In the most recent episode of our podcast, I mentioned how Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger (1942) was the book which made me appreciate how threatening a poison pen campaign could actually be. And four years after Christie used the conceit to drive a town mad, surprise Crime Writers’ Association member Enid Blyton made it the background for some childhood japes. What fun!
We start once again with poor, youngest Find-Outer Bets waiting for everyone else to returns from boarding school — it has to be said that to woke, early 21st century eyes the amount of assumed privilege in this book is frankly astonishing — that they may hopefully stumble upon a fourth mystery to solve. And the novelty this time around is that when a mystery does fall into their laps they first need to penetrate the mystery of what that mystery is since everyone — their parents (taking a sudden an unexpected interest in the lives of their children), the Hired Help (feeling that the topic under discussion is Not For Your Eyes Or Ears), and of course the policeman Mr. Goon (who, you feel, might be the Professor Snape of this series when I consider how I’d struggle to deal patiently with such a group of self-satisfied youngsters) — seems keen to keep the details away from them, despite their previous successes in this field.
Although — spoiler in the title — when it turns out to be a tide of poisonously spiteful letters, the Find-Outers are again struck by a previously-unconsidered difficulty beyond simply finding out who is sending them:
“[I]t’s no use looking for footprints or cigarette ends or dropped hankies or anything like that. There’s just nothing at all we can find for clues.”
Indeed, the genius of Christie’s take on this is that her eventual solution hinges specifically on the absence of a clue; such subtleties are possibly lost on Blyton’s younger audience and so some manufacturing of Things to Do is needed, and a delightful sequence ensues in which Pip and Bets try to outdo each other in Fatty’s eyes as having the best idea.
Pip did not look too pleased. He always thought of Bets as his baby sister, and didn’t want her to receive too much praise.
Once again, it’s the realisation of these children as children which really makes these books. The petty jealousies, or the “patient but rather tired voice” in which Fatty must explain to Pip why a scheme he has suggested won’t deceive Pip and Bets’ mother for even an instant. In fact, I’m starting to think that Pip might be the Idiot Watson of the group, since he’s especially thick-headed here — possibly giving Blyton an excess of opportunity to explain things to her readers, yes, but also simply missing the point by an at times Olympic record distance. See, for instance, the moment Fatty claims they can go and speak to the Hilton’s neighbours (pleasingly for me, the very same neighbours from the second book in this series, The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat (1944) — a triumph of in-universe continuity) under the guise of looking for Pip’s lost cat Whiskers — who, one feels, is as surprised as we are to learn of his own existence — and Pip seems unable to grasp how Whiskers can be lost when he’s sitting in the room while they’re having this conversation. Don’t drink during pregnancy, ladies. You’ll get a Pip Hilton if you do.
We get, too, what feels like a real shift in societal attitudes when it’s revealed that Gladys the Maid has received a letter dredging up her recidivist parents, and the fact the she was separated from them after being raised to steal things for them and so spent her formative years in a Home. Because, well, no doubt there were — hell, still are — elements of society who would look down upon the poor girl and cast her out with barely a backwards glance, and yet here’s Blyton offering up what 15 years earlier would have been no small controversy as the backstory for a sympathetic character in a children’s book. You can take either way the Find-Outers’ response to Gladys’ story — “The children were horrified that anyone should have such bad parents” — and it’s interesting that the only other letter whose contents we learn feels a marked step down in severity from this, but I like to see the inclusion of such a story something of a small step towards a widening awareness and social acceptance of those who don’t have it quite so good. More power to Blyton’s elbow.
Once Pip and Bets dream up their separate schemes, and good schemes they are, we get a full chapter devoted to their failure and Pip’s gloomy reflection when they have to tell Fatty that “I expect he’ll think we ought to have done better. He always thinks he can do things marvellously”. And yet Fatty is generous and gracious in their failure in a way that made me feel a little weak inside — how we’ve come on from seeing him as the priggish, unparented, rich boy from earlier cases is a joy to my old heart. Sure, “privately each of them knew that without Fatty they couldn’t do much. Fatty was…the real brain of the Find-Outers”, but this is no Fatty Hegemony, and seeing failure as simply something that happens, and being so inclusive when it occurs, is one of those lessons we need to learn; seeing this group of wonderful characters learn it makes me very happy, especially as is skated over with a lightness that an old pro like Blyton can bring to her writing when it’s needed; she doesn’t get enough credit for how light a touch she can employ at times.
The detection is solid here, too. With the letters being posted from a nearby town, and the only means of getting there being an occasional bus service, a very enjoyable sequence sees the group taking the bus and quizzing its passengers — though any professional detective would be aghast at how much faith they put in what they’re told (the argument is made elsewhere in this series, I believe, that adults are less likely to lie to children…but, c’mon!) until there’s a convenient time to not trust someone. Still, the process followed is fun, believable for the characters involved, and shows just how far society has developed that you can be certain someone would catch the 10:15 bus in order to make the 11:45 post collection…and, hey, Freeman Wills Crofts used these certainties just as rigorously (one chapter of The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933) is predicated on this precise principle) and it leads to some very enjoyable writing, so I’m not necessarily suggesting the development has entirely been for the better…
The lack of any definite physical clues results in some creative thinking when it comes to narrowing down suspects, and Blyton does a superb job of giving us a likely bunch and then clearing all of them from suspicion. The means employed here are again show a large scale thinking where the likes of different privileges involved — that someone could reach adulthood and hold down a steady job without knowing how to read or write, for instance — and I’m much more a fan of this sort of “clear everyone” approach on the way to finding the culprit than I cam those sort of less rigorous “Well, it could be anyone and now we’ve found a single, vital clue we know which one it is” mysteries. The way this exclusion is reversed to identify the guilty party is actually a little bit genius, and the only real shame is that the clues which enable them to do so are dropped in out of stark nowhere…though, in fairness, Blyton has been preparing you for this throughout, and it’s a very cheeky callback that enables her to get away with this without you minding too much.
The lack of motive is an interesting (non-)development, too, in light of the four other entries in this series that I’ve read having solid and well-motivated reasons behind their crimes. It doesn’t harm the book that there’s no clear reason given — a possibility is floated, but never addressed as accurate or otherwise — and the psychological nature of the crime perhaps befits such an uncertain conclusion. It could even be argued that, when the culprit is identified, the very nature of their character and the seemingly contradictory fact of them being responsible for the letters is enough of a conundrum to bow out on. Nailing it down with any single sentence to justify it — “And I did it because of the time when he said I had an ugly cat…well, I showed him!” — would possibly reduce the impact and unpleasantness of what went before. Who knows? Doesn’t happen, so doesn’t matter.
So another delightful entry in this series, and another opportunity for me to reflect in wonder at how thoroughly the Find-Outers seem to’ve drifted well and truly under the radar of the detection-loving set. The logic is sound, the development of the plot well-paced, the actions open to the cast of children realistic (for the setting…), and the eventual resolution satisfying and well-reasoned. Oh, and there’s an inverted impossible crime when Fatty manages to disappear from a locked room using the method described in The Mystery of the Secret Room (1945) — and possibly another one if you want to include the Vanishing Butcher’s Boy Mystery. All told, it’s a joy, and difficult not to recommend this series if you have even a fledging interest in novels of detection at any age.
In fact, the only negative point of any note — and I’m sorry to be a martinet about this — is the Ghastly Americanisms which have crept into my 2016 Hodder edition. At least, I’m assuming they’ve crept in and weren’t in the early editions of the text, and so a brace of queries if you have an earlier edition of this. Firstly, is chapter 15 called Fatty Makes a Few Inquiries? Since that should surely be ‘Enquiries’ — ‘inquiry’ is used throughout, and I’ve come to understand that’s the American option. And secondly, is the final line of chapter 18 “It’s him that done that — I’d lay a million dollars it was. Gah!”? Because, y’know, England in the 1940s wasn’t on the dollar…so surely ‘pounds’. If they have indeed been changed, I’d love to know why an English edition of a story by an English author published by an English publisher is so Yank’d up — it just seems a odd choice to me, but I apologise if it turns out Blyton herself was simply very fond of Americanisms.
None of this detracts from the plot, and I’d hate to appear to have an anti-American bias — yo’re a wonderfl people, despite yor crios relctance to se the letter ‘u’ — it’s just a source of bafflement to me in much the same way as Mr. Goon talking about a million Rupees would be. Any clarification would be greatly appreciated!