Thanks to the Fidra Books reprint, I’ve just read Bunkle Scents a Clue by M Pardoe. This is the eleventh and penultimate title in a series which began in 1939 and ended in 1961. I have the first eight books in hardback but the later ones are hard to find and very expensive, so I’m pleased to be able to buy the new paperback editions. It means I can complete the series without feeling I’m wasting my money, because I don’t enjoy the later books as much as the earlier stories.
Billy de Salis, known as Bunkle, has an enquiring mind, a kindly nature and a determination to be rich some day; a highly fanciable combination. I was grown up before I read any of the books so perhaps Bunkle’s father, Colonel de Salis, would be a more suitable object of devotion for me. My favourite book in the series is Bunkle Butts In (1943) in which the family moves into Marsh House and starts wartime housekeeping with a little spy catching on the side; just the sort of book I enjoy.
My heart sank when I began Bunkle Scents a Clue. The book seemed to be all about Sally, a tiresomely pony-mad girl. Don’t get me wrong; I like pony books well enough when they are out-and-out pony books like Jill’s Gymkhana or my all-time favourite, The Ten Pound Pony by Veronica Westlake. What I don’t like is for the author of a long-established series to be told by the publishers, ‘more ponies, please.’ In my opinion this spoiled M E Atkinson’s series of books about the Lockett family, which I love. The last Lockett title, Steeple Folly (1950) has too much about ponies and gymkhanas to please me and the character of the earlier books is lost. After that, Atkinson moved on to Fricka and ponies and I lose interest. Also, by 1950 Atkinson’s books were beginning to look old fashioned and I’m afraid the same is true of Margot Pardoe. A new generation of writers was coming up; in particular, Monica Edwards.
Look at the opening scenes of Bunkle Scents a Clue. Sally is a vicar’s daughter √ who wears her hair in plaits √. She has a much younger brother √. She is mad on ponies √. Her mother wears her plaits in a crown around her head √. Sally knows the local countryside like the back of her hand √ and is respected by the local characters √. The ticks represent exact comparisons with Monica Edwards’ heroine Tamzin, who first appeared in Wish for a Pony in 1947. Yet Tamzin seems a much more modern girl and certainly doesn’t spout whole stilted paragraphs about what ‘one’ does. Apart from the occasional ‘Miss Tam’, there is also far less deference in Monica Edwards’ books. In the later Atkinson and Pardoe books the ‘Miss-ing’ and ‘Master-ing’, the effortless superiority of Colonel de Salis swanning around the countryside in his Vanguard while complaining about trippers and charabancs start to look very dated.
Things improve as soon as Bunkle arrives on the scene, although he seems a very young seventeen, classical scholar or no. The family are back in Somerset, scene of their wartime adventures in Bunkle Began It. This time they are staying with an elderly retired admiral (what else?) and have two Scottish cousins in tow. Another character from an earlier book, Major Benson, appears; he is now a policeman married to a horsey lady (cue connection with Sally). There’s a mysterious professor who doesn’t like visitors, a mysterious smell in a long abandoned garden and mysterious goings about by a foreigner in a Jag. This is very promising and the Somerset countryside is well described. It’s all rather educational, though. We have a topographical tour taking in local beauty spots (including Cleeve Abbey, Oxenham fans), Somerset flora, fauna, legends, climate and weather conditions. All rather hard work but I still enjoyed the book.
I did a brief check on just a few of the other series books published in the same year, 1953.
Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Five Go Down to the Sea.
Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine, The Neglected Mountain.
Monica Edwards’ Punchbowl, The Wanderer.
Grace James: no John & Mary book that year but the last Blakes & Blacketts book, Nibs and the New World.
I find that some authors hit their stride and write the best books first (Malcolm Saville’s The Gay Dolphin Adventure, second in the LP series); others have a middle period prime (Monica Edwards, for me); others are pretty uniform (Enid Blyton and Grace James). Sadly, it is often the case, as with M E Atkinson and M Pardoe, that later books in a series are not as good as the first.