The Boy Next Door
Review by Keith Robinson (May 30, 2006)
What a hidden treat this book is! I say hidden because, being a one-off story as it is, it's not as well known as the Famous Five, the Five Find-Outers, the Adventure series, and so on. But it ranks right up there with them. This story reminds me a little of The Secret Island, with four children (one of them being the boy next door) making a lovely little home on an old house boat on a lonely part of the river.
The three main characterizations are a little thin. The story starts with Betty waiting for her brother Robin to return home from boarding school, and since her cousin Lucy is also due to arrive the same day, Betty is excited at finally having someone to play with! In the usual Blyton fashion, ages are quickly established, in this case with Betty thinking to herself, "Robin's eleven, Lucy is ten, and I am nine." Both Betty and Lucy are almost like hangers-on, not integral to the plot in any way. Robin starts out being a bit of a snot, by shunning Betty's enthusiasm to see him and announcing that "it will be dull with only two girls to play with." Robin warms to Lucy when he sees she's brought her dog Sandy (after all, a Blyton book wouldn't be complete without a pet of some kind—although the Secret series managed quite well without any regular pets at all).
The three children live in a large house surrounded by countryside. Next door is another house, this one empty, and the reader quickly gets the impression these two houses are very grand indeed. This isn't stated in so many words, but any house with eight acres of land and countryside all round, with a river nearby, is clearly a cut above the rest. It's a curious thing, but the reader also gets the impression that the children live alone with Mummy. It's mentioned early that "Betty's parents lived in a lonely spot, in beautiful country, with hills and rivers all around"—and yet there's absolutely no mention of the children's father throughout the entire book, as if he doesn't exist.
It isn't long before something exciting happens. People move in next door, and the children squeeze through the bushes to see what the newcomers might be like. They think they spot a lady and a man—and yes, a boy! Hurrah! Now Robin will have someone to hang around with. So, after the "family" move in, the children watch out for the new boy, and when they finally spot him he's dressed in a splended Red Indian costume. Robin, Betty and Lucy dress up too, and sneak into next door's garden to pounce on the new boy—but the new boy is too clever for them and manages to capture them all one by one by tying them to trees! But then the lady shows herself and the boy slips away, leaving the fierce looking lady of the house to confront the helpless children. She frees them, but then tells them there is no boy living there. "Now, if I catch you here again I shall quite probably spank the whole lot of you," says the fierce woman. "And remember what I've said—there is NO BOY HERE!"
Flummoxed by this turn of events, Robin, Betty and Lucy are determined to speak to the boy and find out what's what. But, while they are out the next day, the new neighbors arrange to have a fence erected around the entire garden! The children find out when they try to crawl through the bushes again, to be confronted by a chain link fence too high to climb over.
Well! What follows is a very enjoyable mid-section where the children secretly get in contact with the curious boy next door, who turns out to be an American of about eleven or twelve, by the name of Kit Anthony Armstrong. He's in hiding, in some sort of protective custody with his guardians, the fierce-looking woman named Miss Taylor (nicknamed The Dragon), who has been hired as extra help by Mr Barton, Kit's sulky, bad-tempered tutor. Kit's mother died when he was a baby, and his father had fairly recently been burned and killed in an aircraft accident. That's pretty horrific, but not entirely unique for a Blyton book. Mr Armstrong is basically another Captain Arnold, another parallel with the Secret series. And a further parallel is that Kit, now rich from his father's inheritance, is in danger of being kidnapped for ransom by his wicked uncle (much as Prince Paul was kidnapped for similar reasons in The Secret of Spiggy Holes).
With a craftily dug tunnel under the fence, Kit is able to sneak away from his guardians and disappear for hours on end without them suspecting a thing—the garden is, after all, extremely large and wooded! While exploring the river one day, and rowing past their little island (yet another parallel with the Secret series), the four children find an old house-boat that belongs to the large solitary house nearby, the only other house for miles around. The children take it upon themselves to clean it up and repaint it, and are startled but pleasantly surprised when a man turns up one day and announces it's his boat... but the children can play on it as much as they like, since they've done such a nice job of cleaning it up. What fun! The man, a Mr Cunningham (hmm, Bill Smugs, perhaps?), is very nice with twinkly eyes, but sadly he has just let the house to others and isn't planning to be around much. And things start going wrong when the newcomers to the Cunningham house turn out to be a couple of unfriendly men who want the children to clear off!
This book steadily picks up pace as it becomes clear Kit is in danger of being kidnapped, and it's up to Robin, Betty and Lucy (well, Robin anyway, since the girls don't really do much) to keep him safe. The final quarter of the book races to a satisfying conclusion reminiscent of the Famous Five and even some of the Five Find-Outer books; it might as well be Inspector Jenks turning up with a powerful car full of stern policemen. And there's a final, slightly predictable twist when the man originally thought to be the wicked uncle turns out to be—well, now, that would be spoiling it for others!
My 1965 Collins hardcover edition contains the excellent original illustrations by Gilbert Dunlop, and these really help to bring Blyton's 1944 story to life. I wish I had the dust-jacket, but I'm still pleased with my 99p purchase!