Most of Enid Blyton’s books are either fantasies or thrillers, of a sort: a gang of kids, formalised or not, in a run-in with adult crooks. I don’t know if she came up with the formula herself, but commercially speaking she is its definitive exponent.
I never read Blyton much as a kid, and until I took two months to slog through The Ring O Bells Mystery I had forgotten why. I’d mistakenly attributed it to formulaic plotting and a lack of ideas – in fact I think I probably shunned her books because she’s a genuinely boring writer. Not because her stories lack incident – Ring-O-Bells is jam packed – or character, but because of her remorseless inability to focus on interesting detail at the expense of the useless stuff.
Blyton is notorious for her endless descriptions of food, which to be fair were probably a big selling point in the austere 50s. But they’re just a symptom of a general inability to prune – she is also obsessive about the activities of pets and trivial mealtime and bedtime activities. Ring-O-Bells boasts not one but two mischievous dogs who get up to a series of eyelid-lowering scrapes with tablecloths &c; it also features a pet monkey, who at least serves a role in the plot. Trim away the descriptive fat and there’s an exciting story behind it, or at least a handful of good ideas.
The sociodynamics of our kid heroes are fairly basic: Roger and Diana are a perfectly bland brother and sister, who do very little (in Diana’s case she is simply left behind for the climactic chapters and turns up to congratulate our heroes at the end). Snubby is an orphaned cousin, who acts as comic relief but also does much of the detective work. The most interesting character is Barney, motor of the plot, owner of the monkey and a circus boy who apparently regularly teams up with the others.
Barney is a little older than his friends, and from a completely different background: Blyton’s explanation for why he likes to hang around with the dull Roger and Diana is that he would love to live their cosy life (but he can’t until he finds his missing father). It’s a kind of inverse of the Moomintroll-Snufkin relationship in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books – here it’s the wandering free spirit who is the envious one. Blyton never really takes this set-up anywhere (but this book is only one of six).
Once Barney turns up though the book becomes predictable – something I did remember about Blyton is that she was particularly bad at not telegraphing who the villain is: the first character to treat the heroes with anything less than absolute kindness turns out to be part of a kidnap gang. The best part of Ring-O-Bells is actually the opening few chapters, where the kids start to almost believe that the picturesque fairytale village is literally a fairytale village, where the real Old Mother Hubbard et al. lived. Blyton has a good handle here on the way let’s-pretend games can spill from pretending into half-believing, and the book threatens briefly a bit of real magic before the smugglers and kidnappers roll stolidly in.