Here we go again, with Fatty, Pip, Bets, Larry, and Daisy (and Buster, of course) up against Mr. Goon in the race to solve yet another mystery. And yet for all its familiar elements, change is afoot…
Firstly, and perhaps surprisingly, we have the small matter of, er, puberty:
“Fatty! You’ve got a different voice! It’s a grown-up voice! Are you putting it on — disguising it, I mean?”
“No,” said Fatty, pulling Bets’ hair teasingly. “It’s just broken, that’s all.”
Given the timeless universe the Find-Outers inhabit, and despite the fact that their cases have taken place on successive summer ‘hols’ from boarding school, it’s rather odd to think of biology working away in the background. Good grief, this opens up the possibility of The Mystery of the Missing Man (1956) featuring a 25 year-old Frederick Trotteville returning from the City with his new bride in tow, only for her to disdain the pursuing of youthful shenanigans with his childhood friends and insist he sets up on his own, leading to a long, brooding examination on the nature of self-sufficiency and friendship, with Fatty leaving his wife so that he can find out who battered Mr. Goon to death while he sat alone in the lounge of the local old people’s home.
Oh, god, someone’s going to greenlight a grown-up, dark and edgy Five Find-Outers continuation series, aren’t they?
“Oh, I do hope so!”
Anyway, back in this fictional reality, there’s now the small matter of everyone being back together and so the frank inevitability of some sort of something going down in their vicinity. Though, given that the eponymous necklace doesn’t vanish until page 176 of 214, we spend a lot of time in what seem to be the pure page-filling shenanigans of Fatty’s disguises yet again, even if the upshot of all of this is thankfully a little more relevant to later developments than was the case in, say, The Mystery of the Secret Room (1945). Actually, given that time here is spent with the group while they “ate 24 cakes [and] finished up with ices washed down by a rather sweet lemonade”, maybe The Mystery of the Missing Man will be about Pip lapsing into a diabetic coma while out walking his dog, and everyone must search the hedgerows and dells in the hope of giving him a life-saving insulin shot before it’s too late.
There’s some fun to be had — see Mrs. Trotteville’s bafflement at the elderly balloon woman who walks into her garden and then vanishes without a trace, even though she recognises this with all the gin-soaked indifference of a parent who bitterly regrets her child’s existence — and Blyton is at pains to find ways for poor youngest Find-Outer Bets to establish her bona fides ahead of the others (Daisy, alas, is only there to provide an opinion on matters pertaining to clothes). As always, the casual brutality of older brothers to their younger siblings is very trenchantly observed, and Blyton no doubt had in mind her younger audience who might be on the receiving end of such attitudes. The message of proving yourself despite the misgiving of your elders would be hammered home more heavily these days, and it’s nice to see it spring organically out of actual childlike observation and deduction.
And then our second notable change occurs: not only is there a mystery, but Mr. Goon seems to be applying himself to it with diligence and something that looks rather like competence for once. Only through appealing to Inspector Jenks do the Find-Outers even begin to get a sniff of the gang of thieves that may have made Peterswood their base of operations, and while our gang are intercepting messages and setting up Fatty to eavesdrop on the yeggs in their HQ, Goon seems to have grown a brain and is proving their equal for once: settling on the same go-between for observation, reading a secret message that’s intercepted by the Find-Outers, and generally behaving with “more brains and pluck” than exhibited in the previous cases. Hell, he even makes an intelligent decision to exclude Fatty from proceedings at one point because a) a teenage boy really shouldn’t be mixed up with a gang of roughs and b) it’s the morally sensible thing to do. Trust Larry to enable this moment of insight to be used to Goon’s detriment, but this is perhaps the closest old Clear-Orf has come to acting like a functional human being.
The Five are, of course, having a wonderful time carrying around a hooter that they sound whenever Mr. Goon is nearby — he’s after a man with a hooter on his bicycle instead of a bell, see — but, as with The Mystery of the Secret Room we also get a credible threat escalation and subsequent sobering of these japes: the others are also keen for Fatty not to be in harm’s way, urging him to speak to Inspector Jenks about what they have found, but, aaaahh, the arrogance of the amateur detective: “I want us to solve the mystery before we see the Inspector again”. Vaulting ambition, and all that.
It plays out slightly more interestingly than might otherwise be expected, which in turn necessitates that 40 page short story giving the book its title — it’s not quite a bait-and-switch, and the use of that opening quarter playing around with Fatty’s disguises has at least enabled Blyton to drop with no small subtlety a blunt clue that comes in very handy during the finale. And that clue is to be appreciated because of the scant detection and clewing that there is to be found herein. The go-between mentioned above is settled on through nothing more than being the only character brought up in the first part of the book, and when contact is made with the heterochromia iridium-afflicted man who ends up being the subject of much speculation, it’s somewhat untenably assumed that he ends up being the person who they’re trying to track down come the end…purely, one feels, because he’s been seen before and will be easy to identify.
Oh, I know, I know — it’s a book for kids and so shouldn’t be held to such high standards, etc., etc. But one of the big appeals of this series is Blyton’s surprising commitment to a certain amount of rigour and intelligence where the detection was concerned: opener …Burnt Cottage (1943) would create many a Freeman Wills Crofts fan, …Spiteful Letters (1946) uses movements and alibis neatly, …Invisible Thief (1950) is built around several very clever and well-built assumptions that pursue leads both promising and otherwise. Blyton is, was, and will be better than what she gives here where the find-outing is concerned, and I think I’m justified in being underwhelmed. This is more of a “detective novelist goes thrillerish on us” undertaking than it is a novel of detection, and while I enjoyed it I also hope we get back to some detail and intelligence in the clewing before too long.
“Oh, I do hope so!”
Which brings me to find third and final big change: not only do we have teenage biology making its presence felt, but also the outside world. The publication date places this after the Second World War, but Blyton takes a moment while the Five are in the waxworks exhibit of the visiting fairground to give us the following:
“Do you want to look like Napoleon?” said Bets in surprise. “I don’t think he looks very nice, really. And I don’t like those men that go around thinking they want to conquer the whole world.”
From the right side of the Potsdam Agreement I suppose it was safe to reference these things in books for younger readers, but it does make me wonder how the war was depicted during the war itself. The younger generations couldn’t have been unaware it was happening, and we’ve seen references to elements of the war in various GAD novels written while it was still being waged…but how did fiction for younger readers respond? I’ve never really considered it before, and I suppose I assumed there would have been a Basil Fawlty-esque “Don’t mention the war!” attitude…but, upon reflection, that doesn’t really make sense. Anyone know of any children’s fiction written during the war that talks about the war? Answers below, please.
These various points of interest save The Mystery of the Missing Necklace from complete ignominy, but I’d say it’s the second-least essential of the six books I’ve read in this series so far. If I’d read this one first, I might doubt the quality of the series elsewhere, but thankfully there’s more than enough that’s been great already to keep me coming back.