And Then I Read: MYSTERY MANOR by M.E. Atkinson

There is a sub-genre of novels written for children mainly in the 1920s through 1960s that I’ve long enjoyed. No magic or fantasy involved. Some call it “British Holiday Adventures,” though “British Family Adventures” would work as well. The general premise is a small group of children, usually from one family, sometimes with a few friends, who are on break from school and free to roam with little or no adult supervision, and who have adventures including visiting unusual places, solving non-murder mysteries, and taking part in exotic (to them) activities in the area of the story. The best of these, in my opinion, are the series of twelve books written by Arthur Ransome beginning with “Swallows and Amazons.” At the bottom end would be several series of books that follow an obvious, repetitious formula written by Enid Blyton. This genre may have been started by Edith Nesbit’s books about the Bastable family beginning with “The Story of the Treasure Seekers” in 1899. Other authors in this genre I enjoy are Winifred Mantle, David Severn, Philip Turner, Hull & Whitlock (the Oxus trilogy) and M. E. Atkinson.

Unlike the others on that list, I never found any Atkinson books when I was a child, I don’t think they were published here much if at all, but in my twenties I began finding them at used book sales, and later buying them online. Atkinson’s longest and best known series is about the Lockett family, 14 books in all. Mystery Manor is the fourth of the series.

The early Lockett stories are illustrated by Harold Jones, a fine artist and author himself. The endpaper map for this book is a good example of his style, and books with maps are usually an indication of a fun story. The Lockett children are older brother Oliver (the bookish one), sister Jane (the idea person), and younger brother Bill (the strongest, action-loving one). They are joined by several friends, including Anna, a quiet girl who is nonetheless fearless in the face of danger.

“Mystery Manor” returns the group to Wilbrow Manor, which appeared as a sort of haunted house in their first story (“August Adventure”), but now they are staying in the carriage house as guests of the owner, in the care mainly of the house- and grounds-keepers. The Locketts’ parents live in India, and the children are shuttled around between various aunts and uncles. Here, Aunt Margaret is meant to be with them, but is mostly away helping another aunt during a hospital stay, leaving the children conveniently on their own a lot. One interesting thing about the series is that it becomes metafiction because Aunt Margaret is an author who, with the children’s help and stories, writes about their adventures, and is the “author” of the Lockett books. In the books themselves, they meet others who have bought and read their books, and know about some of their past adventures. By the end of the series this becomes cumbersome, but early on it’s an interesting aspect.

Wilbrow Manor is reported to be haunted, something the children experienced themselves in their first book, but now its new owner is having it renovated and restored to be lived in when he returns from other business. The Locketts decide they must try to find out about and hopefully dispell the haunting, whatever it might be, and they are soon learning much about the history of the house and the family that long owned it. The last remaining member of the family lives alone nearby, and an odd character he is. The Locketts are soon following him, meeting him, and learning secrets about the house and grounds that have eluded previous investigations.

This is a long and satisfying read if you like the genre. The Locketts are upper middle class, and some of their friends are definitely upper class. When not on their bikes, they are chauffered around, often stop for meals like “elevenses” and “tea,” and rarely encounter serious threats from those they meet, but there is plenty of suspense as they creep around the empty house at night, find mysterious underground passages and suspicious characters, and get involved with the local families and children. Several mysteries unfold, every character has their moment to shine, and the plot is not predictable until near the end. Books such as this are like comfort food for the mind to me, and I enjoyed this one a great deal. There’s just one more Lockett book I haven’t read, the last, and it’s on my “to read” shelf.

Recommended.

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