Another hols has rolled around — it’s Chriiiiiiiistmas — and the Five Find-Outers have all been laid up with colds and are worried that there might not be a mystery for them to solve before their impending return to their schools. And there isn’t, the end.
I jest, of course. A break-in just down the road from Larry and Daisy’s house, and the absence of Mr. Fellows, who is renting the house in question, soon sees intrigue on the march. Every room is in disarray, and reports persist of a man in pyjamas and a dressing gown running around at 3 o’clock in the morning of the crime…so what on earth is happening?
The Mystery of the Strange Bundle (1952) is the tenth book in Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers series, and seems a deliberate fence-straddling entry that leans as much into the familiar as it does the new. Let’s not pretend for a second that we’re going to get psychologoical depth here, with head Find-Outer Fatty suddenly weeping into his mother’s arms when confronted with the spiritual agonies of condemning men to prison. But there’s nevertheless a new awareness in Blyton’s writing: “How many, many times had this same scene been acted?” she asks at one point, when Fatty’s dog Buster encounters cumbersome, boorish policeman Mr. Goon — a meeting that is always prelude to Buster running and snapping at the man’s ankles while he dances about in alarm and then tells the group to “Clear orf!”.
Elsewhere, Fatty interacts with his parents in a manner that is more than simply meek acquiescence ahead of them losing interest in him before he leaves the house to get up to all sorts of life-imperilling mischief:
“I hope you are not going to get mixed up in anything to do with that absurd policeman again.”
“Not if I can help it,” said Fatty, spreading butter on his toast. “Any news in the paper this morning, Dad?”
“Plenty. And I’m quite aware that you are hurriedly changing the subject,” Mr. Trotteville said, drily.
Sure, that’s about the first and last we hear of Mr. Trotteville, since he and his wife go out to all manner of social fixtures night after night, leaving Fatty alone in the house (well, The Help are there, of course) — parenting rarely seeming high on the list of priorities for these parents: “I’ll be back at school in a very short time,” Fatty assures his mother at one point, “then the house will be nice and quiet”.
Come the inevitable meddling with Mr. Goon’s investigation, the confrontation between Goon and Fatty is something new, too. I’ll not spoil it here, but there’s real vehemence in how Goon ends up unleashing the pent up frustration of nine previous books that, yes, has a plot purpose, but also brings their mutual antagonism onto something of a more realistic footing. Fatty’s magnanimity is sort of magnificent, too, acknowledging his own culpability in the turn things take and willing to simply brush it aside because he understands how frustrating he can be (“Fatty could be rude more politely than anyone Goon had ever met” is possibly the most brilliant description of the boy I’ve yet encountered). And the ending, in which these enemies make a kind of peace, is interesting for what it acknowledges, and it’ll be fascinating to see how this is either developed or forgotten in the books to come.
We’re on familiar ground for most of the remainder, however: clever observations (the incongruity of finding a child’s glove in a house without a single toy, game, or other indication that a child might live there), encountering a young lad of about their age who will furnish them with a key piece of evidence (this time around, Larry and Daisy’s bird-mad neighbour Erb, up watching for owls at all times of the night), youngest Bets being the object of derision (usually from her older brother Pip) moments before being the one to offer the essential discovery that finally breaks the case, Daisy being generally the thirdest wheel to ever rotate (“The moon was shining last night” is, I believe, her sole contribution to the mystery, to which we can add the moment she declares “I like feeling hungry!” — and Pip thinks he’s got it tough with his sister). Blyton was aware of the rails, and might call attention to them, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t going to drive her book down them.
The only real disappointment is that when Chief Inspector Jenks swoops in to do the inevitable tidying up come the end, the mystery takes a lurch into territory that puts it well beyond the reach of the Find-Outers. I suppose the attempted kidnap of a foreign prince for political reasons in the previous book betokened a sort of opening up into this style of semi-espionage plot, and it’s a shame to see the roots of this very entertaining series pulled up yet further as a way of giving perhaps the least interesting answer to the intriguing questions raised. That eponymous bundle veers into puzzle territory at times, but there’s only so much ingenuity on display here and it’s not to be found in the book’s closing stages.
At its best, this book reminds you of the heights the Find-Outers series reached — the genuine detection of Burnt Cottage (1943), the intriguing problem of Hidden House (1948), the rigour of Invisible Thief (1950) — and it’s to be wondered if Blyton’s awareness of her tropes is a sign of weariness that she can’t seem to recapture the magic they were put to such good use in creating before. These books are never a chore, and I’ll finish the series without a moment of regret for the time spent in it, but it’s perhaps fair to wonder if, ten books in, we’ve seen the best of Fatty and the gang. I hope not, but nevertheless begin to suspect otherwise.
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)