#1002: Minor Felonies – The Mystery of Tally-Ho Cottage (1954) by Enid Blyton

Well, it seems that you write off Enid Blyton at your peril…!

In my defence, after opening the Five Find-Outers series with four strong titles and then dallying a bit before seeming to peak with eighth book The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950), the series had been suffering from diminishing returns. So I wasn’t entirely unjustified in my review of eleventh title The Mystery of Holly Lane (1953) when I suggested that the decline seemed likely to continue over the four remaining books in the series before its termination with the widely-understood nadir The Mystery of Banshee Towers (1961). So the overwhelming quality of The Mystery of Tally-Ho Cottage (1954) is a wonderful surprise, bringing us back to the glory days of …Invisible Thief and opener The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage (1943), and making me eat my words publicly in a development that I could not be more delighted to report.

The Christmas hols are nearly over, and, with ostensible head of the Five Find-Outers Fatty away in Switzerland on a family holiday, things have been a little dull. But, never fear, for not only is Fatty back from his trip with a great many stories to tell…

It appeared that, far from falling down even once, Fatty had done extremely well in all forms of winter sport, and had carried off quite a few prizes. He tried to talk about them modestly, but, being Fatty, this was very difficult.

…he’s also timed his arrival to perfection, since the train on which he re-enters Peterswood is the very train that Mr. and Mrs. Lorenzo, who have been renting Tally-Ho House on the edge of the town, use to leave, amidst the good wishes of several friends who have come to the station to see them off. And then, the very next day, the paper contains this exciting piece of news:

Priceless old picture stolen from famous gallery. Thieves just escape the net of the police, leaving their dog behind. Police looking everywhere for the Lorenzos.

“Heartless bastards!”

That abandoned dog — the charming poodle Poppet — gives the Find-Outers an idea: since she was so beloved of Gloria Lorenzo, is it not likely that the fugitives might return to collect her at some point? And so would it not make sense to keep a close eye on the Larkins, the couple who live in the cottage in the grounds of Tally-Ho, and await developments and the possible return of the thieves?

“Hopeless,” said Pip, who didn’t particularly want to spend any part of a cold day or night watching people like the Larkins. “We can’t do it. If we knew somebody who lived next door, it would be easy—but we don’t, so…”

And, wouldn’t you know it, at that exact moment crops up the perfect opportunity to keep the Larkins under a watchful eye, and so a two-pronged approach is adopted: the first involving careful scrutiny of Tally-Ho and its denizens, and the second (unsurprisingly) involving Fatty adopting all manner of disguises and seizing every opportunity to poke around the cottage itself and attempt to find out if the Lorenzos are coming back and, failing that, what might have happened to the painting they’ve stolen. Naturally the Find-Outers have to deal with local bobby Mr. Goon, who hates them all vituperatively — and you sort of can’t blame him, really — but since Goon’s not exactly shown himself in the best of lights over this series, we know that the only chance of untangling the mystery lies with our plucky young heroes.

One of the delights of this series, when it’s at its best, is how Blyton so firmly embeds the principles of classic era detective fiction into her light, fast-moving plots. And …Tally-Ho Cottage positively bristles with well-dropped clues and clever developments that show author and sleuths both on very good form. As ever, let’s not pretend for a second that the adult reader is going to struggle to solve this well ahead of time, but the fun is not so much in being taken by surprise as it is in revelling in Blyton’s clear-sighted application of the core principles of the genre she’s adopting. Hell, even Goon isn’t quite the moron he might be supposed, seeing through some of Fatty’s japes and causing trouble for the Five in a way that folds very neatly into the increasing sense of consequences that crept into these books from an earlier stage.

“Heartless bastards!”

I could go on at great length, but that would run the risk of mentioning specifics which would be better left to the reader to discover (and I know that the four of you who actually read these posts are probably interested in experiencing this as pure as possible). Suffice to say, the number of clues dropped and mentioned throughout the solving of this is impressive, not least because a couple of key ones are re-examined about two-thirds of the way through in chapter 16 (‘A Recap!’) when they could easily have been left until the latter stages for Fatty to lay out only once the correct interpretation has been put on them. But Blyton really is taking the reader by the hand and directing them towards some key information here, playing fair in the best possible way…and even providing a couple of wonderful false interpretations of key evidence that the reader should pick up on but probably won’t (or, well, I didn’t, at least…).

Best of all, this entry reinforces the idea first seen in …Burnt Cottage that even small events can have a significant impact on interpreting a larger puzzle. In certain books in this series — The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat (1949) and The Mystery of the Strange Bundle (1952) spring to mind — the answer to the puzzle was reached almost in spite of the details which surrounded it, whereas here it’s the small, incidental things that matter. I can understand why this sort of clewing hasn’t been as regular a feature of these books as I would have liked, because coming up with subtle touches to inform your mystery is difficult, but it’s also very pleasing to see Blyton using these ideas so well — not least leaning hard into what has been such a feature of the series to date that many less experienced readers might well ignore it altogether. The best of this series really does provide a primer for readers and writers alike: studying Blyton’s technique when she really applies herself to these plots would be a very rewarding experience.

Naturally, elements of this haven’t dated particularly well and there are a few odd tonal missteps (“We once had a cat, and it wandered into their garden — and will you believe it, [the Larkins] stoned the poor creature, and almost broke one of its legs.” — seems a bit dark…!), but taken purely as the piece of detectival entertainment it’s intended as this is a delight: intelligent, well-observed, and up there with the very best of the series — an already high standard, as some of you know. It’s experiences like this which make me so pleased to persevere with these books for younger readers, because it really is incredibly heartening to see detective fiction so well-represented at such a formative age. So even if the last three books in this series fail to maintain this standard, I take huge pleasure in seeing Blyton write something of this quality at a point when, by all reasonable expectations, she could well have been winding down and putting in only a lip-service level of effort into an already successful endeavour that was running its course. She has her detractors, and it’s difficult to deny some of their points at times, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that everything she wrote was without merit.

~

The Five Find-Outers series:

9 thoughts on “#1002: Minor Felonies – The Mystery of Tally-Ho Cottage (1954) by Enid Blyton

    • I’m aware these Minor Felonies posts aren’t exactly popular with my readers, and I feel a bit sad for people who won’t countenance the idea of reading anything aimed at the younger market — it’s still great fun seeing the patterns fall out, and some of the construction in these books is very clever.

      But, well, those of us who know, know 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I like your minor felonies posts. Whilst I am unlikely to seek out all of them given what seems my infinite TBR of books, you have introduced me to some excellent ones as I curate the best of the best of those from your blog.

        Many years ago, I discovered the Three Investigators and I agree Arthur was brilliant. I loved the art work of the original hard covers (I still have a few of those) and my ten year old self was enthralled with Stuttering Parrot, Fiery Eye, Vanishing Treasure, Whispering Mummy, Screaming Clock, etc. Whilst I read Arden, Carey, etc., none of those stuck with me the way the Arthur titles did.

        Somehow though I had never heard of Enid Blyton and enjoyed The Mystery of the Invisible Thief. I can say the same about The Clue of the Phantom Car by Bruce Campbell … both based on your recommendations. Thanks for that.

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        • I’m glad someone is getting something out of these, though if I were genuinely worried about my posts not being popular I wouldn’t be blogging quite so nerdily in such an obscure corner of human interest 🙂

          I wish I’d liked more by ‘Bruce Campbell’ as much as I enjoyed Phantom Car…none of the others I’ve read by them ever achieved the same standard, and I must admit that I’m not actively seeking out books by them any more.

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  1. They’re much appreciated in this quarter, and–especially as a big Robert Arthur fan–great to see the crossovers in the Locked Room Library!

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    • Goddamn, wasn’t Robert Arthur a genius? I sincerely hope that someone somewhere is working on a compilation of his criminous short stories, because that would be just the most magnificent thing to be able to have to hand.

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    • Thanks, Ian, I’ll certainly keep this recommendation in mind.

      When I’m done with this series I also have the Barney mysteries to work through…or I will when I have more than just the first three, as I do at present. It’ll be interesting to see how Blyton divvied up the various plots, one supposes because each has a different number of young people involved and they all needed something to do!

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