Mystery at Witchend (by Malcolm Saville)

Every so often, I need a dose of ultra-light reading. So I turn to my childhood/teenage favourites. One of the authors I really enjoyed in my teens was Malcolm Saville. I'm not entirely sure why, since his genre was mainly adventure/mystery fiction, and that's not really my preference in books - however his characters are very realistic, and there's a lot of human interest in them.

My favourite books of all by Saville were the 'Lone Pine' series, which I believe ran to twenty books. I discovered them when I was about eleven or twelve, and gradually built up a collection. They were first written many years previously, the earlier ones during the second world war, but in the 1970s were re-published by Armada, although unfortunately somewhat abridged.

I read one or two at a time until I had the whole collection, then read them right through in about 1974, deciding I would repeat this every ten years... I read them again in about 1986, when I was in my mid-twenties, shortly before my first son was born. I wondered, then, if I would actually want to read teenage adventure fiction by the time I reached the grand old age of 35...

Time rushed by, but the books came with us to Cyprus, and at last I decided I would, over the next few months, read them again. So I started with 'Mystery in Witchend'.

This book introduces the main characters who grow up - albeit very slowly! - in the rest of the series. David is about 15, and his twin brother and sister, Dickie and Mary, are nine. They have a scottie dog called MacBeth. In this book they meet Peter - short for Petronella - whose lives not far away by a reservoir, and Tom, the nephew of a farmer, who would really rather be in the city.

It's set during the war years, when mothers and children did go into the countryside, while fathers went off to war. The countryside setting is real - the Long Mynd mountains in Shropshire - although the homes and farms mentioned are not. Most important from my perspective are the characters, who are made realistic right from the start. David is a responsible young man, though not very confident. Peter is more confident in herself, but often lonely.

The twins are delightful - loyal, and generous, although sometimes very cheeky, and Tom is a bluff young man who feels slightly too grown-up to play with the others - yet involves himself immediately in the club they set up, and the adventures that crop up.

This story is about what happens when the children explore their neighbourhood, coming across various other people, some of whom are rather suspicious - and end up uncovering a most unpleasant plot. It's hard to imagine today's children being quite so free to roam at will, but David and the twins' mother is very relaxed and uninquisitive, and they all care about each other deeply. Other than the lack of any modern technology, the books don't seem particularly dated at all.

It only took me a couple of hours to read - unfortunately my edition is the Armada abridged one, although the story still works well, so I don't suppose a whole lot was cut out. The writing is crisp and clear, even if there are rather more descriptions than I'm happy with, and the conversations enjoyable.

The plot is exciting, and while it might seem tame to today's teenagers, raised on violence and sci-fi, it would probably appeal to boys and girls who enjoy older books of this sort. My sons read the Lone Pine series when they were in their early teens, and mostly enjoyed them.

I'm very pleased to see that a new facsimile edition of the original has been brought out in the UK - the link at the top is to that - so 'Mystery at Witchend' is in print once more.

I wonder if I shall want to re-read these books again when I approach sixty ...!


Martin Nicholson said...

I am currently re-reading the Lone Pine series - at the grand old age of 53.

Balinghasay said...

I re read mine every 4-5 years ; or when I feel the 'need' for some comfort-reading (like comfort food)!

I'm 43 and re-reading again right now..into 7 white gates.