It has been ages since my last Famous Five review. Three months, in fact! I had almost forgotten I had been doing them. But here I am with book number eight. So far only books one and two have been reviewed in a single post. The others I’ve split into two (apart from Smuggler’s Top which was three!). That’s partly because I just don’t know when to stop typing, but also because (confession time!) I haven’t always finished the book in time for a full review. This time I devoured the book in under 24 hours, so I will have to see how many parts I will end up writing.
A story in four parts
For some reason I always break the story down into parts, so here’s my interpretation of this one.
- Part one: The children go on their biking holiday
- Part two: They encounter Richard and Dick gets kidnapped
- Part three: The children enter Owl’s Dene and get held prisoner
- Part four: Richard escapes and the police come to Owl’s Dene to sort everything out
You could, I suppose, combine parts one and two if you wanted a three part tale. But the dynamic changes quite a lot once Richard joins the group.
The Five in trouble? Again?
The Five are often in some sort of trouble. So far they’ve been locked in a dungeon, been chased by artists, had to run away from home, almost got sucked into a marsh, been held hostage underground by gun-wielding circus-folk, nearly been blown up and been trapped in a secret railway tunnel (not to mention having sat on a ‘volcano’!).
So all in all, they’re no strangers to trouble. Nonetheless the trouble they find themselves in is quite troublesome.
The cause of all the trouble
You can place the blame for the Five’s trouble directly on Richard Kent. They meet Richard one morning on their cycling tour when he tells them they’re swimming in his pool. Or rather his very rich father’s pool.
He is generous enough not to throw them off his land but that’s the only decent thing he does for quite a while.
Richard is very keen to join the Five for a bit of cycling and agrees he will ask his mother and then meet them. He plays the fool a bit, cycling three abreast and disregarding both the highway code and Julian’s authority.
The Five think they are shot of Richard after dropping him at his aunt’s house, but later he comes charging through the wood, shouting about being chased by Rooky, a former employee of his father who holds a grudge. And this is where the trouble really starts.
Rooky’s friends take Dick, thinking he is Richard. As they point out, Dick is short for Richard.
I think we are supposed to dislike Richard almost all the way through the book, and to be fair, he doesn’t exactly cover himself in glory. We are used to Blyton’s characters displaying their stiff upper lips and being brave and resourceful. Richard, however, falls apart.
Now it’s all his making for lying about being allowed to cycle with the Five and stay with his aunt, but he’s had a terrible scare and I’m not sure I would be much braver at this point. He wants to stick with the remaining four of the Five rather than cycling off alone to potentially run into Rooky again, and thus follows them to Owl’s Dene where Dick has been taken.
Before the trouble
Going back a bit – the start of the story is quite idyllic as is often the case. The Five have lovely weather as they cycle and sleep under the stars, eating wonderful food. Even when Richard first turns up and is a bit of a pest things are still light and fun.
It’s the word puncture where I always go ‘uh-oh’ and my heart sinks because I know what’s about to come. A puncture means stopping to repair it, and that means Dick’s left in a prime position for kidnap.
Owl’s Dene, on Owl’s Hill, is a strange (or indeed queer) place. It’s a great big house in the middle of nowhere. There’s no phone, no gas, no electricity, no water laid on, just two great gates which open by themselves. (Under what power, I wonder??) Aggie actually continues her statement with Only just secrets and signs and comings and goings and threats and… Not so dissimilar to Robbie Coltrane’s No telephone. No eelecticity. No gas. No water laid on. Just secrets, and signs and THREATS from Five Go Mad in Dorset.
Inside live Mr Perton, the owner, a scared old woman called Aggie who does the cooking and housekeeping, and Hunchy who does the odd jobs and feeds the livestock. There are also others like Rooky and his men who come and go in a mysterious black Bentley.
It’s not a very hospitable place. Dick’s locked in an attic and once they are found, Julian, George, Anne and Richard are given a bare room with mattresses on the floor for the night. Timmy is forced to sleep in the grounds. Food is meagre – except when Aggie sneaks them extras – and they are at the mercy of the angry Hunchy.
The redemption of Richard
After a catalogue of foolishness, Richard comes good in the end. They decide that the only conceivable way out of Owl’s Dene is in the boot of the Bentley. It’s too small a space for Julian or Dick, and they won’t let the girls take such a risk, so it’s Richard who squeezes in and is taken into the nearest town by the unaware Mr Perton. It’s not even a simple case of sneaking off once he gets out of the car as he is spotted and has to run to evade Mr Perton.
Uncle Quentin and George
We know that they share the same terrible temper, but we get a little hint that George has inherited her father’s forgetfulness too.
Quentin has never been known for his attention to any other details than his scientific work, and he demonstrates that at the start of the book when he has arranged to go to a conference while the children are staying at Kirrin for Easter. He has not remembered the various discussions about them coming, nor thought to ask Fanny for the holiday dates. He’s so hopeless that Fanny can’t comprehend not going to the conference with him.
The first line of the book is:
“Really, Quentin, you are most difficult to cope with!”
which I think sums it up nicely.
As for George, Fanny shares the story of the time George left an egg to boil dry. It wasn’t because she was trying to be so boyish that she messed it up, or didn’t know how to boil an egg, it was sheer forgetfulness as she was so focussed on making sure Timmy got fed.
She has another very absent moment later when she accidentally eats one of Timmy’s dog sausage sandwiches and doesn’t even notice until Anne points it out.
The questions, comments and nitpicks
This is the Five’s fourth non-Kirrin adventure, and they’ve had four Kirrin ones too so the tally is even at this point in the series. This story is set at Easter, so it must the the year after they went off to camp.
George doesn’t do an awful lot of sulking or talking about being as good as a boy in this book. She does nearly fight Richard and is annoyed not to be allowed by her cousins, but it only lasts a minute as she is so pleased that Richard truly believed her to be a boy. She is also pleased later when the Owl’s Dene folk mistake her for a boy.
Julian notes, however, that George and Anne seem to fall for all of Richard’s tall tales while he and Dick are a little more disbelieving.
Unusually for a Famous Five book they encounter a farm with unpleasant people. Usually a farmer’s wife welcomes them in and forces food upon them for a bargain price. This time a surly man demands five pounds for a bit of bread, ham and eggs. Julian will only give him five shillings which is still generous. He wonders why on earth the man asked for such a ridiculous price – and I wonder why Blyton wrote that too as it has no relevance to the story and makes no sense.
Also unusually, Julian gets it wrong when he says he doesn’t think the man they saw changing clothes was an escaped prisoner. Of course, he was. This makes it all the stranger that Julian is so determined to find out who’s snoring in the vicinity of the study when he’s no reason to believe it’s an escaped convict.
One error I think I spotted is when the boys and George are described as wearing shirts and thin jumpers while Anne wears a skirt. I suspect it should be shorts then the fact Anne wears a skirt instead makes more sense.
Also not quite right but possibly character error rather than author error is Richard’s explanation of why Rooky has a grudge against him/his father. The first time he says:
He [Rooky] did something that annoyed him [Richard’s father] – I don’t know what – and after a perfectly furious row my father chucked him out.
Later he says:
Don’t you remember? – I told you about him… He always swore he’d have his revenge on my father – and on me too because I told tales about him to Dad and it was because of that he was sacked.
So either Enid forgot what she had written earlier, or Richard isn’t good at keeping his stories straight.
Another unlikely character error is Aggie and Hunchy both failing to notice that five children have suddenly become four, and none of the adults in the room noticing that Richard is rubbing soot all over his head. Surely that’s got to cause a mess?
One curious thing is this book has two examples of symbols being used in the text. Owl’s Dene is described as like an E with the middle stroke missing which is an odd way to describe a three sided building, and there’s a little icon like a n E missing the stroke (or a square C) as an example. Later Richard sees a police sign and we get a rectangle with the word POLICE in it, just in case we didn’t know that that would look like. I can’t recall anything similar in any other books.
I always like the moment in a film or book when the title gets used. A little ‘aha!’ moment. In this book there is we got into this fix. I wonder if Blyton liked the phrase so much she got them into a fix for a later adventure. Also amusing, but perhaps only to me, is the chapter title Julian looks round. This is only funny if you’ve read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where the visitors to the factory are baffled by Mr Wonka’s square sweets that look round. I just had the image of a rounded Julian.
Phew, final thoughts
Although I divided the book into four it can also be said that is has two distinct parts; everything outside Owl’s Dene, and everything inside. The Owl’s Dene chapters have a very different feel to them. It’s darker, scarier and quite tense. There are few outright threats like they have received from the likes of Lou and Tiger Dan but they’re so trapped that you can’t relax.
Unfortunately a few details are a let down; like the diamonds that are important to the backstory yet just appear suddenly rather than being carefully woven into the plot. Solomon Weston is also very underused, though his secret room is a nice touch.
Something I’ve barely mentioned is the Bentley’s licence plate: KMF 102. I always feel this is in the same iconic realm as Two Trees, Gloomy Water etc. I’m glad to see that in later reprints it hasn’t become a Ford Focus with a modern license plate (though I haven’t checked every reprint!)
All in all a satisfying story, and quite different from the usual mystery/adventure plots. They don’t go to Owl’s Dene to investigate the man who changed his clothes, or to find the diamonds, those are almost coincidental. Mr Perton is really his own undoing, if he hadn’t kept the children captive they’d never have discovered anything!