I am now at book 20 of 21! It has only taken a little over four years. But here I am, at the penultimate book, and my second least-favourite of the series.
I’m not entirely sure why I think so lowly of Mystery to Solve. In my rankings of the Famous Five I noted that I disliked Wilfrid and was unimpressed at the Five getting stranded on an island, being used to taking out boats. The paperback I had as a child also had an ugly cover, and no illustrations, which I find often affects my opinions.
I haven’t read this in over ten years – and in fact I’m not sure how often I’ve even read my hardback edition as I only started buying the ones I was missing in the 2000s – so I am interested to see if my opinions remain the same with this re-read.
A basis in reality
Much like Five on Finniston Farm the location in this book is based on a real place.
At the beginning of the book Blyton writes in a special note:
My readers will want to know if Whispering Island is real, set in the great blue harbour in the story—and if the little cottage on the hills is there still—and the golf-course in the story—and Lucas, who tells the children about the island. Yes, the island is real, and lies in the great harbour, still full of whispering trees. The little cottage on the hills is still there, with its magnificent view and its old well—and Lucas can be found on the golf-course, nut-brown and bright-eyed, telling stories of the animals and birds he loves so much. I have taken them all and put them into this book for you—as well as the friends you know so well—The Famous Five
She doesn’t say where it is – but we know that it is Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, with the golf course being Purbeck.
I have spent some time on Google maps, but I can’t work out where the cottage would have been as it’s hard to identify any hills around there – and the gold course seems rather far back from the coast. The cottage may no longer be there, or it might have been extended or remodelled so it’s no longer small and white. But it has to be at the top of a hill, just across the road from Purbeck Golf Course and looking across to the island. If anyone’s visited the area and has any ideas I’d love to hear them.
Lucas was really Gordon (known as Johnny on the course, and Billy to his family) James, who was green keeper at Purbeck and also caddied for Enid and her husband many times.
Five get roped into babysitting
Mrs Layman – apparently a dear old friend of the family – comes to visit and to ask a favour. She has to go away to look after a sick relative (a Blyton standard for getting rid of adults) but she has this lovely cottage that’s not too far away. The only catch is it comes with a resident pain-in-the-neck.
I am not at all sure about Mrs Layman. Authors frequently introduce new characters with a quick back-story explaining they’re old friends of the family and I usually find that entirely believable. There’s no nit-pick here – we spend very little time Julian’s house and with his parents, so they could have dozens of friendly elderly lady friends that we’ve never met, and they’re unlikely to be mentioned unless relevant to the plot.
And yet Mrs Layman comes across as nothing more than a convenient tool to thrust the Five and Wilfrid together at the cottage. She has no real personality and only appears on half-a-dozen pages.
The Five chat away to her when she comes to tea and think her a most interesting person but unfortunately we don’t get to see any of that. The only thing we do see is that actually she’s a bit manipulative. She claims that Wilfrid is afraid of being alone, which when you meet Wilfrid is obviously not true at all. She also describes him as such a nice lad—so helpful. You’ll love him which is over-egging the pudding entirely.
Mrs Layman later admits that he’s rather a difficult boy at times. And he can be very rude. He hasn’t any brothers to rub off his awkward corners, you see. Which is far more the truth – though I don’t know about the brothers thing. Can sisters not rub off awkward corners too?
Wilfrid is ten, so the same age as Anne was in the first book. The Five are, well, of unknown age, but older than ten. I think we can assume that Julian is at least 16 by now, even if a) the illustrations suddenly make them look much younger than the previous progression starting with Finniston Farm and b) if you follow the timeline of adventures he would be about 21.
I cannot bring myself to like Wilfrid. Some characters are written to be unlikeable – the enemy, the bad guy, whereas Wilfrid has a sort of very basic redemption ark in the book, but I just find him rather annoying.
If I had to describe him I’d say he had all the annoyingness of Tinker Hayling with the animal skills of Philip Mannering. Admittedly Philip could be a bit of a jerk to Dinah but they were siblings and she gave as good as she got. Wilfrid deliberately tries to wind up the Five from the moment they arrive, going at it hardest against George by trying to lure her beloved Timmy away from her.
He does redeem himself with rowing to the island to rescue them, and of course by saving Timmy from choking but by that point I find it kind of galling that he gets to be the hero of the moment (and also that he’s right about the ball being a choking hazard.) I also find it annoying that Timmy fawns over him like he did with Jo.
Dick sums my feelings up nicely – I think he’s a badly brought-up little pest – and if I were a dog, I’d bite him, not fawn on him!
And that’s enough for this week I think!