Five is the magic number
Many hundreds of children will have spent hours of escapist fun immersing themselves in Enid Blyton’s classic children’s adventure books. Perhaps the most well known would be her Famous Five series, first published in 1942 and featuring the intrepid Julian, Dick, Anne, their tomboy cousin George (Georgina by rights) with the fifth membership place being taken up by Timmy the dog.
Just these series alone generated around 60 books; clearly the 1940’s and 50’s were a prolific time for pre-pubescent and teenage amateur detectives and adventurers.
The Five Find Outers and Dog
By far my favourite series introduced me to the terribly well brought up Larry, Daisy, Pip, Bets, and the inimitable Frederick Algernon Trottson (affectionately known as Fatty), not forgetting ‘the dog’, Buster. Collectively, they were of course, The Five Find-Outers & Dog. Why did Timmy the dog get to be an official member of the Famous Five yet Buster was merely a plus one, an afterthought? It puzzled me a bit, but then to be honest I never actually read any of the Famous Five books, and the answer to my question may well have been contained within.
There were 15 books in this series, and my memory is (rightly or wrongly) that I would devour one a week and wait in a state of heightened anticipation for the weekly trip into town to buy the next one, and feeling downright empty when finishing off the last of them, ‘The Mystery of Banshee Towers’. To fill the void my mum suggested that I read ‘Forever Amber‘, taking my interests off on an altogether different tangent.
I remember everything, and nothing about these books. I couldn’t tell you now what the exact plot or outcome was for any of them (despite reading them over and over and over again) but I do have very specific and clear memories about certain aspects:
Frederick Algernon Trottson
With some rather apt initials for this round boy, Frederick was known at first in a derogatory and then an increasingly affectionate way as ‘Fatty’ by the other children. As with many books of this genre, the characters seemed always to be made up of various siblings; Larry and Daisy were brother and sister and the elder, more sensible members. Together with Pip and Bets, also brother and sister, they had already formed a close friendship and the beginnings of a ‘detective agency’ when they met the new, arrogant, rich boy Frederick and took an instant dislike to him. It didn’t take long though for his attraction and kindness to show through (he was always incredibly kind to the young, naive and excitable Bets) and, without a doubt:
“It is in part the character of Fatty that makes these books so special. He may be boastful and arrogant but he is also generous, ingenious, a master of disguise and deduction, ventriloquist, escapologist, poet and macaroon-gobbler extraordinaire! Things just aren’t the same when he’s not around. As Daisy remarks, “Without Fatty we’re like rabbit-pie without any rabbit in it.”
Fatty always had money (in a delightfully non-PC way the others speculate about what his father does for a living) and although he was arrogant he was always incredibly generous, always standing the others homemade lemonade and macaroons until they eventually accepted him wholeheartedly and The Five Find-Outers & Dog were born.
The detection itself was what influenced me all those years ago; as far as I recall there was never an actual murder, but the anticipation of weaving through all the clues and detection culminating in the unmasking of the criminal by this intrepid group made them so pleasing to me.
Some plot twists stick in my mind particularly, firstly involving the Mr Goon, the local plod who was so inept that it made you wonder how on earth he managed to become a policeman in the first place. Constantly outwitted by the find outers, he’d shout at them to ‘clear orf’, which then of course became his delightfully old-fashioned nickname. ‘The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters’ involved ‘Clear Orf’ being the recipient of a classic anonymous note, with letters cut out of a newspaper. Using his amazing deductive powers Fatty worked out that as the ‘goon’ was spelt with a small ‘g’ it must have been cut from an article containing the word Rangoon. I can’t remember how or why this helped solve the case, but I remember it being pivotal, and exciting; to this day, all of my murder mysteries are packed with as many twists and turns as I can get away with!
Fatty was, amongst other things, a master of disguise. With an endless supply of cash he’d built up quite a collection of false noses, make up and costumes and these played an important role in the investigations. I remember being particularly smug when guessing that a dirty old lady being interviewed by the other find-outers was in fact Fatty in disguise. Perhaps it was because Bets had spotted that the old lady had clean fingernails – one instance when Fatty had not paid attention to all of the details in his usual manner!
I’m not sure if this was a good trick to teach impressionable 11 year olds, but the classic ‘escaping from a locked room by pushing the key through the keyhole onto a piece of paper then pulling it back under the door’ routine stayed with me for a particularly long time. I attempted (and failed) to put it to good use when I was well into my teens and arrived home to an empty house without my keys. I shinned up the back and squeezed in through the open bathroom window, then tried to gain entry to the rest of the house using the aforementioned trick that had worked so well in the books. Needless to say it didn’t work for me, and my parents thought it hilarious to find me stuck in the outhouse on their return.
Sad I know, but I was deliriously happy to find images of the original books I owned; the visual memory is almost as strong as the virtual, if not more so. One in particular stood out in my memory, ‘The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat’ and I was delighted to find the (quite creepy) image that I remember.
This past Christmas I purchased the entire set of books with the idea of sharing the love with my 6 year old. It’s now July and we’re only a third of the way through the first one – he clearly doesn’t share my murder mystery enthusiasm. However, I think it’s about time I settled down and worked my way through them again on my own, for old times sake.
I might even let you into the secret of the significance of the word Rangoon, when I get that far.