This review is inspired by Fiona’s of Dead Man’s Cove by Lauren St John which reminded me of one of my very favourite children’s books, The Secret of Dead Man’s Cove by R.J. McGregor published by Penguin in 1937. I have the 1952 reprint of the 1948 Puffin edition, the delightful cover of which is depicted here.
The book is the sequel to The Young Detectives (1934) – which is slightly less good in my opinion, though still well worth a read – but can be read as a standalone. It features the same Mackenzie (Mackie) family. The Mackie children comprise Alan, Jean, David, Micky and Elizabeth. Their ages aren’t specified but seem to range from fifteen to seven years old. In this story Alan is mainly absent as he is on a school exchange and his counterpart, a German boy called Reinhard, takes his place. As well as the children other characters are Mummy, Daddy, Auntie, Chris the terrier dog, Nora and Edna the maids, and Cook.
As the composition of the household suggests, this is very much a well-to-do middle-class family, and the story takes place in their palatial holiday home, Oxmouth Manor on the Devon coast. The house and its grounds feature secret passages and a priest hole, as well as the cove of the title. So we are well into Blyton – and especially Famous Five – territory.
The adventurous aspect of the story concerns some secret plans which Mr Mackie is concealing as part of his unspecified work for the government (shades of Uncle Quentin here, although Mr Mackie seems to be a senior intelligence official rather than a scientist), and the attempts of a gang of smugglers/spies, including a sinister ‘man with a glass eye’ called Van Gorman, to obtain them. Highlights include David being kidnapped by the gang, a car chase featuring Scotland Yard detectives, and a thrilling boat chase.
However, for the modern-day adult reader at least, the greatest pleasure of the book lies in its incidental period detail, with village cricket matches, beach picnics, amateur dramatics and agricultural shows. Add to that the family’s boat, called the Kittiwake, the yacht of a rich American friend – the excellently named Hiram B. Soss – as well as a shipwreck and rescue, and there is plenty of excitement even without the adventure.
I mentioned the comparison with the Famous Five, but this book is considerably more sophisticated in its plotting and writing style than the Five, and was probably aimed at slightly older readers. Some of the adventure is really quite gripping, especially the kidnap scenes which have a genuine sense of menace. And when in one of my favourite scenes, during the kidnap, a cold and hungry David is given a door slab of a fried bacon sandwich you can almost taste it yourself.
The book is set in the 1930s, but there is no mention of the storm clouds gathering over Europe although the present-day reader can’t fail to be aware that Alan and Reinhard, now enjoying a holiday exchange, may in a few years’ time be facing each other on the battlefield. Perhaps Mr Mackie’s secret plans being sought by an agent called Van Gorman is a small hint of what is to come. But one of the pleasures of reading it today, when daily the news seems so depressing, is to be transported back to an at least apparently simpler age. At all events, I am sure that anyone who has enjoyed the Famous Five or Blyton’s Adventure series will find much pleasure in The Secret of Dead Man’s Cove.