Without a doubt, my favorite children’s author growing up was a man named Edward Eager. He was primarily a dramatist, but between 1954 and 1962 he also wrote seven novels for kids. Perhaps the size of his output explains why he isn’t more well-known, but he should be!
Eager wrote in the same vein as E. Nesbit, stories about ordinary children having extraordinary magical adventures. These books weren’t mysteries, but they were as chockfull of rules as a GAD thriller! They also followed a sort of pattern, like the best-plotted whodunit: a group of children would come upon a creature or device that offered them magical adventures. They had to try and tame the magic and inevitably failed. The magic got them into terrible trouble . . . but it also provided them with incredibly fun adventures. And in the end they were all the better and happier for having found the magic, with nary a moral lesson thrust down anyone’s throat for that!
The books were incredibly witty, mildly satirical and brimming with great characterization (as befitting a man who wrote primarily for theatre and television). They celebrated the joys of reading, which was my favorite activity growing up. Books themselves were as magical as the talismans in them. The children were brilliantly individualized, and for once the adults in their lives were also strikingly drawn and not merely figures of fun. They did not preach or guide their kids, nor were they a perpetual thorn in their sides. There were mean adults and stupid ones, but loving and wise ones, too. No grown-up was a full-fledged villain here; the children’s worst enemies were often themselves.
One of my favorite aspects of the books was how Eager linked them together. For example, the first one, Half Magic, takes place in the 1920’s and involves three sisters and their brother. The second one, Knight’s Castle, involves four cousins who are the children of two of the Half Magic sisters! In the respective sequels to each of their adventures, the children meet each other, and their one shared adventure is related in both sequels from the point of view of the central quartet, giving different perspectives to the same events. Finally, in the last book Eager wrote, Seven-Day Magic, a group of friends check out a magic book that lets them visit works of literature – including Half Magic! So there’s a whole meta- quality about the books that pleased this young reader no end. I recommend them highly, and I just realized they are due for a re-read!
But, as I said, they were not mysteries. I couldn’t find a witty, inventive children’s author who wrote those, which probably accelerated my meeting with Agatha Christie at the tender age of eleven. Today, I wonder if I would have tackled And Then There Were None this early had I been exposed to the works of Enid Blyton! After reading about Blyton’s Find-Outers series in JJ’s blog, The Invisible Event, I was curious. An impulse visit to my local used bookstore led me to rows of Blyton titles, and there, hidden amongst the Famous Five series and the Secret Seven series and the St. Clare’s series were two Find-Outers titles, The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters (1946) and The Mystery of Banshee Towers (1961, her last in this series and, sadly I’m told, her worst!)
According to sources, Enid Blyton wrote 762 books! How have I never before come across this woman? I’m surprised she lived to be 71 – how did she find time to eat?!? Blyton wrote in a variety of genres for nearly every age group, but what is most heartening about her – and what of course concerns us here – is that she used her powers to inculcate young minds into the joys of the mystery. And we’re not just talking about mysterious adventures, like those had by the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, but cases that fall along the structures of GAD crime, with a closed circle of suspects and clues and a stupid policeman and maids named Gladys! And all of them solved by five jolly children, aged 9 – 13, who all talked like miniature Oxford dons.
The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters excited me because I love stories about anonymous letter writers. I worried a bit about entering a series in the middle: references are made throughout to past cases, and it is clear that certain relationships, like the antagonistic one between our crime solvers and the local policeman, Mr. Goon, are firmly in place. But this isn’t Elizabeth George, folks, and I think we can safely assume that any book is a good jumping-off point, especially if other titles aren’t readily at hand.
What I gathered from the opening is that every time the kids come home from boarding school for what the British call their “hols”, they encounter a mystery and that they mostly do this because of the intellectual pulchritude of their oldest member, a boy called Fatty. His full name is Frederick Algernon Trotteville, but even his own mother calls him “Fatty.” There is nothing here to suggest that he is actually obese, but then there are virtually no descriptions of any of the children to be found anywhere, except for their ages. Fatty might resemble a young Gideon Fell, but he has the skills of a Holmes (observation/disguise) and the combination of ego and gallantry of a Poirot. The other four children, two pairs of siblings, are in awe of him. (Two of them, Larry and Daisy, seem to me to be totally extraneous in the group. Fatty’s dog Buster gets loads more to do than either of them.)
This case begins in the home of the last two Find-Outers, Pip and Bets Hilton. They are bemoaning the dearth of mysteries to solve during this holiday when their beloved housemaid, Gladys, vanishes. They overhear the cause of her disappearance: she received a horrible “nonnimus” letter! Enter the rest of the Find Outers to discover who is sending these missives and to solve the case!
From the very start, Blyton commences training young readers in how to approach and embrace the joys of GAD. The first lesson concerns the creation of a partnership between the reader and the detectives, brought about by the sense of competition they engage in with the stodgy and stupid policeman, Mr. Goon. Goon is the source of the sort of riotous physical humor that I absolutely despise. It’s perfect for children, who will enjoy each moment that Fatty and Friends show him up, but I grew a little tired of both his incessant stupidity and the group’s flagrant disrespect for him.
Blyton acts as the arbiter for the structure and rules of GAD fiction. The mystery begins with an inciting incident, followed by the accumulation of suspects and clues, which Fatty charts as they are encountered, concluding with a gathering of people as Fatty explains his reasoning and exposes the criminal. Fatty has the makings of a classic detective: he possesses an utter fearlessness for investigation, combined with the prescience to realize the strengths and weaknesses of being a child, and he uses his social position with alacrity to gather information. Like so many classic sleuths, he is fully aware that he is the smartest person, bar none, in the room, which makes him fond of being worshipped (mostly by Bets, who functions as a pint-sized Nikki Porter and by Buster, his frisky terrier) and the object of jealousy (by Mr. Goon, of course, and usually by Pip, who’s sort of the Archie Goodwin to Fatty’s Nero Wolfe). I don’t know how Larry and Daisy feel about anything. Honestly, give these two something to do or ship them back to boarding school!
All in all, this comes across as a legitimate entry drug to full-fledged GAD mainlining! The Find-Outers conduct a real investigation, interviewing suspects, figuring out bus schedules in true Croftsian mode, and examining whatever clues they can get their hands on. There is a funny scene when they board a bus and each takes on one of the passengers. As they begin to cross one after another off their list, the kids despair, until the bus stops to take on one more potential suspect – who turns out to be the vicar!
Best of all, ultimately the clues do matter (in a way that might appeal more to children than adults, but that’s the point) and the solution provides a Christie-like reversal of expectation. Yes, I saw through the ruse right away, but putting myself in the mindset of a child – something I find uncomfortably easy to do! – I can see that this could be challenging fun. Run your kid through a set of these books, and they’ll be clamoring for Miss Marple in no time!
I shall definitely return to the Find-Outers again. Besides Banshee Towers, I just ordered a couple more titles from The Book Depository. My TBR pile is positively teetering, and I have JJ to thank for it! Check it out!
ALL ABOUT AGATHA Update
At the top of the year, I wrote about the wonderful podcast All About Agatha. I thought it would be fun to occasionally update you as to where I am in the series, particularly in terms of the way Catherine and Kemper have ranked the books. My first post explained their scoring. Here’s a rundown on the first seven novels:
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – 37
- The Man in the Brown Suit – 33
- The Secret Adversary – 28
- The Murder on the Links – 27
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles – 21
- The Big Four – 17
- The Secret of Chimneys – 16
Listening to the podcast reminds me that the thriller-heavy 1920’s were rather heavy going compared to the sparkle of the 1930’s. The fact that Ackroyd ranks #1 makes total sense, of course, as it was the 20’s novel that most revealed the brilliance to come, although Kemper and Catherine identify some of the strategies Christie establishes here and will strengthen throughout her career. Many of Christie’s thriller fans tend to give The Man in the Brown Suit high marks, so I’ll accept its ranking as #2. I would have put Styles in a higher place on this list, ahead of Links at least, and I have to admit to a weird fondness for The Big Four. I agreed with their assessment of it, but I might have given it a couple of extra points for sentimental reasons. As they say, the overall conspiracy plot fairly reeks, but the short mysteries found within are great fun!
I understand that the hosts will amend some of their early scoring at a later date. We’ll see what that entails. Stay tuned!