Thursday, August 18, 2011

Marginalia #1: Re-Reading Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers and Dog

Remember Fatty? The Five Find-Outers and Dog? Recently I had one of my many bouts of regression a time when I find I can only read the stuff I had as a kid. During my last such bout, I decided to do a marathon of Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers and Dog Mystery Series. Having acquired all the 15 books for my Kindle, this would be the first time I could read all the books in the sequence they were published. Of course, for a literature student, this also means that one gets to see how the series, stories, and the characters developed over time.

My random thoughts and observations on the Five Find-Outers and Dog Mystery Series:
  • It is amazing that Enid Blyton sustained the series for nearly 18 years, churning out the 15 books at virtually the rate on one per year. Starting in 1943 (Mystery of the Burnt Cottage) till 1954, she averaged about one book in the series a year. The last book was published in 1961 (Mystery of the Banshee Towers). It is amazing that books published such a long ago, even such simple ones as the Five Find-Outers and Dog series are so readable even in our times.
  • Peterswood, the village of the Five Find-Outers Fatty, Larry, Pip, Daisy, and Bets, and Fatty’s Scottish Terrier, Buster is the English “Every Village” a sort of watered down Malgudi. Within the boundaries of Peterswood and a few adjoining villages is a highly self-contained fictional world that provides all the ingredients for the various mysteries that the children solve. It has a river at one end, a railway station, bus stop, a dairy and few coffee houses and “treat shops.”
  • Enid Blyton, had created a Five Find-Outers template that she religiously followed for the series. The books start with the kids coming back from their boarding schools (except “young” Bets who attends a day school in Peterswood) for various holidays. They then spend a portion of the holidays annoying Mr. Goon, the village policeman, going on picnics and moping about the lack of a mystery to solve. Then they stumble across a mystery and take up the remainder of the book to solve it. They always have the hot-tempered and bumbling Goon as the only competition.
  • Within the “template” Blyton had her small variations and embellishments. One that she follows across most books is Fatty’s disguises. Fatty is an expert at disguising himself and is a very good actor. Since the time he first disguises himself, in every book the other children are the first to arrive in Peterswood for their vacations. They then set out to receive Fatty at the railway station (or at the bus stop) and expect him to be disguise. They always mistake someone else to be Fatty which develops into hilarious situations where Goon too is usually involved till the time Bets recognizes the real Fatty or Fatty reveals himself to the others.
  • Coming to the disguises, they are really easy to put on all that Fatty ever does is put on a horrible wig (usually one of red hair), stick some protruding teeth into his mouth, apply some grease paint on his face, put on some ridiculous clothes (gypsy, old woman selling balloons) and then dirty his hands by sticking them in dirt. All his disguises are of the lower socio-economic classes and extremely stereotypical.
  • Fatty is the alpha-male or the dude of the Peterswood’s fictional world. He is the most intelligent person around, has many talents acting, ventriloquism, knows how to open locked doors, is quick of wit and tongue, the undisputed and benevolent leader of his pack, and the current de Jure alpha-male, Chief Inspector Jenks, can’t wait for him to grow up and join the police force.
  • After a few books, it is evident that the Five Find-Outers should not have been the Five Find-Outers. The books should have been “Fatty, his fan - Bets, and Buster the Dog” series. All the mysteries are solved by Fatty. Even most of the sleuthing and detecting is by Fatty. The action centers around him and most things happen only when he is involved and around. The others, especially Larry (who is actually the group’s leader in the first two books), Daisy, and Pips are superfluous doing not much but a few chores and tasks set for them by Fatty. Bets, of course, is needed to work as a sort of Dr. Watson to Fatty’s Sherlock Holmes. She is Fatty’s biggest fan with unwavering faith in his talents and abilities, adores him totally, is completely loyal to him and will go to any extent to complete the tasks set to her by Fatty. Her reward Fatty is extremely fond of her and often it is a stray remark by Bets that will set Fatty on the right path to solve the mystery. (In fact so deep is her devotion to Fatty and his affection for her that I am sure there’s some adult fan-fic somewhere on the Internet that builds on it. The series is begging for an adult Fatty-Bets hook-up.)
  • Fatty, as mentioned in the earlier point, is the be-all, do-all, and end-all of the series. Bets usually makes a stray remark or observes something that will enable Fatty to put the entire jigsaw of the mystery correctly and tie it up neatly to present to Chief Inspector Jenks. There’s only one mystery, The Mystery of the Invisible Thief, in which it is a trick played by Pip that solves the mystery for Fatty. As I said earlier, so Fatty-centric are the books that the series could have done away with the other children.
  • Coming back to the overall series and the “template” used by Enid Blyton it is a surprise to note that the mystery in the books occupies very little real-estate in the story. In most of the books, the mystery begins only after 50% of the book is completed. Till then the children are busy playing various tricks on Goon and cribbing to each other about the lack of excitement in the holidays. All the finding of the clues, tracking of suspects and leads, putting together the jigsaw, etc take less than 40% of the book. For a mystery series, it is a surprise to note that the mysteries themselves are not a major part of most of the books in the series. There are in fact some of stories for example: Mystery of the Pantomime Cat, Mystery of the Strange Bundle, Mystery of the Banshee Towers where the actual time from the start of the mystery to solving it and making the arrests is not more 3-4 days and in one instance only a couple of days.
  • One major component of Blyton’s Five Find-Outers template is the tricks played on Goon, the village policeman by the kids. These usually involves Fatty in various disguises, with others providing loyal support. Often the kids also strew false clues for Goon to find. Coincidentally it turns out that one of the false clues, or the location picked by the kids, or some other aspect of the trick, has a direct bearing on an actual mystery. Goon is so incensed by the kids and their tricks that he fails to make the connection between the clue(s) and the mystery on hand and often hands over the most important lead to the Five Find-Outers on a platter. It is only when Fatty explains the mystery and how the clues solved it to Chief Inspector Jenks that Goon realizes his mistakes. Goon also always has the worst end of the stick in his dealings with the kids, the criminals and is regularly ticked-off by Jenks.
  • Having said that, I think it is a hoot to call the village inspector, Goon. What can be a more unfortunate and ironical name for a policeman?
  • It is very easy to identify the criminals in the mystery series. The easiest way is to find the most unpleasant character in a mystery who behaves horribly with the kids. Invariably the kids have a bad feeling about the person and that person turns out to be the villain of the piece. It’s a simple world where the bad people are thoroughly and obviously bad and the good people are completely nice.
  • For such simplistic stories, there is obviously no need for any character development. All the characters, including the kids, are in broad brush strokes and they stay the same throughout the series. About the only character that develops a bit is that of Goon. From merely being an annoying and bumbling policeman in the earlier books, he also reveals a mean and cruel streak in some of the later books.
  • Class distinctions are very properly maintained in the books (the books were written when it was a different world from the current one with its emphasis on political correctness). Fatty’s disguises are always of the lower classes and show them to be dirty, with bad teeth, with non-standard and funny use of language, and they stink. Most of the criminals, the “ruffians,” in the series are from the lower socio-economic classes. Even other kids whom the Five Find-Outers befriend are conscious of their standing vis-à-vis the five kids. In Mystery of the Disappearing Cat, Luke, the gardener’s boy, meets and talks with the kids often, and the kids even hide him in Larry and Daisy’s summerhouse, but he never shares a meal with them. Ern, Goon’s nephew, occasionally has tea with the kids or joins them on picnics, but when the dinner bell rings he has his food in the kitchen.
  • Food however is not a central point or motif in the Five Find-Outers books (as opposed to the Famous Five who only seem to exist to eat). Food or actually timings like breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner serve primarily as markers of the passage of time in a day. It is only in the later books in the series that we find the five going to the village dairy or coffee houses to tuck into macaroons and jam tarts and hot-buttery scones and éclairs.
  • Ern, Goon’s nephew, is fond of writing “portry.” He however can only begin a “pome” but is never able to complete it something which Fatty with his many talents manages quite easily. Have you noticed that most of Ern’s poems have the word “Pore” (poor) in the first line? One of his pomes, I think the first one, goes: How sad to see thee, pore dead pig. . .  A later one starts with: A pore old gardener said, "Ah me! / My days is almost done. / I’ve got rheumatics . . . You can read Ern’s poems here.
  • The kids, of course, never age. There’s one book in which Bets is mentioned to have turned nine from eight but otherwise the kids stay the same age throughout the many holidays. The kids should have aged by 15 years with one book per year. Blyton however cleverly makes it a mystery per holiday and the Five Find-Outers insist on having a mystery every “hols”: summer, Christmas and Easter. In spite of that, the kids don’t age and curiously the books actually skip a holiday or two between books. The Invisible Thief is set in summer. The next book in the series, The Vanished Prince is also set in summer. In case you are wondering if it is two mysteries in a single summer, the kids in The Vanished Prince complain about the waste of their holiday with no mystery to solve for four weeks. So perhaps a year has passed by since the last mystery. Or perhaps, Blyton with her prolific output of many books a year, simply lost track of the books’ time-line.
  • One completely random observation:
    Enid Blyton too betrays what I call the English fascination for the Bengali folk of India. In an earlier post on this blog, I’ve noted the London Big Ben's immense love for Bongs. Enid Blyton, in The Mystery of Tally-Ho Cottage, has Fatty disguised as an Indian when he is apprehended. Asked to reveal his identity, Fatty introduces himself as Mr. Hoho-Ha from Bong Castle, India. Could this English fascination with Bongs be due to the fact that the English first established their seat in India in Calcutta (kolkata) :) ?
  • And finally, quite a few of the mysteries are not “mysteries” in the strictest sense of the word (For example: Mystery of the Hidden House or The Banshee Towers). They could more correctly be labeled as “adventures.” The books are however still highly enjoyable (though I admit after 7-8 books read one after the other, it became an overdose) especially as when you read them they are tinged with nostalgia of remembered childhood holidays when the books were first read accompanied with glasses of cool lemonade and raw mangoes smeared with chilly and salt.
 That’s about it I had a wonderful trip down memory lane reading the Five Find-Outers and Dog series again.  What about you? Any of your observations and thoughts you would like to add to the above?


Kasturi said...

I havent read this series, I have read the one where you have the girl named Georgina who hates being called by her name. The five are made up by 2 guys, 2 girls and a dog. And when it comes to things like cleaning up, looking into matters of food, its always the girls who end up doing it. So kinda sexist.

mandar talvekar said...

Hi Kasturi,
You are referring to the Famous Five. You are right, Enid Blyton does come across as sexist when viewed through the current perspectives of gender and political correctness. However one has to consider the sensibilities of the time during which she wrote her books.
I believe there are some editions now available of her books which have been "corrected" to reflect current notions.

Kasturi said...

Agree, it reflects the sensibilities of those times.Not criticising, just pointed it out, because it stood out.

Byron said...

I've been revisiting these, too, for the same reasons. So much better than the famous five (although my first crush was on George). I share your observations.

How about something on the Moomins books?

Alura said...

I'm a huge fan of Enid Blyton, especially the Mystery series,and I never discussed the Fatty/Bets pairing with anyone because I thought it was just me :p but apparently someone else feels the same about them! I looked the pairing up on fanfic but found no results! I write fanfiction too, so maybe you and I could try our hand at this! What say you?

Mark Patrick Wallace said...

I used to read these back in my childhood days. They were slightly more grown-up than the famous five ones. Fatty was a true hero, able to do everything, know everything, and get out of any trouble. And he also always had lots of money for anything they wanted to do. Most of the rest were, as you said, just ciphers. Except Bets, and Ern when he appeared. I wonder if he's still called "Fatty" in the modern editions, or if they've changed it to "Freddy" (as his real name is Frederick) or something.

Anonymous said...

Very well written post! I just started re-reading these books after about 15 years and it's amazing how I skipped over things like class distinctions as a kid!

Anonymous said...

Used to love Enid blyton books. Faraway Tree, Wishing Chair, Mr Twiddle etc and Five Find Outers was always my favourite. btw who eats cooked mangos?

Minhaj Arifin said...

Great post! I grew up in Karachi reading Five Find Outers. Loved the small town feel. Yes, we now see the class distinctions in her work but as kids we just drank all of it like lemonade.

Silvia said...

I've only discovered the Five Find Outers in the last year or so. I never knew this series as a child and am reading them for the first time out loud to my 9-y.o. son, in order. They are fantastic reading-out-loud books. You can put on different voices and accents, and the chapters are a nice length for bedtime at about 10-15 minutes each depending on reading speed.
We've just finished the Vanished Prince. I really enjoyed the rapport between Goon and Fatty here. I thought Goon's anguish at realising that he had been duped by the children's dress-ups was beautifully written. There's a moment when he lets his guard down with Fatty and bemoans his own gullibility and his fears for his career. It's my favourite bit in the series thus far.