The Enid Blyton Society
The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage
Back Book 1 of 15 in this category Next

Book Details...

First edition: 1943
Publisher: Methuen
Illustrator: Joseph Abbey
Category: Five Find-Outers
Genre: Mystery/Adventure
Type: Novels/Novelettes

On This Page...

Reprint Covers
Reviews by David Cook & Robert Houghton
Further Illustrations


Wraparound dustwrapper from the 1950 reprint, illustrated by Joseph Abbey

1st German edition published by Erika Klopp Verlag in 1953,
illustrated by Walter Born with the title Mystery of the Fire in the Night

'The Redoubtable Mr. Goon' sent to Enid Blyton by Joseph Abbey
Foreign Titles
German: Geheimnis um einen nachtlichen Brand
French: Le Mystère du pavillon rose
Dutch: De Vijf Detectives – Een geheimzinnige brand
Spanish: Misterio en la villa Incendiada
Portuguese: O Mistério da Casa Queimada
Swedish: Mysteriet med den brunna stugan
Finnish: Palaneen talon salaisuus
Icelandic: Dularfulli húsbruninn
Czech: Tajemstvi Spalene Chaty
Malaysian: Misteri Pondok Terbakar

Brief Summary by Julie Heginbotham: One April night, the sky of Peterswood is lit up by the brightness of a cottage on fire. Fatty, Larry, Daisy, Bets, Pip, and Buster the dog, set about trying to solve this exciting mystery of who burnt down Mr Hicks' cottage workshop in his garden. They make lists of suspects they want to interview and try and find as many clues as they can, whilst trying to avoid the wrath of the village policeman, Mr Goon, who the children nickname 'old Clear Orf.' Will they manage to solve the Mystery of the Burnt Cottage before Mr Goon does?

Full Reviews (These may contain spoilers):

David Cook's Review
This first story is very much a scene setter, putting into motion characters and processes that would evolve and reoccur throughout the series. Unlike many future volumes this story starts with the major crime incident that the story is about, the firing of Mr. Hick's cottage workroom and we are introduced to our future band of detectives and their main ongoing rival and protagonist as efforts are made to quell the conflagration.

Larry Daykin spots the fire to the west of the village from his bedroom window as he is preparing to go to bed. As his parents are out, he and his sister Daisy are free to get dressed and go and investigate. En route down their lane they pass another house from which they are joined by their contemporary Pip Hilton and his sister Bets who is four years younger. As the Hilton parents are quite strict about letting their children out we must assume they too are out for the evening.

Arriving with several other villagers at the fire scene they discover that as the nearest fire engine is in the next village the fire has taken an unassailable hold on the cottage. Mr. Goon the village policeman leading the fire fighting efforts greets them with his usual cry of "Clear orf you!" When a small Scottie dog appears and barks around Goon's ankles they are therefore less sympathetic than they might have been. The dog's owner who is 'plump, well-dressed and rather pleased with himself' and has an 'effected drawling' voice is trying to throw pails of water on the fire. His aim is not good and Larry gets partially soaked, though as we soon learn this inaccuracy is out of character.

Mr. Hick arrives in his chauffeured car from the railway station and the London train in time to see his cottage collapse and has to be restrained from entering the conflagration to rescue his priceless old documents. He then asks Goon to clear spectators from his garden and the four children leave followed by the boy (and his dog) who asks to join them the following day.

Perhaps surprisingly the four children are not initially keen to have the company of the boy who would later become their much admired leader. Pip had previously said of the boy, "He's awful. Thinks he knows everything and has so much pocket money he doesn't know what to do with it!" Larry doesn't particularly like the look of the boy and later describes him as 'a silly fat sausage'. Daisy describes him as a 'conceited fat creature' and asks, "Why should he think we want to know him?" It's only the following day when the dog Buster interrupts their meeting at Pip's with his loveable antics that they consider letting the boy into their circle of friends. And then only so they can enjoy Buster's company.

Pip tells the other three that he has heard from a source Enid never reveals that the fire was arson and that insurance investigators have already discovered petrol was used. The boy arrives ostensibly looking for his dog — we never learn whether he deliberately sent Buster on ahead to inveigle himself into the company of the others — just in time to hear Daisy propose that they become detectives and find out who deliberately fired the cottage. Bets is upset that they don't intend to include her and for the first of many times the fat boy sticks up for her and suggests they all belong including Buster who may have the qualities of a bloodhound. He introduces himself as Frederick Algernon Trotteville and with those initials is immediately dubbed 'Fatty'. When Larry agrees to Fatty's proposal Bets names them 'The Five Find-Outers and Dog' to much mirth, but when Fatty proposes to take charge Larry tells him the others are not so stupid as to see what a 'very good opinion' he has of himself. Fatty is very much on trial.

Fatty has arrived with information. He is staying with his parents at the inn opposite Mr. Hick's house and on the afternoon of the fire saw an old tramp in Mr. Hick's garden. He has also heard, presumably from the customers at the inn that Mr. Hick is known locally for his bad-tempered attitude to people. Quite why the Trotteville's are staying at the inn is unclear. Fatty's parents — who don't actually appear in this story or the next one — go out every day to plat golf and leave Fatty alone, hence the boy's wish to join in with the others. Whether they are on holiday — the story is set in the Easter holidays — or waiting for a house to become available in Peterswood we are not presently told. At the start of the next book Enid tells us that Fatty's parents enjoyed their Easter stay in Peterswood so much that they then bought a house and much later on in the series when Fatty wants information on places in Peterswood he asks his mother as she has lived in Peterswood for many years. Perhaps we should assume that Mrs. Trotteville brought her husband and son back to see the village she grew up in.

After lunch the Find-Outers reconvene at Pip's house and gather in the Summerhouse at the top of the garden, which becomes their first headquarters. It has a loose board in the wall where they later keep their accumulated evidence. They establish their intentions and then go off to visit the crime scene. The reason for Bets' comparatively young age in relation to the others is explained as Enid uses her naivety to explain to her readers the meaning of detectives, insurance, finding clues and interviewing suspects. The latter are to include the tramp, Mrs. Minns the cook who helped the fire fighting by filling the pails of water, and Mr. Hick's manservant/valet who was sacked that day.

Mr. Hick's garden has been trampled but the children discover where someone has stamped down nettles in the perimeter ditch and forced their way through the hedge leaving clear footprints beyond. A scrap of grey cloth is also found by Fatty and he does an accurate drawing of one of the footprints. Unfortunately he boasts about this and annoys the others. In these early stories Enid portrays these habits of Fatty's as unprepossessing but in later books she almost makes them virtuous.

The four elder children interview Mrs. Minns and Thomas the chauffeur and Enid starts to have fun. We learn of a fourth suspect and elderly rival historian to Mr. Hick with the unlikely name of Mr. Smellie. Mr. Hick shouts from a window wielding a tea cup and is dubbed 'Hiccup'. Then Enid finds humour in rheumatism of all things. Mrs. Minns couldn't have fired the cottage as she was 'stuck' in her chair with rheumatism, and later Bets banished to walking Buster describes (with beautiful observation on Enid's part) how the dog 'walks stiffly... just as if he had had rheumatism' when the two of them discover the old tramp and Buster advances with hackles raised!

On a more serious note we learn that Lily the 16 year old kitchen maid defies her boss Mrs. Minns by sticking up for Horace Peeks the sacked valet despite receiving a scolding. She even asks the Find-Outers to post a letter to him warning him he's suspected of the crime. The Find-Outers seek out all their suspects to check their alibis and to try to find if any of them own a shoe to match the footprints they've found. On each occasion they encounter Clear Orf and Enid builds up his character. When they rush off after the tramp Bets and Buster find Goon appears on the scene and his anger manifests itself in his red face and heavy breathing. When he turns up in Mrs. Minns' kitchen we learn he has bulging pale blue eyes. The description is reiterated when the Find-Outers interview Horace Peeks whose own bulging pale blue eyes are described as being like Goon's!

Goon also get involved in events that almost become rituals throughout the series. Fatty's bruising fall from a hayrick distracts Goon from pursuing the suspect tramp. Cycling back from Peek's house, the Find-Outers crash into Goon and knock him off his bike and later Goon turns up at an awkward moment when Larry and Fatty try to return Mr. Smellie's shoe.

All their endeavours lead the Find-Outers to discover that three of their suspects were indeed in Mr. Hick's garden on the evening of the fire. The tramp was lurking to try and steal eggs from Mr. Hick's henhouse, Horace Peeks had returned with Lily, with whom he is secretly 'walking out' to collect all his things that he had left when he was hastily ejected from the premises by Mr. Hick, Mr. Smellie had slipped into the house to retrieve papers he had inadvertently left there through quarrelling with Mr. Hick. But there is no firm evidence linking any of them with the footprints or the scrap of grey cloth.

Stumped, the Find-Outers go off for a bike ride (where did Fatty get his?) and for the first time Enid takes them to a real place, Burnham Beeches. Bets is deemed too young to go and Fatty lets her walk Buster again. In typical Fatty style he promises to reward Bets with a bunch of primroses.

On this riverside walk Bets and Buster discover more impressions of the shoe the Find-Outers are seeking. Bets has already proved herself well placed to identify these footprints as she was the first to rule out a shoe of Mr. Smellie's as belonging to the culprit. Buster proves his bloodhound qualities when he successfully leads Bets along the footprint trail back to Mr. Hick's house where the pair are surprised by the house owner himself. Bets is so enthused by her discoveries that she confides all to Mr. Hick. Breaking his vow of silence to Bets, Mr. Hick informs Goon of the Find-Outers' activities and he in turn complains to their parents and they are banned from participating in further investigation.

Sent to apologise to Mr. Hick for 'interfering' in his affairs, all present are startled by the noise of a fleet of 'Tempest' aeroplanes flying low overhead. Mr. Hick unbends enough to enthuse over these saying he had seen seven of these flying over several days previously and after a quick tally that also proves to be the number flying past now. It is Fatty who realises that the previous occasion the Tempests appeared was the evening of the fire when Mr. Hick was reputedly on the London train.

Retreating to their favourite riverside walk the Find-Outers realise the implications of this. Their route takes them by the railway and they are just in time to see the London evening train, which stops near them for a few minutes before proceeding to the station. "It always stops there" says Bets revealing to the Find-Outers and their readers just how 'Old Hiccup' could have boarded the London train. Just then Buster appears having conveniently unearthed the pair of shoes they have been seeking for so long. Mr. Hick had buried them near his covert route linking his house and the railway line, and the Find-Outers' case is finally solved.

This is a very satisfactory conclusion to the investigation, but Enid has on this first and only occasion broken the golden rule of any whodunnit story. That is to place before the reader all the clues and evidence so that the reader has as much chance of solving the mystery as the fictional detectives whose exploits they have been following. The first knowledge the reader has of the Tempest aeroplanes is when they fly over Mr. Hick's house. There is no mention of them in the first chapter and it is a pity no-one was placed to point this out to Enid before publication. It would have taken just a few minutes for the opening paragraphs to be amended to mention that it was the sound of the Tempests passing overhead that first drew Larry to draw back his curtain, from where he duly spotted the fire. This may be a slight nit pick, but Enid never made that mistake again.

Of course that isn't quite the end of the story. The Find-Outers find themselves having solved the mystery, but unable to approach either their parents as Goon has complained or Goon himself as he would take the credit for all their discoveries. Luckily who should be silently fishing nearby overhearing their discussion but Inspector Jenks. There are a couple of interesting points here. The problem of who to take their findings to had been raised earlier in the story and Larry had already suggested going to see Inspector Jenks as he was known to his father. That was the first mention of the Inspector's name and in the following account of how the 'big fisherman' helps them to a satisfactory conclusion at Goon's police station the Inspector's surname is only mentioned one further time. Perhaps Enid was being a bit cagey as to whether the real Inspector would permit the use of a character's name that was similar to his own.

The other point is that when the Inspector's face first appears above the rim of the high riverbank it is described as 'a large round face'. The overall impression given throughout the series is that the Inspector has a tall sturdy appearance, not dissimilar to Bill Cunningham in the 'Adventure' series, yet the photo of the real Inspector — Stephen Jennings — which appears in The Story of My Life indeed reveals a large round face with a distinctive double chin!

As an aside there appears to be some discrepancy as to whether the real Inspector's name was Jennings or Jenkins. I have used the former because it is the name Barbara Stoney uses in Enid's biography, but I note Imogen Smallwood amongst others uses the latter, so perhaps readers of this article many supply the true answer.

Overall this was an excellently plotted debut tale of the Find-Outers and boded well for what was to follow. All the individual characters of the Find-Outers and Dog, Goon, Inspector Jenks and Pip's mother have been firmly established as has the modus operandi for solving a mystery.

Robert Houghton's Review
The first book of the fifteen is The Mystery of The Burnt Cottage and it is also one of the best of the series. Published in 1943, it is easy to see why her readers demanded a sequel, and another and another, as so often happened with the books that turned into series. It is an intriguing mystery revolving around an old professor's workroom, (not actually a cottage after all), which conveniently goes up in smoke while he is supposedly away on business. Enid introduces the characters straight away, starting with Pip and Bets, and then bringing in Larry and Daisy. Fatty, or Frederick, is not introduced until the end of the first chapter. I don't know if it was Enid's intention to make Fatty the main character at this point or not, but all the way through the book she clearly tries to force him into a supporting role, even making Larry the head of the Find-Outers in the first instance. Even in the second book, Larry is still named as the head, but by the third and fourth books it becomes clear that no-one but Fatty has ever really been the leader all along. Incidentally, it is Pip who first gives Fatty his nickname. On being told by the pompous fat boy that his name is Frederick Algernon Trotteville, Pip notes the initials; F.A.T. and a legend is born!!

Several ingredients of this first book were to become regular features of the series as a whole, although in this first mystery Fatty has no thoughts of disguises or any of the other tricks and talents he acquires later on. A tramp features quite heavily and assorted tramps, gypsies and all sorts of scruffy individuals were to crop up every now and then throughout the series. Also footprint clues and bits of cloth snagged on nails. 'Old Clear Orf' (P.C. Theophilus Goon, to give him his official title), features in a rather less exaggerated form in this mystery and is not yet QUITE the clown that he was later to become.

As in many of the books that were to follow, Bets spills out all their detective work to the professor and thus helps to solve the crime. The professor tells them not to meddle — to leave the detecting to the police and ushers them to the door. Just then, a fleet of aeroplanes flies past. The professor mentions that he saw them the other day, too, and with this statement the mystery is solved. The planes flew over on the day of the fire, proving that the professor wasn't in London as he'd told the police, but was in the locality — starting the fire himself for reasons of insurance. This in itself is quite an adult theme, and quite a surprising one to find in a book written for children. It is the book's main strength that the victim also turns out to be the villain. These illustrations are hidden by default to ensure faster browsing. Loading the illustrations is recommended for high-speed internet users only.