23 August, 2010

"The 'Secret Way'. I'll find it somehow."

The Famous Five #2
Five Go Adventuring Again

The detectives:
As the title suggests, the Famous Five involves not just one, but five detectives! In order to avoid confusion, here are some easy descriptions of them. Julian, Dick, and Anne are siblings; George is their cousin.
  • Julian is the eldest, and a boy, and therefore the leader of the gang. He's always right, and all grown-ups trust him implicitly, and he's super responsible. He knows that it's his job to protect the girls, Anne and George, whether they like it or not.
  • Anne is the youngest, and a girl, and therefore likes girly things. Like cleaning! And cooking! And being protected by manly men! She's most easily scared and hates the various mysteries she and the others get involved in.
  • George is also a girl, despite her name. For some reason, she doesn't want to do the usual girl things, like Anne - this crazy mofo wants independence and equality! She's so silly. You can't do the things that boys do if you have a vagina! She's also sulky and bad-tempered, but she has a heart of gold.
  • Dick is the other boy. He doesn't really have a personality, because that's Alpha Male Julian's job. Dick's role is to back up Julian so that George doesn't forget that she's a girl, and so that Anne doesn't realise that a life of drudgery isn't all that much fun.
  • Timmy is George's dog. He can sense evil, and is a better weapon than a loaded gun. He's usually the one the bad guys try to kill, although due to his ability to sense evil, they always fail.
Together... they fight crime.

The case:
It's almost Christmas, and Anne and George are preparing to go home from school for the holidays, when they hear bad news - Anne's mother is sick, so she and the boys won't be home for Christmas. Aunt Fanny, George's mother, invites them back to their home, Kirrin, but there's more bad news - poor grades mean that George, Dick and Julian are all going to have to have a tutor over the holidays. At Kirrin, Anne and George meet Aunt Fanny, who is nice and has a sense of humour; Uncle Quentin, who is basically a bad-tempered and unsympathetic genius; and Joanna, the cook, who is fat. That's seriously the only trait she's given in this book.

Uncle Quentin interviews a few different candidates for the children's tutor, and chooses the one who seems quite intelligent, because he knows all about the secret work that Uncle Quentin is doing. And alarm bells are ringing already. He's also "very firm", something which alarms the kids. Dick wonders if he likes dogs, and George announces that if he doesn't then she won't do any work all holidays. Have I mentioned that George is kind of a brat?

The tutor, Mr Roland arrives. He wants to call George 'Georgiana', and isn't a fan of dogs, so you know George is going to hate him. Of course, Tim doesn't like Mr Roland either, which is like a beacon going off telling the reader that there is Something Fishy about Mr Roland. The other kids like him though, especially Anne. Oh Anne. Your need to please everyone and like everyone bespeaks volumes about your terrifying upbringing.

The children are disappointed to learn that, even though it's a week before Christmas, they'll be starting their lessons already. Their afternoons are free, though, so they go off for a visit to Kirrin Farm. The couple who run the farm, Mr and Mrs Sanders, naturally adore 'Master George' and despite the children not calling ahead to let them know they were coming but just assuming that everyone they meet are going to love them and despair, offer them freshly baked shortbread and hot drinks. The Sanders mention that they have a couple of artists staying with them over Christmas, and then Tim chases and cat and accidentally opens a secret panel.

A secret panel, you guys! Julian sends Anne off to get a candle, and then gets to have first look inside the hole behind the panel. Then Dick gets a turn. Then the girls. The kids are naturally pretty excited, and Mrs Sanders directs them to a cupboard upstairs with a sliding back. Anne shines for a moment by being the one to find the switch that opens it, but instantly loses her cool points by being claustrophobic when she tries to fit in the space behind the sliding back.

Dick finds a hole in the brick wall behind the cupboard, and is excited to find an old recipe book in it - a good six generations old. Nice try, Dick, but it's Julian who makes the real discovery - a tobacco pouch, which contains a scrap of material with a coded message inside. The children decide to keep it a secret, and Julian suggests they kick Anne if she starts to give anything away. Nice.

Mr Roland gets on George's bad side by first calling Timothy a terrible mongrel and then calling her Georgina. Julian tries to get him to treat her in a more understanding way, but Mr Roland says he doesn't need a child to tell him how to treat his pupils. Seeing Julian squashed is incredibly enjoyable. Of course, George decides that since everyone else likes Mr Roland, she doesn't want anything to do with them. Dick manages to talk sense into her - for now - and she agrees to try not to ruin Christmas. The children tell Mr Roland all about Kirrin Farm, although not the secret code that they discovered. He seems very interested.

George sneaks Tim under the table during their lessons, and he promptly bites Mr Roland. George realises she's going to have to obey their tutor, or he'll order Timothy to be permanently chained outside. She announces to the other children that she doesn't like him, not just because of Tim, but also because he has thin lips. Apparently thin lipped people "are always spiteful and hard". Eugenics are alive and well in the 21st century. Dick agrees that there's something up with Mr Roland, but Julian doesn't think so. He likes their tutor enough to ask him about some words that are written on their bit of material - via occulta. It turns out to be Latin for secret way, and the kids are all super excited at the thought of finding it. When they don't make any progress, Julian actually shows Mr Roland the linen, which pisses George off no end.

The secret code is actually a diagram marked in Latin, showing eight wooden panels in a room facing east, with a stone floor and a cupboard. Mr Roland makes the children tell him where they found it, with a piece of dialogue which is genuinely creepy:

"'I think you might tell me,' said the tutor, looking at Dick with his brilliant blue eyes. 'I can be trusted with secrets. You've no idea how many strange secrets I know.'"

Christmas Day comes, and there's time off lessons. George even grudgingly accepts a present from Mr Roland, a book on dogs. But that night, when everyone's asleep, she wakes up to hear someone creeping about downstairs. Thinking it might be a burglar, she and Tim creep downstairs to confront whoever it is - and it turns out to be Mr Roland, moving around in the dark. He claims to have heard a noise as well, and isn't please when George doesn't instantly believe him. When George's father joins them, Mr Roland easily convinces him to turn Tim out of the house, and have him chained to his kennel. While I agree with his sentiment, it's still pretty harsh to force a dog who is used to being inside, outside during the coldest months of the year.

The Five - minus George and Tim - and Mr Roland go to Kirrin Farmhouse to try and find the secret way. They try a couple of different rooms, and meet the artists who are now staying with the Sanders. Mr Roland has clearly never met them before, as he asks for an introduction. But when Anne describes the artists to George, she's sure that she saw them and Mr Roland talking that morning, before the visit to Kirrin Cottage. The plot is starting to thicken nicely.

In an effort to get Tim back, Julian convinces George to behave well in lessons. She works hard and even manages to smile at Mr Roland's jokes. He gives a good report of her to her father, and Julian and the others ask that they have Tim back as a reward. Unce Quentin is unable to make this decision himself, apparently, because he asks Mr Roland what he thinks, and the tutor for some reason loathes the very thought. George is miserable, moreso when she lies awake that night hearing Tim whine and cough. She finally comes up with a brilliant idea - bring Timmy inside to her father's study, where the fire isn't quite out, and rub oil into his hairy chest. Those are the actual words. I guess I'm glad that Tim isn't bald. She falls asleep in front of the fire, and has to hurry back to her room in the morning. Anne is completely overwhelmed by George's daring. I'm not sure what part of this was daring, except that Uncle Quentin will flip his shit if he finds out George has been in there.

The next morning, George has a massive attack of sulks again and refuses to go to lessons. The others truthfully tells Mr Roland that they don't know where George is, and when Anne is sent to look for her she can't find her. Then Uncle Quentin appears to ask if any of the children were in his study last night, as test tubes are broken and there are important pages missing from his work. Uncle Quentin, didn't anyone ever tell you to back that up on a separate hard drive? Still, it's top secret government work, so he's understandably worried. Anne knows George was in his study last night, but she's sure it couldn't have been her, and manages not to give her away. Mr Roland tries to pin the blame on George anyway.

Unfortunately, then Uncle Quentin finds the empty oil bottle that George left in his study. Mr Roland can smell Anne's fear, and keeps asking her what she knows. Eventually, Anne bursts into tears, and - since he's the only one allowed to bully Anne - Julian tells everyone to leave her alone, since if she's keeping a secret she must have a good reason for it. The three of them then rush off to find George and warn her. George freely admits she was in the study, but denies breaking anything. George's father believes her, because she never tells lies, but when she suggests that the burglar must have come from inside the house he refuses to believe it. He then goes to consult with his wife about a suitable punishment for George, and George suddenly realises that his workroom has eight wooden panels!

George tells Julian about the panels, and also tries to convince him that Mr Roland must have been the one to steal the missing pages. Julian reluctantly agrees to follow Mr Roland on his walk that afternoon, and is surprised to see him pass on Uncle Quentin's papers to the two 'artists' staying at Kirrin Farm. Julian returns home to learn that there's going to be heavy snow for the next few days, which means that they won't be able to leave the house again - but that means that the 'artists' won't be able to leave the farm to pass on the pages to anyone, either.

George's idea about the Secret Way turns out to be right, too. The next day lessons are canceled as Mr Roland has a cold, so when Uncle Quentin goes out to shovel snow the children and Tim go into the study and follow the coded instruction, opening up a secret passage. They go down it to explore, and quickly come to the conclusion that it leads to Kirrin Farmhouse. Anne then suggests that if they can get into the Farmhouse undiscovered, they'll be able to steal back her uncle's pages.

The tunnel comes out in the cupboard with the sliding back! The children quickly search through the artists' rooms, but can't find the pages anywhere. And then Anne (of course it's Anne) accidentally drops a vase, and the smash alerts the artists to the fact that someone is in their room. The children flee, but at the last moment George has the brainwave to search through the artists' coat pockets. She finds a sheath of papers and takes them, not having time to see if they're the right things or not.

The children manage to escape back down the tunnel, but then Tim freaks out and starts howling, and the artists realise that there's something strange about their cupboard. The start chasing the children, who run for it. Anne has a tough time keeping up with the others, though, and between being pulled by Julian and pushed by Dick she falls and twists her ankle. George tells the others to keep going, with Anne and the papers - she and Tim will face down the men. Tim launches himself at the artists, which frightens them enough that they retreat back to the farmhouse. George and Tim catch up to the others, and they tell Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny everything.

Mr Roland had, of course, been planted in the house to gain Uncle Quentin's trust and steal his papers. He had insisted that Tim go outside so that he could move around the house without being caught. Uncle Quentin apologises to George for not believing her, and lets her lock Mr Roland in his room. The artists come back through the tunnel, but Tim is lying in wait for them, and they get locked into Mr Roland's room too. The police arrive - on skis! - to handcuff them. And the children don't have to have any more lessons for the rest of the hols.

Case notes:
  • The only reason that Dick and Julian have poor grades is because they were sick for part of the term, of course. Don't worry kids, they're still Good Examples.
  • I'm pretty sure we don't actually meet Anne and co.'s parents for the whole of the series.
  • Anne seems to like Mr Roland due to his white teeth and "brilliant blue" eyes. You know she'd be a Frodo fangirl.
  • We're told that Julian fancies himself as an artist. An Alpha Male with a sensitive side? Swoon!
  • Anne really is terrible at keeping secrets. Not even in a 'oops, I hinted at something there' kind of way. In a, she opens her mouth and the truth comes out without any prompting kind of way.
  • George is a pretty popular character, I know, but she irritates me so much. She hates Anne for liking Mr Roland, but when Anne says that she loves Tim, George likes her again.
  • A lot of the Christmas preparations are described, and it turns out that George has never had a Christmas tree before. Maybe they still weren't that common when the book was written?
  • Despite not really liking any of the characters, they are well drawn, and Enid Blyton is pretty amazing at conveying personality in actions and reactions. You can see why her books have stood the test of time!
  • Anne and George are constantly described as "little girls" which, sure, I think they're ten and eleven, when this book was written that was considered pretty young - Anne still plays with dolls, for example. But Dick and Julian, at eleven and twelve, aren't described as "little boys". And George being constantly described as a "little girl" seems especially demeaning, given that she hates being a girl.
  • At one point, George is sent to bed as punishment, and the others are forbidden to talk to her. Dick suggests they sneak up and talk to her anyway, and Julian says that he'll go, by himself. Because he's the eldest.
  • The Kirrins' cook, Joanna, is new to the household. But George doesn't consider for one single second that it might be her who stole her father's pages. She just thinks, "It can't have been Mother, or Joanna," and that's it.
  • Dick worries that the men might have "revolvers". I think that might be the one thing that dates this book the most.

The cover: Do you think Anne and (whichever boy) are meant to look scared? Because they look more horrified. Like maybe someone just told them about The Human Centipede.

Less flippantly, it came as a bit of a shock to me that the kids are both shown wearing fairly modern clothes - at least, that hoodie is pretty contemporary. Obviously they're trying to appeal to modern readers, but these books are so mid-20th century to me the clothing just doesn't seem to 'fit' the characters.