Here’s a question for you: at what point did the Five Find-Outers series by Enid Blyton peak?
I started reading these books with the eighth entry, The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950), before heading back to the beginning with The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage (1943), and they feel like two peaks betwixt which the first half of this series is suspended. The stronger entries between those high points — Spiteful Letters (1946), Hidden House (1948), and the second half of Disappearing Cat (1944) — show great invention and insight while not shying away from the harsher side of crime, both in its effect on its victims and the risks run by our quintet of youthful sleuths.
And then you get something like the seventh book, The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat (1949), which represents both the very best and the very worst the series has to offer.
It’s the hols again, and with everyone back from school and Constable Goon off on a holiday of his own, the youthful PC Pippin is drafted in to take care of police duties in Peterswood. Apparently not learning their lesson from the previous hols, in which they created a false mystery for Goon’s nephew Ern and sent him into the maw of a gang of criminals, Fatty, Larry, Daisy, Pip, and Bets decide that it would be top hole to create a false mystery for PC Pippin in Mr. Goon’s absence and so contrive to have him on the lookout for a criminous meeting only for a crime to actually be committed at the very place they’ve arranged. What’s more, the false clues they’ve decided to lay around the place end up implicating some of the genuine suspects in that very crime…and so they must saddle up once again and solve the crime before their meddling gets the wrong person arrested.
Most of this is very good indeed. The crime this time around is the theft of the local theatre’s takings from the safe in the office, with the small matters of the manager being drugged unconscious and the key needed to open the safe being taken from a hiding place only a few people knew implicating one of the members of the cast of Dick Whittington, the current production. However, everyone had an alibi…well, everyone except the man-child Boysie who plays the cat and who usually brings the manager the cup of tea in which a sleeping draught was placed so that the safe could be robbed. And, since Boysie at twenty-four years of age is “like a kid of six” and can’t read or write, it seems likely that if he is guilty, someone must have been in on it with him…
Essentially, then, this is an alibi problem. All the cast give their alibis to the police, PC Pippin — in a manner that perhaps bodes poorly for this future career — passes this information onto Fatty, and the Find-Outers go about checking the alibis, establishing the holes in them, and trying to work out whodunnit. So while John James may have gone to the cinema and so been watching a movie at the time of the theft, it’s never accepted as simply cut and dried that this absolves him of suspicion: “He could easily have popped in and popped out again — and even popped back in after doing the robbery. Poor alibi, I call that”. And it’s in details like this — “a good detective checks everything, even if he thinks it isn’t really necessary” — that this series continues to commend itself for the application of intelligence to the matter of solving crimes.
Some of the details included here are fascinating from the perspective of history: fingerprinting is now well-known enough that it can be discussed without explanation in children’s literature, it’s a given that simply everyone smokes, that cinema alibi can be tested on account of the film breaking (which I don’t think I’ve ever heard mentioned in a grown up detective novel), and I’m inclined to believe there’s been a little updating in the moment when Fatty gives gives Bets and Daisy “a few pound coins” as £1 in 1949 is worth about £35 today — his aunts are generous, no doubt, but let’s be sensible! There’s slightly more reference to family expectations, too, with Fatty being summoned by his father to sit and listen to a programme on the radio, and an aside about parents paying attention to their children that feels more pointed than is probably intended.
The Five, too, are increasingly well-drawn — see Fatty trying out make-up and disguises in front of a mirror and then daring to play a joke on his mother, or the clues they scatter when laying a false trail being as juvenile as they come (pencil shavings?), or Bets — who started out this series excited to look for “glues” — asking if an alibi has anything to do with a lullaby, or the fact that for all his acumen Fatty has no idea how to enquire about the films a cinema was showing the previous week:
“Good morning,” said Fatty. “Er — could you tell us anything about last week’s programme?”
“Why? Are you thinking of going to it?” said the girl, with a giggle. “You’re a bit late.”
And, while one can almost sympathise with Mr. Goon for having these precocious children dogging his every footstep and leading him on a succession of merry dances, it feels like a telling development that Fatty stands up to him over his treatment of Buster — and especially when, shown up yet again in front of Inspector Jenks, Blyton comes dangerously close to expressing an opinion about something:
If ever cruelty and stupidity and conceit were punished well and truly, then they were punished now, in the person of Goon.
I mean, sure, he’ll be back to his usual nonsense in the very next book, and it’s not as if PC Pippin is any more professional in his wilful handing out of the contact details of suspects and specifics of an on-going investigation to a curious teenager, but it’s worth being reminded sometimes that bad people don’t always have to get away with what they do…even if the bad things they do are forgotten by the next time we encounter them (though that, in a way, is perhaps a more useful lesson…).
And then we get to the end.
I was very much enjoying the rigour of Blyton’s alibi problems, and wondering at the wrinkles she’d worked in — fixing a radio just before a certain program came on, giving a performance in front of a couple of hundred people, someone nipping out of their house for a little while unobserved, etc — and how a basic expectation of location and time would be up-ended. There’s one nice visual clue, and other nice clue that would be visual if someone was willing to draw a diagram to illustrate it, and then all that good work was simply dropped and something veers so wildly out of left-field that I had to jump up out of my chair to avoid being side-swiped. It is…not good.
Blyton has before dropped sudden developments on the audience to realise the guilt of someone — back at the start of this series we find out who burnt down the cottage on a similar basis — but this comes so thunderingly out of nowhere that you can’t help but wonder why she bothered. It would be a great false solution, and enrich what was to that point a superb reduction of the detective plot to its core elements quite wonderfully. But, nah, she’d got seven other books to finish this month and so that’s yer lot and away you go. And so this brings me back to the question that opened this review: when does this series peak? Certainly Invisible Thief has a little more in the way of preparation for its answers, suggesting that Blyton herself might have been dissatisfied with the way the answer is reached here, but equally it feel ominous that as she appears to be approaching her apotheosis the only way out of it is such a damp squib.
So, well. It’s to be hoped that Blyton only increased in confidence from here, and the quality of the succeeding book would make that appear to be the case…but is it downhill thereafter? Obviously I’ll continue to read these to find out, because in many ways this series is as wonderful an experience as the ‘grown up’ GAD authors who bring me so much delight, but I do hope that my first two encounters with the Five Find-Outers weren’t also their very best adventures.
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)
14 thoughts on “#729: Minor Felonies – The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat (1949) by Enid Blyton”
Re: the possible updating of the reward, the pound coin wasn’t introduced until 1983, which also suggests this may not have been the original text….
i like the idea that he gave Daisy £70 to buy dollhouse furniture, though…
This comment is 2 years late but I’ve only just come across your set of Mystery reviews (having dipped in & out of your blog for a year or two). My 1966 paperback edition gives the money as “a two shilling piece and a sixpence”. This, coincidentally, is also the price the book itself was. I would guess the amount in the original edition would have been either the same or similar, given it seems a reasonable amount for someone to have spent on a small birthday present in 1949 as well as in 1966 – certainly far more reasonable than a few pounds. Though I now want to buy a first edition to check!
Good to know, thank-you 🙂 It’s interesting to see just how much updating these texts have received down the years, and one could almost do an entirely new set of posts looking at what has been changed since they were originally put out. Not that I intend to, I’ll leave that to someone with the talent for such things, but a little reading around the internet reveals some eye-opening alterations down the years.
I got one of the biggest shocks of my reading life when I got a 1950s hardback copy of The Island Of Adventure and discovered that one of the villains, who in my late 80s paperback reprint had been a white man named Joe, was actually originally a black man named Jo-Jo. The Island Of Adventure was the first ever non-picture-book that I read by myself, age 6, so it was special to me & to discover that for years I had been cheated out of reading part of what Blyton actually wrote I found, and still do find, infuriating.
That’s the biggest change I’ve come across in Blyton’s oevre but I’ve only read editions from the late 80s-early 90s and earlier. I imagine the more recent editions have even more changes. I’m still boggling at the note you quoted in one of your other Mystery reviews that Fatty has been changed so he’s no longer fat, something which I consider to be utterly ridiculous. Given so many children nowadays are overweight, why on earth change a character who would be a positive role model for them?
It seems that Mr. Goon is a bit more violent towards the FFO and Buster in the originals texts, too, which has been toned down for perhaps obvious reasons. One wonders how these decisions are made, and how permanent they were ever intended to be.
Now I’m going to have to read this to find out what it is that comes out of nowhere. I read them all avidly as a child ( Armada paperbacks costing 2/6d), and kindly introduced my children to them ie forced them to read them. I am so hoping there is a copy still upstairs in the children’s room (children concerned now being in their late 20s). One of the things I enjoy is that all EB books are set in a wholly undated universe, but then there will be something very specific. (It does seem ridiculous to have changed the money in them, and done it so awkwardly). My memories (no idea which books) are of Fatty going into an estate agents and asking about houses and mentioning a ridiculous price because he has no idea – and also one where he sits next to someone on a bus and says ‘Is that plane a XXX’ and the suspect responds Yes, although Fatty has deliberately not got it right, some kind of wartime plane. (If I have remembered that correctly, it is very difficult to imagine what Fatty was trying to establish.)
But very informative – have always remembered how to make invisible ink from fruit, and isn’t there an indication of how you can tell if bruises are new or several days old? When Fatty breaks into a house and then is pushed down the stairs. (Can I possible be remembering this correctly?)
Yes, I remember the thing with the estate agents: I’m going to say that was Hidden Room, since they’re investigating empty houses. Not come across the bruises yet, not the aeroplane; expect updates when I do.
And, if you’d like an idea about what appears out of nowhere, here’s a rot13‘d hint:
Vg’f n irel Xabk Qrpnybthr grarg…
Might save you rereading it, but then you also might want to reread it — it’s a great time until then, for sure.
I suppose nowadays a policeman giving an annoying child a clip round the ear is not PC in either meaning of the initials! (There’s no reply option under your last message so I’m having to reply as a separate comment.)
Nor is the animal abuse aimed at poor Buster…
I feel Buster is the provoker in many instances though! I suspect your reading interests may not extend to girls’ school stories but the Girls Gone By Publishers’ reprint of Phyllis Matthewman’s Thanks To Mr Jones (which is actually a holiday story, though she mostly wrote school stories) includes an introductory article comparing 3 Scotties: Buster, Mr Jones & Mackie from Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine series. Of the 3 I’d say Mackie has by far the hardest treatment at the hands of villains: through the series he is variously doped, knocked unconscious & shot at by different villains, as well as kicked by many of them. By comparison I don’t feel Buster has nearly as much to complain about!
[T]hrough the series he is variously doped, knocked unconscious & shot at by different villains…
Yes, that certainly puts things in perspective!
I should perhaps say that he does make it to the end of the 20th & last book still alive!