to leave him!

“He’s not so clever as we thought,” said Pip.

Mystery of the Secret Rooms 1

As for Milton House, it comes into play when Pip partakes in Fatty’s new fetish for disguises and, being chased by Mr. Goon after a planned jape doesn’t quite come off, runs into the grounds of the abandoned mansion and climbs a tree to hide.  While desperately praying Mr. Goon hasn’t yet grasped the concept of a 3-dimensional universe, he happens to look in through a barred window and see a single, fully furnished room with “a couch that was big enough for a bed, an armchair, two smaller chairs, a table, a bookcase with books on it, a carpet…and an electric fire” — all the more extraordinary since every other room in the four-storey house is completely bare.  In these less innocent times we’d probably dismiss it as a hipster AirBnB and think no more of it, but, sensing something suspicious, the Find-Outers are soon on the case.

“It’s not our usual sort of mystery [with] clues and suspects to work on,” they reflect at one point.   “We don’t even know if there’s anything wrong about it.  But it’s certainly strange and unusual enough for us to try and find out what’s behind it”.  And as problems go it’s an interesting one — Blyton is to be commended for extending her scope beyond simple theft — even if the payoff doesn’t make any sense (like, would you furnish a single room to that level for that purpose?  Really?!?), and again there’s an undeniable degree of common sense (and perfectly age-appropriate reasoning) behind the approach taken to start puzzling it out: first the estate agents (witness the contrasting approaches Fatty takes with the different agents he confronts), then a convenient encounter with a dog owner…it’s handled well, and only really falls short because there’s so little to the ‘case’ as a whole.

There’s a good sense of the Find-Outers developing as a group, too.  Sure, Daisy still doesn’t really do anything except insist that “I’m as good as you boys any day” when it’s suggested that the girls “must keep out” of any dangerous activities (see, feminism did exist back then…and who’d’ve thought you’d find it here?), but there’s a steady expansion of responsibility as Larry is tasked with working out for himself how to discover who used to live in Milton House, and even the occasions where someone tells Fatty to shut up seem to be imbued with a bit more tolerance and good nature now (and they’re not so quick to dismiss Bets, either, though this must surely be about the fifty-seventh time she’s spotted the key thing at the key moment).  There’s also a running background commentary yet again on Fatty’s semi-absentee, give-him-whatever-he-asks-for parents (although Mrs. Trotteville does turn up at one point) and how, sure, it’s cool that he has “the best of everything” and the kids are happy because “he was always willing to share, so nobody minded” but Pip and Bets’ mother having a few misgivings about him having “far too much money to spend”.

Mystery of the Secret Rooms 2

It’s interesting to note, too, the actual peril faced in this one.  There comes a point where, the scheme laid more or less bare, Fatty and the gang could be in some serious, adult-world trouble and while Blyton doesn’t exactly dwell one some of the more unpleasant elements there’s also no denying that it’s a slightly more risk-laden journey than previously (“After a few moments the hands released their grip…” — man, the imagination is a disturbing thing).  You never doubt that things will ends happily, but at the same time it’s an interesting contrast when you consider how threat-averse this genre (at during this era, too) has the reputation for being.  Yes, it all ends up a bit 196s James Bond — you know, where Q gives him a staggeringly specific gizmo in the 18th minute that comes in handy for the precise situation he’s put in 20 minutes from the end — but, good grief, where’s the harm in that?

In the same manner of 1960s James Bond, we’re also getting the habitual beats established: Mr Goon — first name Theophilus, which seems like an opportunity for a classical Greek joke passed up for a funny-sounding name — displaying just enough nouse to be taken seriously as a policeman but insufficient cunning to properly outdo out heroes, Inspector Jenks sweeping in at a key moment to be impressed and clear away any difficulties with the Find-Outers’ parents (though it seems a bit of a reach to list alongside such qualities as “his courtesy” and “his shrewdness” the entirely arbitrary “his tallness” — whaddaya sayin’?), and said parents exhibiting a cursory amount of concern in what their progeny are getting up to before propitiously being distracted by, I dunno, a dusty cupboard or a servant bleeding to death belowstairs.

But let’s not pretend for a second that I’d even wish to propagate some sort of Truther movement on the world of these books.  They’re light, entertaining, well-intentioned, and fun romps that show up occasional flashes of intelligence in how they treat either their problems and their characters.  It’s to be hoped that the mystery element begins to expand as the series progresses, and that …Invisible Thief wasn’t just some freak occurrence, but I enjoy the time spent in this world and, as I say, take as much delight in this recasting of Blyton as I do in the stories themselves.

Mystery of the Secret Rooms 3

As a complete aside, it’s interesting to note in my 2016 Hodder and Stoughton paperback reissue that the copyright pages bears the following missive:

In the original text Fatty’s nickname is based on the fact that his initials are F.A.T. as well as his size.  All references to his size have been removed from the text dated 2016 so that Fatty’s nickname refers to his initials only.

Now, censorship is always a hot topic where the printed word is concerned, and I’ve said many a time before that I’m not a fan of racist, sexist and other unpleasant attitudes being edited out of classic-era novels purely on account of them being unpalatable now.  In a book aimed at kids, though, it bothers me less.  Sure, there’s an argument that by removing any reference to Fatty’s, er, fatness there’s also no chance to engage in a reappraisal of dismissing someone purely on account of their physical appearance — he is, after all, the leader and the most intelligent of the group.  But, hey, part of leaving these attitudes in is in being able to trust your audience to understand what was but no longer is deemed acceptable, and let’s not pretend that all adults reading this with a child, or all children reading it on their own, would have the opportunity or the insight to address this.  I still don’t like it, but it feels a little more defensible here, I have to admit.  It’s certainly nowhere near as stupid as recent editions of the Faraway Tree stories changing Fanny to ‘Franny’ and Cousin Dick to ‘Cousin Rick’ — but don’t get me started on that.

And that’s it for another month if Minor Felonies.  Next month, my Tuesday posts will be something slightly inspired by this recent experience.  Wait and see, people, wait and see…

~

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)

9 thoughts on “#519: Minor Felonies – The Mystery of the Secret Room (1945) by Enid Blyton

  1. I had a copy of this as a lad. I can’t remember the plot but did learn how to write invisibly and get out of a locked room. Sadly I’ve never had occasion to use either of those skills.

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    • Ha. I know, right? We all wish we’d been able to escape from a locked room to the reception Fatty gets here. I mean, he’s buggered if they take the key out, but apparently that never occurs to anyone…

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  2. Some of those covers are pretty bad, to be honest. I suppose the one to the left in the final group of four is the original one? It’s the best one…

    In Sweden, the Five Find-Outers, the Famous Five and the Adventure stories all had the same cover artist for the first editions. (There have been later editions with other covers, but those are mostly pretty bad.)

    Part of it may be nostalgia, but to me those early covers are truly great. Particularly the Adventure stories which capture a moment of each book that really catches the imagination. Though there are errors even there – even though Jack owns the parrot, it’s always sitting on Philip’s shoulder… 🙂

    http://www.teamsat.se/rojne/enid_blyton/mystery.htm and http://www.teamsat.se/rojne/enid_blyton/fem.htm has scans of those covers, though not the Five Find-Outers.

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    • In fairness to the cover artists, “a child climbs a tree” is really the only scene of this that translates to anything like distinguishable cover art. Anything else would be a little too vague, or alarmingly specific (“Fatty, disguised as a French boy and wearing sticky-out teeth is rude to Mr. Goon!” — er, sure, how in the name of heck do I draw that?).

      The original FF covers, now, those are wonderful — but since each book was based around a picturesque adventure I suppose it was easier to come up with something distinctive.

      I actually tried, a while ago, to get some cover designers to share their thoughts on how they went about coming up with the images for the books they were charged with — all GAD reprints, y’understand — because I think it’s a fascinating process (I have nothing approaching an artistic bone anywhere in my family tree) but, while some of them seemed keen, no-one ever actually sent me anything to put up. I think it’s an underappreciated skill, and I hope to do something about it in the future still.

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  3. Oh I loved these books so much when I was young – obviously just the start of a lifelong devotion to crime fiction. I remember the estate agent scene, it made a big impression (though frankly would be unable to assign my memories of the series to specific books), and has stuck in my mind ever since. Was this the one where Fatty tries to get in convo with someone on a bus and there is a wrongly idenitified plane? – another very specific moment. Both unusual for EB, who does not root her stories too closely in time with house prices and planes.
    When you get to the Spiteful Letters be sure to read my blogpost on it.

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    • This is not the one with the bus or the plane — there’s a crucial element involving planes in the first book, …Burnt Cottage — but I know what you mean about the rootedness of such conceits in Blyton’s writing. That deference, almost, to actual real-world concerns and interactions is part of what I find so enjoyable here.

      And thanks for the pointer to your Spiteful Letters post, I most certainly shall check it out; there’s too little by way of modern commentary on these, a lot of what goes up tends to be older reviews replicated for modern interest, so another fairly contemporary (to me) viewpoint will be hugely appreciated.

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  4. I always liked the fact that a fat kid (being one myself, when I first read the books over 35 years ago) was allowed to be the clever one and the leader of the gang, rather than being picked on like most overweight characters in children’s books. I loved the invisible ink! And the Find Outers were quite easy to relate to – they did things like solving the mystery of who’d broken into a nearby house, rather than having wild adventures that even the most imaginative of readers couldn’t really think would ever happen to them.

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    • You make an excellent point; I’d entirely overlooked the idea of the crimes being much more “local” and therefore relatable.

      But, hm, id that then something of a double-edged sword? Does that lack of dazzle mean that these books are viewed less enthusiastically? Because the likes of the Three Investigators — with their Egyptian mummies, haunted castles, and acrobatic dwarves — are far more well-known as far as I can tell, despite being OOP in this country. So does the “adventure” aspect cause people excitement, where “someone is writing spiteful letters” makes your average reader shrug and reach for Jupe and the fellas?

      It’s an entirely academic question, but I find it fascinating how I only discovered these books by complete accident, and but for my obsessively trawling secondhand shops would likely still be in ignorance of them despite their many qualities simply because no-one had ever mentioned them.

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