Last week we had a vanishing — two, in fact — and this week there’s another one. Am I trying to tell you something? No, no, that would be insane. Hahahahaha. Aha.
The Five Find-Outers books by Enid Blyton have been, it’s no exaggeration to say, one of my most delightful literary discoveries in recent years. Blyton’s slightly-too-earnest tone seems perfect for marrying the tropes and expectations of the puzzle novel to the ‘kids on hols’ sub-subgenre, and she has shown herself over these books to be, if not exactly meticulous in her plotting, a very competent schemer when it comes to criminal enterprise. That The Mystrery of the Vanished Prince (1951), the ninth entry in this series, continues the trend is both very pleasing and, by this point, sort of what we’d expect.
With the end of the summer holidays approaching, Pip and Bets, having lamented the absence both of the other Find-Outers and a suitable mystery to provide some larks, are delighted by the appearance of both: Fatty, from various travels abroad, Larry and Daisy from parts unknown, and the vanishing of Prince Bongawah of Tetarua State, on a camping trip with various schools in a nearby field (as frankly unlikely as that seems…) who simply ups and disappears one night without so much as a peep. When Ern, the nephew of village policeman Mr. Goon, reappears on the scene with this young twin brothers, having filled them with stories of Fatty’s brilliance after encountering the Find-Outers in The Mystery of the Hidden House (1948), things are all set for larks and a mystery.
The opening section, in which Ern, Perce, and the monosyllabic Sid (“Ar!”) are fooled into thinking that the Hilton and Daykin siblings are foreign royalty visiting from the prince’s tent — the Goons are camping in the field next to the prince’s — is both exactly the sort of shenanigans that open these books and also markedly different. Firstly, the adults seem to have about them rather more personality — see the ice cream seller who, unimpressed by the golfing umbrella Ern is holding over Bets under the impression that she is the prince’s sister “remak[ing] that he knew were Ern could get a clown’s hat to go with his umbrella” or the newly-promoted Chief Inspector Jenks wondering if Goon has “got a touch of the sun” when told by that lackey of a princess Jenks has no reason to believe exists. Where previously the grown-ups were stern authority figures, investigative speed bumps, or issuers of congratulations, now they’ve been invested with a sort of internal life that gives them rather more agency and makes them rather more interesting to read about.
Secondly, we’re aware, if we’ve read these books in order, of how a prank at Ern’s expense went awry in that earlier title, and so we know there is a point coming where a clean breast will have to be made of things. That this puts Fatty and the others in Jenks’ bad graces for making Goon “waste time on a lot of nonsense”, and thus sets the Find-Outers on course to support Mr. Goon in his own investigation, also gives things a nice twist: Goon, of course, doesn’t know it — and going on previous form, who could blame him when he dimisses the information they bring him in good faith? — and Blyton does good work with Goon’s general dunderheadedness:
“What did you run away for?” he asked sternly
“I told you. You chased me,” said Ern.
“I chased you because you were running away,” said Mr. Goon, majestically.
Perhaps my favourite passage in the entire book is this, with Fatty having just been sent away by Goon with a flea in his ear:
I’ll never believe another word he says again, muttered Mr. Goon, picking up the telephone receiver. Never in this world! He’s a snake in the grass! He’s a — a toad-in-the-hole. No — that’s a pudding. Talking about me working with him! What sauce! What cheek!
The investigation has little evidence, but uses it well: the prince, christened “Bongawah-wah-wah” because he “yelled at everything, like a kid of seven”, is unlikely to have been snatched form the campsite in the middle of the night since he would have made a ruckus and alerted those present to his predicament, and from an initial lack of concern about a mere vanishing person, the Find-Outers are soon on the trail of a case where “nobody heard anything, nobody saw anything [and] nobody knows anything”, marking a pleasing distinction from the thefts and other positive-evidence crimes they’ve investigated to date. A button left behind in a sleeping bag is the only physical clue they have, collected because of Fatty’s insistence in cases past that everything is relevant, but surely that will be no use to them. Willl it…?
Not everyone progresses — Daisy confirms her presence as the fifthest wheel to ever fifth wheel by being baffled how she’ll possibly find out if a woman living in a house has twin babies, before being struck by the genius inspiration of knocking on the door and asking if the lady who lives there has twin babies — but then every so often what could have been mined for frustration is thankfully swept aside: seeking a baby called Bert, Daisy and Bets are not thrown by a baby called Robert, or Hubert (Daisy’s real name is Margaret, remember, but I half expected her to still be confounded by this); I know, I know, it’s a teeny, tiny thing, but these are the sorts of dead ends someone could choose to run their young sleuths into (Blyton has always had a good eye for these kids as kids), and the simple avoidance of nonsense asides means we move at a good clip and nothing is needlessly strung out. Equally, the mysterious behaviour of someone camping near where the prince vanished from is, thankfully, parsed pretty quickly into an explanation that might, in an earlier book or from a less confident writer, be strung out to tedious length.
And then, well, suddenly it seems characters make leaps and bounds: Fatty is modest — actually modest — on two separate occasions, which must surely be a record, and the finale sees the Five and Ern wander into a situation of quite significant peril when put against what they’ve faced before. Cannily, they remain in the middle of the action while also safely out of the way, but the changes have been ringed (rung?) sufficiently for this entry to feel like more than simply treading water on the back of the success of earlier shenanigans. It’s aged poorly in some respects, of course — looking up names in the phone directory ahead of Daisy’s sallying forth to investgate, one woman is rejected on the grounds that “She wouldn’t have twin babies, she’s a Miss. We want a Mrs.” — like it was written in the 1950s or something, but the clarirty of the investigation and the neatness of the conclusions compels it to those of you who have an interest in seeing this sort of thing done so well.
There’s an argument that elements of this series are so familiar — Fatty’s disguises, Buster’s harassing of Mr. Goon’s ankles, a too-helpful witness who is able to lay out the precise nature of the problem at hand (here, the caravan-dwelling Rollo) — the plots around them almost write themselves. I think that would do a disservice to the simple joy of construction that Blyton took in these books: a chance to stretch her writing legs in territory not really touched upon by the likes of your Noddys, Famous Fives, Secret Sevens, St. Clairses, Emilia Janes, Faraway Trees, Wishing Chairs, etc. etc (Wikipedia lists her as the author of 762 books — eat that, John Rhode!). These seem to occupy a real place of affection in her oeuvre, with clear attempts made to tell a new story with new features each time, and a more confident form of plotting and writing coming through at times — the ubinitiated might be surprised by the venom in The Msyetry of the Spiteful Letters (1946), or the rigour of …Invisible Thief (1950). They remain, in short, a delight, and I am thrilled to have found them.
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)