I don’t know if I’d rather the writers and series I love took risks and missed some of the time, or if it’s worse for them to settle into a sort of congenial predictability that’s less and less exciting though safely fine from book to book.
In the pressure-cooker, twelve-hundred-new-books-a-day atmosphere of modern publishing, I can understand authors being expected to turn out the same thing that sold last time, and I suppose the output of Enid Blyton isn’t too dissimilar: she produced maybe twelve hundred books every three days all by herself, so a certain amount of corner-cutting would have crept in. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the seventh entry in the Five Find-Outers series, The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat (1949), which sets up a brilliant crime no-one could have committed…and then resolves it with the sort of solution that would be scrawled in the margin as a “for pity’s sake, don’t do this” warning for new writers.
But at least …Pantomime Cat was an intriguing book while it lasted. I’m now — to my frank surprise, where does the time go? — on the eleventh of this 15-books series, The Mystery of Holly Lane (1953), and while the familiar beats are pleasing and comfortable to drop back into, they’re so familiar and comfortable that I looked at the cover the day after I’d finished it and could not remember how the scene depicted there fitted into the plot. The Five Find-Outers, you feel, are on a downward run from here.
The usual rigmarole — Fatty coming back from school; Bets wants an adventure; someone might be Fatty in disguise and isn’t (or is, whichever didn’t happen last time) — leads us by possibly one of the most awkward conceits ever seen in fiction (“I say, Larry, why don’t you dress up as a window cleaner and clean someone’s windows — what larks!” — er, sure thing) to an at least moderately engaging problem: a cottage having all its furniture stolen from its living room (a.k.a. “the lounge” if you have social aspirations). Wait, I think some money goes missing first, and then the furniture gets stolen later. Either way, the old man who lives there — in an interesting development, he’s blind…but nothing comes of that — loses stuff and, thanks to a Frenchman drawn in subtle shades reminiscent of ‘Allo! ‘Allo! (1982-92), we have a list of suspects to investigate…
Look, it’s fine. As a fan of this series I can appreciate some of the smaller points — the ongoing ribaldry re: Buster the dog and the ankles of Mr. Goon the policeman escalates to the point where Goon pays a boy in the village to capture the terrier and then arranges to have him (the dog, not the boy) shot, which is a little dark, but other than that you know exactly what you’re getting. There are false leads, some detection based around tyre marks found at the scene of the crime, and some hilarious and era-appropriate social trappings (someone can’t possibly be a suspect if Fatty’s mother days they’re okay; Bets and Daisy are shut out of the dénouement because two girls can’t possibly stand around waiting after going on the cinema visit that’s just a pretext to be in the vicinity in the first place…which seems to be reasoning of the most deplorably circular type).
But, honestly, even as a fan of this series I’d be stretching a point to claim there was anything notable in this beyond a novel solution to the missing money that’s really the thinnest possible excuse for so much of the shenanigans going on herein. It would be hoped that, having achieved a sort of youthful detection nirvana with eighth title The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950), Blyton would have built upon the increasing complexity of her plots to continue to engage her growing (and ageing) audience. But I think that’s my naïveté showing, because the woman was wonderfully prodigious and probably far less interested in the complexities of the detective plot than my genre-obsessed mind would like her to have been. Those Noddy books weren’t gonna write themselves, and time spent here would have lessened her beloved output elsewhere. I get it, it’s just a shame.
I encountered this series for the first time when I wasn’t entirely sure what delights or otherwise awaited me in the realm of juvenile fiction, and doubtless latched onto this unsuspected current in the stream of Blyton’s outpourings with the excess enthusiasm of a true believer. There’s enough brilliant contemporary work being done with legitimate detection for younger readers — the Moon base Alpha and Funjungle series of Stuart Gibbs, the Adventures on Trains series from M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, Sharna Jackson’s Nik and Norva books — that the decline in quality of the Five Find-Outers isn’t calamitous for my future Minor Felonies intentions. I just wanted it all to be good, or for at least a majority of it to show the same enthusiasm and invention that my early encounters revealed. And, well, it has since become clear that that wasn’t Blyton’s intent, so it seems churlish to hold it against her.
Nevertheless, with four books remaining — and final title The Mystery of Banshee Towers (1961) seemingly roundly acknowledged as a significant step down, t’was ever thus — it’d be wonderful if she felt the urge to take a few risks, y’know?
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)