I was recently moved to suggest that The Secret of Hangman’s Inn (1956), the sixth title in the Ken Holt series by husband-and-wife team Bruce Campbell, was the point at which that series found its feet and jumped to life. Today I’m going to promulgate that The Mystery of the Hidden House (1948), the sixth title in the Five Find-Outers series by one-woman publishing sensation Enid Blyton, is the point where this series finds its feet and jumps to life. Coincidence? Yes, undoubtedly.
Previous books in this series have been good — opener …Burnt Cottage (1943) is an amazingly rigorous piece of detective fiction, sophomore title …Disappearing Cat (1944) had a well-worked impossible crime, and fourth title …Spiteful Letters (1946) was a great exploration of a poison pen campaign — but after Burnt Cottage (which gets off to a flying start and is a near-perfect piece of juvenile detection) each also had a recurrent flaw: a lot of waiting around in their opening third before you got to any plot or anything of significance besides Fatty showing how dosh-garned great he is at everything. And yet …Invisible Thief (1950), the eighth title in the series and first of these I read, is another rich, dense, satisfying detective plot in the manner of that opening salvo which implied Blyton would at some point master the milieu she has created and learn how to turn it to great ends. And, as I suggest above, I reckon it could be said that this is the book where that happened.
This time, that opening third is put to use for actual plot purposes: the arrival of Mr. Goon’s nephew Ern, his introduction to the Find-Outers, and the implication that Pip and Bets’ parents might have received some books by Dr. Benjamin Spock for the recently-observed Christmas since they actually take, like, an interest in their children’s activities and well-being:
[Pip] had strict parents who had very strong ideas about good and bad behaviour … “I don’t like you being mixed up in these things [said his father]. It is the job of the police to solve these mysteries and to clear up any crimes that are committed. It’s time you five children kept out of them. I forbid you to try and solve any mysteries these holidays.”
With the wiles of a born lawyer, however, it is noted that no-one said anything about Ern not solving a mystery, and so the Find-Outers contrive to create a fake mystery for Ern to investigate…and, of course, old Clear Orf himself gets wind of Ern’s investigations and begins to suspect that there really is a mystery taking place on nearby Christmas Hill.
Blyton had, by my estimation, already written some 70 books by the time this was published, but this feels so much more confident and secure in terms of both its plotting and its tone. The humour, for one thing, is a little more subtle, consisting of much more than mere Goonish pratfalls and being chased by Buster: witness the breakfast scene the morning after both Goon and Ern have had differing adventures in the dark around Peterswood, the former bruised from chasing smugglers and thieves (in reality Fatty, Larry, and Pip with various coloured torches) around the hillside and the latter with scratches on his face from his own escapades. Or how about Ern’s miserable attempts at poetry (or “portry” as he calls it) which are always called things like ‘The Pore Dead Pig’ and are fixated on dying and being miserable.
Ern never wrote a cheerful ‘pome’. They were all very, very sad, and they made Ern feel deliciously sad too.
You wouldn’t call Ern a subtle piece of characterisation, but he’s a bit more rounded than what we’ve seen thus far — and, from my reading of the Famous Five, Secret Seven, Faraway Tree, Wishing Chair, St. Clairs, and others, possibly more subtle that what’s appeared anywhere else in Blyton’s work — in his (ahem) earnest devotion to the Find-Outers, and to Fatty in particular, which goes nicely with his obvious desire to write poetry that he has no talent for. It’s not exactly State of the Nation stuff, but it feels more complex and more acute than anything the series has attempted previously. Look at the Find-Outers’ aghast reaction when the discover that Ern has pinched on of his uncle’s notebooks to write down his detective notes in: it’s a superb moment of his puppyish enthusiasm playing out entire against his expectations.
Married to this is — and I have no desire to get into spoilers — the sense that the Find-Outers aren’t exactly being fair to Ern in their gleeful manufacturing of false clues and fake intrigues, and how this plays out once Fatty becomes directly responsible for a misfortune that befalls Ern and ties the two central plots together is again more substantial than the series previously tried to be. These shenanigans having actual consequences might signal the end of this sort of frippery in future books — essentially a form of literary persiflage, but needless when Blyton can plot as well as this, …Burnt Cottage, …Spiteful Letters, and …Invisible Thief showcase. And when there’s such good consideration of the staples of detection — fingerprints, tyre tracks, the careful accrual of information about suspects, even the accidental and false implication of an entirely innocent man — I’d much rather read about that than have yet another reminder of Fatty’s prowess with disguises.
So, yes, the relative complexity of this one is a return to the promise of the opening volume of this series, with even the fleeting mention of someone’s son being “killed in the last war” feeling like a grasping of a nettle in a way that has been absent from other children’s books of this era that I’ve read. If you want to fault it on anything, the eventual criminal scheme that is inevitably stumbled upon feels rather more like something out of Tintin than the sort of things the Find-Outers would concern themselves with, but Blyton’s not one to shy away from the difficulties involved in unmasking the plot, and resolves it in a way that feels both appropriate and realistic. We might have just hit Peak Five Find-Outers, and it’s to be hoped that this standard is maintained for quite some time yet.
Though if The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat (1949) is terrible, then I take that all back, obviously….