A Mystery for Ninepence, published 1964, is something I picked up in a charity shop because I like the spines on the Collin’s Seagull Library books. I paid a grand price of £3 for this one, and the original price was 4s.
I can only find one other book – The Harveys See it Through by Phyllis Gegan and one short story – Adventure in the Alps – from Coronet Girls’ Annual 1958. I can’t find any biographical details about Phyllis Gegan, either, and I’m left wondering if it was a pseudonym for another writer.
There is a list on the back cover of other Collin’s Seagull Library titles – split into ones for boys and one for girls! No Blytons on either (though some of her books were published in this format), but the two Gegan books appear on the girls’ list, as do a couple of other books I have. Interestingly this book was presented to Jimmy Stevenson, though! Clearly the school didn’t read the list on the back. Saying that it’s not a girly book at all, it’s as neutral as the Famous Five.
So what’s it all about?
Although I picked this book for the spine I also checked the blurb to see if the story also appealed! I’ve found several Seagull books that I’ve put back after deciding the contents didn’t seem as good as the cover.
In this case the blurb reads:
Over fire, through water. Press on, for right will prevail.
These words, faded and almost illegible, and an ancient key are found when Robert buys a bundle of old books for ninepence. They herald the beginning of a summer of mystery and excitement for the ‘Quartet’, a club formed by Robin, his two sisters, Ann and Fiona, and his friend Hugh.
The answer to the puzzle lies somewhere in Farnleigh Manor, ancestral home of the Mourton Family. But the manor is shut up and deserted, looked after by caretakers, Mr and Mrs Petherbridge. The Quartet’s willingness to help in the unkempt grounds and their growing friendship with the Petherbridges opens the way into the manor for them.
Amidst the echoing corridors and high vaulted rooms of Farnleigh manor the young people determinedly follow each clue in an effort to solve the mystery which has disgraced the name of Mourton for three hundred years.
Phyllis Gegan’s exciting story will hold you spellbound as you follow the adventures of the Quartet in a mystery which turns out to be worth much more than ninepence.
Two points here – Robert is not a typo on my part – it’s a mistake on the inner flap as the boy is actually Robin! The blurb also spells Anne wrong.
The burb more or less gives you the whole story. Robin buys some old books and finds a key inside one of them along with a family crest. Initially they think it will be a good idea for a game (like the sort of games the Cherrys play) but then realise that there’s a hidden message and possibly a real mystery.
Luckily the crest belongs to a family with a manor within cycling distance, and, as the blurb also explains, the children visit and become friendly with the housekeepers. They do a lot of gardening in return for lots of fruit to take home, and also a chance to have a look around the empty manor.
After a few false starts they find a keyhole and the hidden secret.
What about it is like Blyton?
We have a group of children who have formed a club – The Quartet – who set out to solve a mystery.
There are lots of non-mystery interruptions to the story, luscious (as Anne would put it) picnics with lots of fruit and cream, a couple of walks to see otters and bats, a trip to a fair, a lost little brother, a beach holiday, a dramatic capture of a supposed criminal, and a daring cliff-side rescue of a puppy. Blyton was always good at interspersing mystery or adventure elements with a bit of fun or at least good food.
The parents are even shipped off for a trip abroad, though this doesn’t give the children any particular leeway to adventure.
They have the same honest attitudes as Blytonian children – they say they would like to go into the manor to draw etc and those are things they do want to do, and they ensure they do plenty of it in order to be truthful.
And Fiona remarks:
How nice food tastes in the open air!
Which is a very Anne Kirrin thing to say. I have to admit I laughed at Hugh’s witty reply:
Probably ants have got into the cheese and tomato. That ‘ud give it a different flavour. Piquant, the French chefs call it.
Where is it not like Blyton?
This is an enjoyable book but it doesn’t live up to most of Blyton’s mystery/adventure books.
If Enid Blyton had written this there would almost certainly have been an enemy for the children to work against – either someone who wanted to find the secret first, or who wanted it to never be found. There are only two episodes of danger and conflict.
The conflict is with two local boys who let the Quartet take the blame for a broken window. It’s all resolved very quickly and the boys becomes friends of theirs.
The danger, such as it is, comes when there’s reports of an escaped convict in the area. The Quarter see a man matching the description given asleep by the manor and tie him up, only to discover he’s an off-duty policeman. It’s the sort of thing Blyton has included in her stories – but alongside real danger too!
There isn’t even conflict with the parents, nobody is grounded or punished except for Anne. She has a careless bike accident and, as the rule is in her family, isn’t allowed to rife for a week. It’s all very amiable, though, and as the rule doesn’t stop her riding a tricycle she isn’t prevented from visiting the manor – though she gets there rather slowly!
Blyton would also have definitely had a night-time adventure (for the boys at least!).
There is a backstory to the secret and I can see what the author was aiming at; it trying to give us an understanding of why there is a hidden secret but it doesn’t come off entirely successfully.
Near the manor is Mourton’s Ride, a long tree-lined avenue. There’s a mystery as to why it’s called Mourton’s Ride being two miles away, and the adults they ask claim not to know other than there’s some mystery about it. There’s almost a creepy historical feeling like there is in The Ring ‘O Bells Mystery but it comes into the story quite late on, and the ‘big reveal’ at the end doesn’t live up to that.
As it turns out the secret is a confession from a servant from 1779, admitting that he had been paid to say he had witnessed a Mourton riding away from the scene of an attempted murder (all over an accusation of cheating at cards). It’s good of course that this black sheep of the family has been cleared of wrong-doing but just the way it’s all written it doesn’t have much gravitas.
The final ‘problem’ is that it takes almost 150 pages for the children to solve the mystery. Not a problem if the mystery is complex, but this one really wasn’t. It is drawn out hugely by various interruptions, problems and inconveniences. Their first few trips to the manor they concentrate on the gardens which is fair enough, though they nosy around the old well. At home they have another bright idea and find more of the clue on the crest. Only then do they go and look around inside the manor but have no luck searching inside the chimneys or on the bookshelves. Three days go by and they are kept home by bad weather and Robin having a cold. On their next visit they think to look somewhere new and find a keyhole! That’s on page 78 so half-way through the book. But Robin has left the key at home so there is no progress until their next visit. Even then, with the key, there are more visits to the manor – after their holiday – before they figure out the full solution to revealing the secret.
It is extremely stop-start. Given that there is only one key, one clue and one hiding place, it takes them absolutely forever to solve the mystery!
I’ve been to harsh in my criticisms, I always am! It’s mildly frustrating to look back and see that a simple mystery is drawn out so long but the interludes are always interesting and fun so you don’t mind so much when reading the book. It won’t keep you on the edge of your seat but it is a good read. The children have distinct personalities and the other characters are also well-drawn, from the parents to the housekeeper and the two boys to the manor’s caretakers.
So if you like Blyton, but understand this isn’t in quite the same league (but then, what is!) you’ll probably like this too.