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Five Go To Smuggler's TopReview by Keith Robinson (June 15, 2005)
I still have very fond memories of the fourth Famous Five book. In fact, there are only a few where I recall anything about the plot, and yet this one is still very fresh in my mind even though it's been twenty-five years since I read it last! Upon reading it again (the same copy I originally read) I was pleasantly surprised at how familiar it all was; the tree falling on Kirrin Cottage, the journey to Smuggler's Top (and picking up Timmy along the way), smuggling Timmy into Sooty's bedroom and into the tunnels beneath and alongside the house, and of course the horrid Mr Lenoir and his sinister deaf servant, Block...
I had totally forgotten about Marybelle, Sooty's little sister, and their mouse-like mother. I'd also forgotten Mr Barling, the main protagonist—but his character came flooding back as soon as I came across his name. But there was one scene that surprised me a little: when George finds a tunnel leading down from the window seat to the catacombs below. I remember this very clearly, but I thought it was much earlier in the book, playing a bigger part in the story. In fact, I had it mind that this was the one and only entrance to the tunnels! I wonder if perhaps my old copy was snatched away at some point, reprinted with some major changes, scuffed up to look like the original, and returned to my old cupboard...?
Anyway. With Kirrin Cottage out of action, the Five travel to stay with Mr Lenoir, a clever scientist who Uncle Quentin has a lot of respect for. The two brainboxes had planned on getting together anyway, so when a tree falls on Kirrin Cottage it seems a good idea to send the children to Mr Lenoir's house, Smuggler's Top, for a while. Uncle Quentin plans on joining them later. Mr Lenoir has a son called Sooty, who happens to be a classmate at Julian and Dick's school. They both like Sooty, and think the stay at Smuggler's Top will be fun and interesting.
But Mr Lenoir, though outwardly polite, is even more short-tempered than Uncle Quentin. And he hates dogs. So the rule from the outset is that Timmy will not be allowed to go with them to Smuggler's Top. Well! It wouldn't be a Famous Five book without Timmy, so George naturally arranges to smuggle him into the big old rambling house, if Sooty will help. And of course Sooty, after a moment's hesitation, kindly agrees to hide Timmy away in the tunnels that run alongside and beneath the house—tunnels, he says, that were once used by smugglers!
The house itself sounds like every adventurous child's dream. It's huge and sprawling, with secret passages behind panels and under trapdoors. The house sits on top of Castaway Hill above a town, and the whole place is like some small island, cut off from the mainland by marshes all around. The only route to the island is over a causeway, a narrow road that sits slightly above the marshes. Step off the road and you'll get sucked down by the marshes! And to make the whole place even more sinister, a mist covers the place almost all the time. I've seen places like this depicted in other stories, most notably The Woman In Black, a supernatural horror book, play, and creepy BBC adaptation. In that, the mist was there and the marshes were there, but the causeway led almost to the doorstep of a big house that stood on level ground, with no sign of a town anywhere. I wonder if any of these places were based on real places? Some say the town on Castaway Hill is based on Rye in Sussex, which is a fortified hilltop town once surrounded by marshland. Sounds a perfect match! Now the marshes have been drained (thanks to Uncle Quentin) and today the town is a picturesque little place full of Tudor houses and cobbled streets. This is probably the most likely location of Smuggler's Top, although I also like the idea of it being based on St Michael's Mount in Cornwall, which can only be accessed by road while the tide is out, and by boat while the tide is in. I've been there, and also to the sister location over at Michel St Mont in Normandy, France. Perhaps these places are a little grand though.
The title Smuggler's Top indicates that it was named after only one smuggler. But somehow Smugglers' Top doesn't look right, even though it's grammatically correct for a place named after many smugglers of the past. But that's just semantics; I think the title works fine as it is. It reminds me a little of wasps' nest—I'd seen it written as wasp's nest and thought, "My, that must have been a big wasp!"
With Timmy successfully installed in the secret passages to avoid the sting of Mr Lenoir's tongue, Sooty and the others don't seem to have much time to enjoy themselves before an adventure starts to unfold. Who is signalling from the tower? When Sooty, Julian and Dick investigate one night, they come across a sinister-looking character coming down the steps...but who is it? It's too dark to tell. It may be Block, the deaf servant—but no, look here, he's in bed. See the lumpy shape under the sheets, and the mop of black hair? Ah, Enid Blyton is very clever to point out that we don't actually see Block's sleeping face in the bed, only the back of his head...which, frankly, could be a wig or something. ;-)
I found all the characters very interesting. Mr Lenoir seems to simmer with irritation and anger, and the tip of his nose goes white when he's about to explode. His polite laugh is also very tiresome to the children. Block, his servant, is in a permanent state of blankness—blank features, blank monotone voice...even the way he walks is somehow blank. He's stone deaf...or is he? He certainly comes across that way, and is a very interesting character simply because he's so blank all the time! And then there's Mr Barling, a "known smuggler" in the town below Smuggler's Top. He lives alone and has somehow eluded detection by the police. He uses the mists and marshes around Castaway Hill to his advantage, as the smugglers of olden days once did, covering his tracks very carefully so that no one can prove anything. But there's a complication in his life, in the form of Uncle Quentin, who comes to stay at Smuggler's Top to talk with Mr Lenoir about some amazing new plans. Quentin's been working on an idea to drain the marshes, and would Mr Lenoir like to buy the plans? You bet he would! And this is what leads Mr Barling to kidnap Uncle Quentin and hide him away in the cacacombs below the house! Can the Five (and Sooty, who is also kidnapped) figure out what's going on?
If I had any nit-picks at all about this excellent story, it would be that Mr Barling's plan to kidnap Uncle Quentin and force him to sell his scientific plans to him rather than Mr Lenoir is a little odd. The disposal of the plans are crucial to Mr Barling's ongoing smuggling. If outbidding Mr Lenoir for the plans was the intention, why not first confront Uncle Quentin in a more conventional—and legal—manner? Perhaps he somehow knew that Quentin would want to see his plans bought and put into action rather than bought and disposed of...so Barling took the initiative and kidnapped Quentin so he could force him at gunpoint to sign some papers, thus relinquishing his rights to the plans. But then what? Would Mr Barling have shot Quentin dead? He'd have to, otherwise the kidnap would come out and Mr Barling would be put in jail. But if he shot Quentin dead, along with Sooty to shut him up, he'd have his work cut out trying to cover his tracks...especially as he would now have a signed document saying he'd bought the plans! Very suspicious indeed in light of Uncle Quentin's and Sooty's mysterious disappearances. Why not just shoot Quentin dead from the outset and ransack his room to find the plans? No scientist, no plans...so no deal, and continued business for Mr Barling. Much easier than all this tomfoolery in the tunnels!
And I can't help mentioning a huge gaff. At one point, Mr Lenoir rings the bell over and over for Block, and is puzzled when the stone deaf servant doesn't come running. The children know full well that Block isn't in his room as he's supposed to be...but of course, since Mr Lenoir believes Block to be stone deaf, why would he expect Block to answer anyway? How Enid Blyton let that one slip is beyond me.
But overall this is easily the best book so far, and possibly the best in the series. Certainly it's the one I remember most. But there are others I have very fond memories of, so I'll wait before passing my vote!
Kay from Nottingham, UK, adds: "I was interested to read the ringing bell paragraph at the end of this review. I have visited old houses with old-fashioned bell systems, and in most of these the bell system includes little flags representing each room that wave when the bell rings—so there is also a visual indication. This is particularly important as all the bells sound the same—so the servant needs to be able to see which room it's coming from. Maybe Blyton made a mistake...or maybe, since Block was (allegedly) deaf, they had rigged up the system with larger visuals in a prominent place in the kitchen."
Nigel Rowe from the UK adds: "Interesting comment (from Kay) about Block's bell. Only thing is it was ringing in his bedroom, not in the kitchen. Also, the bell was meant to wake him up."
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