It was April when I did my last Famous Five review. The delay has mostly been due to the fact that Five Go to Billycock Hill is one of my least favourite Famous Five books. Only Five Have a Mystery to Solve and Five Are Together Again rank lower with me.
In fact I took a trifle out of the fridge to eat as I read to see if it helped, unfortunately it was gone by page 2…
Why do I rate Billycock Hill so badly?
I honestly can’t put my finger on what it is I like less about this book than I do the others. First up, though, it has stuck less in my mind than many of the others in the series. As an adult I’ve never dipped in and out of the series, even as a child I think I would read it through start to finish so I don’t think I’ve read this any less often than the rest. I just don’t recall the details or the plot very well.
I’d forgotten that Toby had a dog, though having read the first few sentences of the book I did have a sudden flash that Billycock Hill’s name had something to do with a hat.
I remember that one of the butterfly men isn’t who he says he is but I wasn’t sure which one, or how that fits in with the story. I know the old woman at the butterfly farm is important, as is her son, and that Jeff Thomas and his friend are accused of stealing a plane and are later found by the Five in the caves, but that’s about it. Oh – other than remembering Benny and his pigling Curly who so often runned away, and in the end delivered an important message to the Five.
One last thing is that I did have a 1970s paperback as a child, and even now my copy isn’t as good as the others – it’s a Brockhampton second edition so the paper quality isn’t as good and the illustrations seem to have been shrunk and aren’t so clear.
Now that I’ve read it I have a couple of ideas as to why it’s near the bottom of my ranking, though it wouldn’t be significantly lower than Five on a Secret Trail, in fact they’re probably quite equal.
Gringle, Brent, Janes, Janes and the mystery men
Quite a lot of the story hinges on the behaviour of the four known and four unknown people at the Butterfly Farm.
First up there is Mr Gringle – a butterfly man. At first he seems affable and is delighted to show the Five plus Toby around the farm. However he quickly reveals a temper akin to Uncle Quentin’s, and he has no tolerance for jokes of any kind. He is also quick to accuse others of playing the fool simply because he doesn’t understand what’s going on.
Mr Gringle is a ‘mad scientist’ type, I suppose, and like Uncle Quentin he is utterly absorbed in his work. He belittles those with less knowledge in his specialist field and pays little to no attention to real-life goings on.
Then Mrs Janes – a woman not dissimilar to Mrs Thomas who we will meet in Five Get Into a Fix. Mrs Janes is presumably a cook/cleaner/housekeeper/laundry woman to the butterfly men as Mr Gringle describes her as someone who ‘does for us’. She is less presentable than Mrs Thomas (in fact she’s called ‘witch-like’ several times) and more hard-worked, but she is also mistreated and used by her son. She warns the Five off, saying her son doesn’t like visitors, even though her son only comes by on occasion to do repairs.
It’s actually quite sad how Mrs Janes is treated. First her son is violent towards her – which she tells the Five. But nobody takes her seriously. The butterfly men either don’t notice or don’t care and the Five don’t really listen to her. Toby’s told them that Will Janes has done jobs for them at the farm and is a decent guy, and they seem to believe him over Mrs Janes. The Five more or less write her off as a crazy old woman, yet later Toby admit that Will Janes is no longer reliable as he is a drunk. The Five are at least kind to her and, in a scene reminiscent of the one at Owl’s Dene with Aggie, Dick gives her some money.
Later it is Mrs Janes that fills in some details for the Five, revealing that she’s been hiding four men in her bedroom (!) on behalf of her son who has fallen in with the wrong crowd. Something the butterfly men have been entirely oblivious to!
I say butterfly men so I should talk about Mr Brent now, both the real and the phoney.
Toby was with the Five when they met Mr Gringle and so I knew he was the real deal, but he wasn’t there when they met Mr Brent. He gives them money (which is what they give to Mrs Janes) for a butterfly but is very vague on what kind of butterfly it might be.
Julian sees him again at night, just as a storm rolls in. He says he’s checking the moth traps before the rain washes them away – as there are as many good night-flying moths as there are day-flying butterflies around Billycock Hill. This is a good clue as earlier Mr Gringle explained that you get day-flying moths and night-flying butterflies.
Everything becomes more mysterious when Mr Gringle tells them (angrily) that Mr Brent doesn’t wear dark glasses, wasn’t at the farm that day and wasn’t out on the hill that night.
So the Five agree that they must keep an eye on the Butterfly Farm as something strange is going on. Not that it could have anything to do with the two planes that have just gone missing from the nearby air field, that would be too far-fetched!
I will leave it there for now, and continue with the mystery of the air field next time. Surprisingly I found the book actually quite compelling in a ‘what happens next’ way, and read it all in one afternoon, so I could actually review the whole thing in one go. I won’t, though, as I’ve gone on long enough for one post!