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Puzzle for the Secret SevenReview by Keith Robinson (January 20, 2008)
The Secret Seven haven't had a meeting for a while and only a couple of weeks remain of their holidays. So they visit the local fair, reluctantly taking with them Jack's annoying sister Susie and her friend Binkie. They have a lot to spend because Jack's mother has given him "a whole pound" to splash out with, and the others have managed to dig around for some spare pennies as well.
But, after all the fun is over, the Seven see a fire up on the hill. They're first on the scene and call in the fire brigade while a small home burns to the ground. The owner doesn't seem to be around at first, but she soon shows up – a woman with a baby in a pram, fretting about another child who should be somewhere about the place. This missing child is Benny, later established as about eight years old. He's an odd boy who's been hiding in the bushes – quite safe, but this does beg the question: why on earth was he left on his own in the first place?
The burning home not surprisingly reminded me of The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage. Perhaps it was this comparison that made me think the story was going to be about finding the arsonist and figuring out why he set the place alight. But, oddly enough, the cause of the fire is never explained. It turns out that the fire is just a plot device to get the occupants moved into a small caravan on Peter's father's farm, where the real mystery starts.
The occupants of the burnt home, or rather shack, are Mr and Mrs Bolan. Lucas Bolan works at the fair and is said to be very upset by the loss of his banjo in the fire. Mrs Bolan is more upset by the loss of all their other modest possessions, particularly as she has her two children to look after. Benny really is a very strange child. He's shy, and seems to stumble about with unsure footing, and his dark eyes have a curiously vacant expression. I have to admit it came as a surprise to me when it was revealed that he was blind. That was quite a neat little twist, and certainly explained his "oddness" – especially as these poor fair folk aren't able to send their child to a proper school. It turns out that the mysterious events of the story revolve entirely around little Benny.
Matt, the shepherd who works on Peter's father's farm, has the bright idea of housing the poor, now-homeless family in an old caravan that stands in one of the fields. The Seven, along with various mothers, rally round to clean up the caravan and furnish it with useful things. Mrs Bolan is grateful, of course, but it's notable that Lucas is nowhere to be seen during all this – in fact his entire presence in the story is limited to "being away at the fair" right until the very end when he shows up for the first time. His absence, coupled with the preconceived notion that fair folk are more often than not "bad sorts," goes a long way to making him look like a shady, shifty, dodgy character, which was no doubt what Enid Blyton had in mind.
A strange incident occurs soon after the Bolans have moved in. The scarecrow's clothes are stolen!. The shepherd wonders at first if the Seven had anything to do with it. Of course not! But they set about trying to find the missing clothes, wondering who could have stolen such a raggedy bundle. "It was Lucas!" I yelled at this point. "I don't know why yet, but it was definitely Lucas!"
Here's where the Secret Seven differ so vastly from the Five Find-Outers. Fatty and his friends would have investigated the scarecrow to look for "glues" – a cigarette pack, a torn piece of clothing caught on a fence, muddy size twelve footprints, and so on. But the Seven aren't that advanced; they simply wander about looking for the clothes in the vague hope of finding them lying around, all to no avail.
Late one evening, after a visit to the cinema, Janet, Peter, George and Colin set off home. Since Janet and Peter came on their bicycles, they ride off and leave George and Colin walking. It's at this point Colin realizes he's lost his watch (I never quite understood how you can just lose a watch off your wrist, assuming it's a wristwatch he's talking about) and he and George head back to find it. Then the torch battery fails, and they're plunged into darkness. This is when the major crime of the story takes place – a scruffy man steps out of the shadows into the light of a shop window, and throws a brick through the glass. It turns out, during the short scene afterwards when a policeman arrives, that the thief has stolen an expensive violin.
"A-ha!" I thought, immediately reaching the obvious conclusion. "It was Lucas! The caravan he lives in is fairly near to the scarecrow, so he stole the clothes in order to disguise himself during this planned burglary. It was Lucas wot did it, guv; he stole the clothes and the violin. After all, it was stated earlier that he was upset with the loss of his banjo, right?"
I was completely right, of course (he said with the same air of modesty as Fatty). However, I was wrong about the motive. I assumed he was just stealing the violin because he wanted to play it. This was "proved" by the unnatural wailing sounds that filled the evening air each night after the burglary, coming from somewhere on the farm. But, as the story reaches a conclusion, it's revealed that it's Benny who is playing the violin after dark! Benny's own violin, it transpires, was also lost in the fire along with Lucas' banjo... and Lucas, feeling sorry for his son, had tried to cheer him up by stealing what he thought was just some old secondhand violin in a shop window.
So how DID the shack burn down at the beginning? Perhaps it was briefly explained and I missed it, but it seems that this little detail was simply forgotten, as it was clearly not the central point of the story. In the end, like a number of Secret Seven books, there are no real villains. After a stern talking-to from Peter's father, Lucas is seen as a "good sort" and let off the hook, and the expensive violin is returned to the shop owner without question. Then the Seven work hard for the rest of the holidays, doing chores to earn money to pay for a new violin for little Benny.
All's well that ends well... although presumably the family will have been moved on by the time the next book starts. Can't have that riff-raff on Peter's land forever!
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