CARAVAN CREEK (1954)
1954 Blackie Press. Reprinted 1964 London: Peal Press; Abbey Rewards, date unknown.
Cover scan provided by Ash Rare Books.
"You'd think we were in a dangerous foreign country instead of in England, and a very quiet part of England at that,"said Judy, gazing at the martial figure of their aunt. Jennifer agreed. It might have been funny to see their relatives armed to the teeth, except that an attack had already taken place at the camp. As it was, they realized that the dangers, while the gold ornaments were at Caravan Creek, were very real indeed, and that the trouble in connection with the treasure was only just beginning.
Plucky twins Jennifer and Judy are frustrated when a planned family trip to Switzerland fails to materialize, but their spirits pick up once again when they receive an invitation to join their aunt and uncle on an archaelogical expedition. Soon Jay Squared (as the alliterative duo are called by their father) are travelling with Uncle Philip and Aunt Nona up to Thetford, crossing Norwich and ultimately bound for the northeast coast of Norfolk, to a spot known as Caravan Creek.
Uncle Philip believes that a Saxon ship, still housing many of its artifacts and ornaments, is to be found at this spot, and a little digging rewards the family by producing that very ship. News of the find spreads, and the site is soon plagued by all manner of journalists, historians, and photographers. Not all of the visitors are to be readily trusted, however, and the twins spend some exciting nights unmasking nocturnal figures who are up to no good.
Most shadowy of all is one Professor Mattino, a scholarly rival of the twins' uncle and a villain willing to do anything to lay hands on the ship's treasures. When a bag of artifacts is stolen from Judy and Jennifer while they try to hide it in the underground mines of Demons' Graves, they pursue the professor by car, and attempt "the Sherlock Holmes stunt" to retrieve the stolen goods. Another car chase ensues, while at camp the twins' relatives contend with fire, threats, and an entrenched shoot-out. After a bumpy ride and a few close calls, the family is reunited once again, leaving Uncle Philip with the glory of discovering the Saxon ship, and giving the team of Jay Squared truly something to write home about. (Take that, Switzerland!)
Having produced nine "novels for boys" and "novels for girls" (Caravan Creek falls into the latter category) over several years, the question is not so much what inspired Gladys Mitchell to turn her attention to children's stories, but, rather, what sparked the career schoolteacher into writing more than seventy murder mystery books for adults. Creek proves that Mitchell can craft a story with adventure and suspense for her intended audience without injecting the more gruesome appearance of a dead body, or indeed death in any form. It's noteworthy that Mitchell's chapter titles here could fit right in to a Mrs. Bradley book with ease: "Demons' Graves," "Visitors by Night," and "Reporters -- and Others" are a few examples. The prose is simplified somewhat (no poetic allusions between characters, and very little of Mitchell's playful prose and dialogue as found in adult titles like Laurels Are Poison and Tom Brown's Body) and the twin protagonists possess a rather rote "we're in a frightful jam" demeanor, despite their many successful actions. The fault -- which really isn't a fault at all -- lay in the fact that this is a children's book, wherein the outcome (and safety of all of the "good guys") is never, ever in doubt, diminishing the suspense for a reader aged above 15 years. But I reiterate: this is a children's book, written for a much younger person than myself.
And, in today's Harry Potter-zapped times, is there an audience of any age waiting out there for the likes of Caravan Creek? Unfortunately, it's probably of the same low ratio as that of Gladys Mitchell-to-Jo Rowling readers, or any contemporary author with name recognition and cultural cachet in Rowling's place. To its credit, though, Creek offers up a pleasantly nostalgic -- and, typically for Mitchell, a very localized British -- adventure on the Norfolk coastline, and the author's interests in landscape, history, and propulsive storytelling are all evident here.