The Deeping Secrets by Victor Watson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Five children on a war-time spy hunt.
Serendipity is pulling a book at random off the library shelf and finding that it is a really enjoyable read -- "unputdownable", as the hack reviewers like to say to get their reviews quoted in the blurb. In this case, I saw the word "Deeping" in the title, wondered what it was about, read the blurb, and then found it hard to put down until I had finished the book.
It seems that when you mention stories of kids having adventures what comes to most people's minds is the Famous Five by Enid Blyton. Well this one could not be the Infamous Five, but possibly the Obscure Five. Five kids start their school holidays in the middle of a wartime spy scare, and exciting adventures follow.
It actually made me think less of the Famous Five (which I didn't read much as a kid anyway) than of the "William" books of Richmal Crompton. Those were a series of short stories with the same characters rather than novels, but they did take place in war time, and William did occasionally take part in spy hunts, though William's chief suspect would usually turn out to be quite innocent in a case of mistaken identity.
In The Deeping Secrets five children, Molly, Abigail, Joe, Edward and Adam, are rather fed up with the war, which spoils their school holidays with blackout regulations, rationing and the like, but then are faced with a spy and would-be saboteur.
I read the "William" books when i was about 10, and found myself almost wishing that it could be war time -- with all the excitement in life caused by suspected spies and fifth-columnists and quislings. And I learnt such terms from those books. But when I tried, nostalgically, to re-read the "William" books as an adult, I was impressed with two things: (1) the vocabulary was pretty sophisticated for children the same age as the child characters in the books, and (2), the child characters in the books were seen through adult eyes -- they did the things that adults find amusing when kids do them, and so they were condescending in the bad sense, laughing at the things that children did rather than at the things that children find amusing.
The Deeping Secrets does not have these faults. It really is a children's book, written from the point of view of children. And in style, characters and plot it is way ahead of the Famous Five books, whose fame, it seems to me, is quite undeserved. The point of these comparisons is that the fame of some well-known children's adventure stories is largely undeserved, and this one is one of those that deserves to be better known.
Another thing that I found interesting about the book was that it is set in the year that I was born, and the denouement came two days before I was born, on Good Friday 1941. And that got me wondering about the genre of historical novels. At what point does a novel become historical? I've written children's books that are set in a period 23 years later, in 1964 (you can see them in the side-bar on the right), which would make them ancient history to any children who read them today, but for me is within living memory. So could one define a historical novel as something written about a period before the author was born, or before anyone now living was born, or as something else?
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