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Five Have a Mystery to Solve

Review by Keith Robinson (December 12, 2005)

The penultimate book in the Famous Five series follows what is by now the usual formula of finding secret passages, hunting treasure, and foiling bad guys. Only this book is really quite good compared to several others of late. Sure, it has its fair share of head-scratchers and eye-rollers, but for the most part it's an enjoyable romp.

In the first book of the series, Five on a Treasure Island, it's established that Julian (along with his brother and sister) live in London, while George and her home at Kirrin Bay are all the way down in the south-west. In later books the exact whereabouts of Julian's home becomes a little blurred, but in this book it's made clear that Julian, Dick and Anne have "just moved into the area" and are now a mere bike-ride away from George's house. I'm not sure this relocation was entirely necessary for the plot, though; it could easily have been another book where the cousins get together once more at Kirrin.

Mrs Layman, apparently a nice old local lady, wants to come to tea and ask a favor of Julian, Dick and Anne. Naturally George is invited along too, and so the Five meet Mrs Layman over a hearty meal. The old lady has a house up on the hill overlooking the harbor, and she has a grandson living there with her, a boy by the name of Wilfred. Mrs Layman has to go and stay with an ill cousin of hers, so she asks if the Five can go and stay at the house and watch over nine-year-old Wilfred, or "keep him company" as she puts it. It turns out later that Wilfred can't go back to his own home because his sister has measles and his mother doesn't want him to catch them. What an odd state of affairs: a mother sends her boy off to his gran's house, and then the gran goes off and leaves him in the care of children! Since Gran is so concerned that Wilfred "doesn't like being there alone," I wonder why she didn't just ask if he could come stay with the Kirrins?

Wilfred is a scamp of a boy with the same uncanny ability to tame animals as Philip from the Adventure series. What with snakes, beetles, hares, rabbits, birds, hedgehogs and the like, I had a vision of Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, as he entered his apartment and all the wild animals emerged from hiding to greet him. Wilfred starts out as someone whose ears need boxing, but Anne—yes, Anne—puts him in his place by throwing a bucket of cold water all over him. Anne's usually-timid character is given a boost in this book, with two or three separate occasions of her "turning into a tiger."

The little house on the hill is described quite nicely. It overlooks Whispering Island set in the middle of a deep blue harbor, supposedly the second largest stretch of water in the whole world after Sydney Harbor in Australia. Er, maybe. Apparently there are several harbors claiming second place after Sydney. Poole in the UK is one of them, but others include Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Halifax in Canada, Cork in the Republic of Ireland, Falmouth in the UK, and Freetown Harbour in Sierra Leone. But I suppose it depends what you read. Still, apparently Blyton based her fictional Whispering Island on Brownsea Island, located in Poole.

The Five are due to visit the old house on the hill at ten in the morning, and they leave at around quarter to ten. So if it's only a fifteen minute bike ride (up hill) then it's really quite strange that none of them have ever looked down on the harbor before, or heard of Whispering Island—even George, who, as we know, is just a short bike ride away at Kirrin Bay (where she's lived all her life).

But enough about setting; now onto the plot itself. As usual there's a local guy who loves to tell stories, and as usual he tells a story about long-lost treasure and how "it must be still in that castle, on that island somewhere, but I suppose we'll never know..." The island is guarded by not-very-nice guards with guns, so an exploration is out of the question. But when the Five hire a boat and row out into the bay, they are unaware of the strong tidal currents and end up being thrown onto the beach of Whispering Island. Blow! To make matters worse, their boat gets washed away, so they're now stuck there. How maddening! Now they're going to have explore the island after all. If only the boat rental people had warned them of the strong tides, this disaster might have been avoided.

Wilfred is left out at this point. He's gone off to look for his missing animal whistle-pipe. It made me laugh that he searched his pockets and looked horribly distressed, and Dick said, "Oh, it must be in one of your pockets. Here, let me feel." Oo-er, missus. I always thought Dick was my favorite character, but now I'm beginning to wonder about him. At the beginning of Five Go Adventuring Again, he says, "Gosh, look at the primroses on the railway banks!"—just like any other boy, right? Hmm. Still, Wilfred being left out at this point serves a purpose. When the Five's boat washes up on the mainland, Wilfred hires his own to rescue them (he's only nine, but apparently that's okay with the boat hire company, who seem more interested in the safety of their boats than the missing children). Wilfred sets out across the bay to join the Five on the island.

The woods on Whispering Island do indeed whisper, and this is a very nice image—but even better are the gleaming statues standing silently and eerily in the middle of the woods, near the old castle grounds. What with the whispering woods and the wailing cliffs, this book has shades of the Adventure series, and is one of the reasons I liked it as well as I did, despite its usual credibility problems. It seems perfectly innocent and ordinary that Timmy gets thirsty, and the Five have to pull water up from an old well. It doesn't seem out of place that the bucket accidently falls off the hook and drops down the well into the water, and Dick has to shin down the rope to fetch it. So it's not unreasonable that Dick finds an iron door set in the side of the well shaft, some way down. Blyton strings the readers along with such finesse that it's only afterwards you realize you've been duped by a staggering run of good luck that has led the Five first to the island, then through the woods to the exact location of the well, then down the well itself! And we all know what's through that iron door, right? If you've read the last few books in the series, you know this door is a long-lost back entrance into a room full of treasures.

The bad guys are dumb and useless as usual, and the whole dastardly scheme of smuggling the treasures off the island is shallow. At the start of the book, the stories of armed guards gave them an air of menace—but when you get to meet them you find out they're the usual Blytonesque oafs. So when they "threaten" to leave the children locked up in the dungeons until they return, there's absolutely nothing to fear, especially as we all know the children can easily escape. What strikes me as really silly, though, is the way the children escape and, rather than jump in their boat and escape, decide to stay the night "because they're tired." Still, this set up gives Anne a chance to be a tiger again, and that was worth waiting for. :-)

The book finishes with a quick author summary of how the bad guys are rounded up, because of course, despite knowing full well the children have escaped, they return to their dastardly work of smuggling treasures off the island, not once realizing that the children might tell on them.

Five Have a Mystery to Solve

Review by Nigel Rowe (December 12, 2005)

As with Five on Finniston Farm, this book preludes with a paragraph from Enid explaining the location in which the book is set. Again, it is set at a real location in Dorset, Poole Harbour. Whispering Island is in fact based on Brownsea Island. Even the character Lucas is real, still to be found (in 1962 anyhow) on the golf course.

We commence this, the twentieth adventure, where everyone is at his happiest—the meal table! Three of the Kirrins are eating and discussing food, including some missing sausages. Apparently Georgina [sic] came round to spend the evening yesterday—they must all live very close together now—and between them all, including Timmy, "two whole pounds of sausages were eaten". Their mother, Mrs Kirrin/Barnard, still refers to George as Georgina, and tells the three that they must be in this afternoon, as Mrs Layman is coming to tea and wants to see them about something. Groans all round as the three wanted to visit Kirrin for the day, to see George and Timmy. Not to be! However, their mother agrees to Anne ringing George to see if she (and Tim) can come over here. She can. Hurrah!

Later the Five are together again, and with much 'friendly punching' and the usual camaraderie, await the arrival of Mrs Layman. We are treated to another enormous tea before Mrs L will get to the point about her visit. She has a grandson staying with her at present, and would like to know if the Five would stay at her house to look after him, as she has to visit a sick cousin. Adults are always rushing off to look after sick cousins/aunts/sisters in seemingly every FF adventure. I know we must have a reason for kids being left on their own, but really! It's a fairly primitive house, without electricity or gas, but Mrs L urges the children to have a look at it, to which they give their agreement. Wilfrid is the grandson, and he will be told of their plans to visit the next day.

When the morrow dawns, the Five set off for the cottage. They are treated to fabulous views of Poole Harbour and see the golf course too. They reach the cottage, which has a crooked, wooden door. It looks very small. As the door is unlocked, the Five go in. It is very old. We are now treated to a quite usual introduction to a Blyton 'supporting' character. Wilfrid storms in, telling the Five to 'clear out'. He doesn't need anyone to look after him, and has already sent the cook packing! Wilfrid tells them that he has 'plenty of friends'. They are not human however, but snakes, lizards and hares; shades of Philip Mannering, here. Various animals and birds appear when Wilfrid plays a tune on his whistle, but when Timmy growls, they go away. When he goes to strike Tim (brave boy), before George can retaliate, Tim gently goes over to Wilfrid and looks up at him lovingly. Aaaah. With that, off runs Wilf. The Five decide to stay and tell Mrs Layman the news. "Don't worry about Wilfrid!" says Julian. "He'll have to toe the line, and do as he's told." What a wonderful boy Julian is. Mrs L tells them that Wilfrid has to stay with them, as his sister has measles and his mother doesn't want him to catch them. More sickness! Surprise, surprise, Sally the cook comes back, and offers her services which the Five naturally accept. Happy days!

We now have a chapter devoted to Wilfrid's annoying habits, then one devoted to Lucas, a groundsman from the adjacent golf course. He tells the Five the history of "Whispering Island". A rich man bought the island as he was afraid of being robbed. He built a castle on it in which to live. He had a bed of solid gold, beautiful statues, rubies, a sword worth "a king's ransom", and other valuables. (Guess where the story's going here!) He fell foul of the King (!) and men landed on the island and killed him and all of his servants. God bless the King! Would you believe it, but none of the treasure could be found. No one lives there now, but a couple of men to frighten off visitors, shooting their guns if anyone lands. A case for the Dorset Police, methinks.

The Five decide to hire a boat. It only costs a pound for a week—a real bargain.* They row off, and guess what? An outgoing tide sends them straight onto the Shore of Whispering Island! There's fate for you. They decide to stay on the island until the tide turns and they can row back on it. They walk up the beach towards a wood and hear the trees talking. "Shooey, shooey, shooey, shooey!" say the trees. For one moment I thought I was in the Enchanted Wood. Those trees go "Woosha woosha" though! They decide to give themselves up before they are shot, explaining that they were washed ashore by accident. They find the old castle and then spot two enormous men. The men hear Timmy growl, but head off in the wrong direction. This gives the Five the chance to return to their boat. Good old xenophobic Julian thinks that something's wrong here. "Those men looked liked foreigners. They certainly weren't gamekeepers." Things get worse when the children find that their boat has been washed out to sea. Funny that, when ten minutes ago the tide was too strong for them to row out! That'll teach 'em to pick a boat named Adventurer!

Chapter Ten is called "The Five are in a Fix". A good title for a book, there! Horror of horrors, they hear a shot, and Timmy runs towards them, complete with half a ham in his mouth! Who needs Tesco.com with Timmy about? He has found the thug's store of food, and was shot escaping with the ham! Fortunately, only his tail is hurt, so he will live to fight another day. They all decide to do a little more exploring with the hope of finding out what these fierce men are guarding. Off they go, in single file, "like Indians". There are shades of The Valley of Adventure next, as they bump into strange figures in the wood. I won't give any more of the plot away, but we are treated to old favourites such as going down wells, complete with hidden doors.

As with Blyton's latter FF stories, there is much repetition from other stories in this book. There are shades of Treasure Island, Finniston Farm, and so on. However, I found this quite enjoyable. It did have quite a different feel to it. I liked the setting. Knowing Poole, its harbour and Brownsea Island (now belonging to the National Trust) very well, I could 'slot' myself into the story, picturing it from memory instead of imagination. The plot itself was rather weak and predictable, but still a pleasant way to spend a few hours of reading.

Much is made of racism in Enid's books. The fact that Julian notices that the guards are foreigners, making them necessarily the bad guys, is a point in question. This book was published in 1962, nearly twenty years after WWII had ended; therefore, we can't really say that foreigners were held in the same suspicion then as in the 40s/50s. Maybe Enid was so used to using our friends from other countries as baddies that she couldn't break the mould. I never noticed any of this when I read the books as a child; so perhaps it is just that we are so much more multi-racial now, that it seems odd.

As I have said, an enjoyable read. Not a classic by any stretch of the imagination; but not a washout either.

Keith adds: "Interestingly, in the 2001 version, the boat hire cost has been upped from one pound a week to fifteen pounds a week. Still a bargain though."

Five Have a Mystery to Solve

Review by Heather from Australia (January 3, 2006)

This book begins with a very promising premise—a "whispering" island with rumors of hidden treasures, a crotchety animal-loving boy named Wilfrid and the prospect of no parents or caregivers for an undetermined amount of time. The beginning of a vintage Blyton mystery-adventure.

When the children meet Wilfrid they take an instant dislike to him—especially George when Timmy licks Wilfrid's hand. Wilfrid is very much like Phillip in the Adventure series—an animal lover who can make any animal befriend him. He first scares Anne with the peculiar creatures he attracts, but then makes friends with her by summoning a rabbit for her.

The animal-loving really serves no purpose to the plot though. Not like in Five Have a Wonderful Time where making friends with the pythons helped an escape and in Five Go Off in a Caravan where friendship with the chimpanzee helped to shield the children. Strange that Blyton would use such a large part of the introduction exploring something that really doesn't advance the plot—Wilfrid could just as easily have been a grumpy boy who spent his whole day reading.

The whole idea of a mysterious and dangerous whispering and wailing island is really very interesting, and the story could have made so many more twists and turns. However a quick discovery down a well and getting momentarily trapped after walking through a strange tunnel is where it ends. Even the entrapment is fairly nondescript—not much more than "Oh—we're trapped" "No, there's a door over there, silly—lets all get out that way".

The end of the mystery was really very abrupt too. No puzzling things out here. All of a sudden Blyton switches to the third person and narrates the end of the mystery in a few paragraphs. No action or excitement involved—the children simply sail away from the island with the prospect of police on their way. And all in the third person, with a quick sentence from Julian: "My word, this has been an exciting adventure, hasn't it! I shall be glad of a little peace now!" Then Blyton chimes back in with "Well—you'll soon have it, Julian! That little cottage is waiting for you all, with its glorious view over the Harbour and Whispering Island. You'll have quite a bit of excitement tomorrow, of course, when the police take you back to the island in their boat". That's it. No exciting finale—just the promise that there will be one tomorrow. It's like Blyton got to the end of her required word count and just gave up the story.

In all I found this book quite disappointing despite such an interesting premise and a very exciting-sounding island. Now I'll wait for the rotten cyber tomatoes thrown by the many of you who will probably say "but that's my favourite Five book!"


Little Wilfred proves to be a hit with wild animals...


...but a real nuisance as well!


Lucas tells a good story, and the children listen with excitement at his tales of Whispering Island.


Amazed, the Five find a crate filled with sand... and a priceless statue!


Risking life and limb to quench Timmy's thirst, Dick climbs down into the well.


Wilfred goes off for a walk on his own, and is not amused when Julian creeps up on him and makes him jump.


The Five are not quite as reckless as young Wilfred when it comes to clambering down slippery rockfaces.


Stunned, the children find gleaming statues hidden away.


The Five make their escape!


Anne is so angry that the bad guys are stealing the boat that she goes after them like a tiger!

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