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)