THE MALORY SECRET (1950)
1950 Evans Brothers.
Pam, who did not want to be tied to the houseboat for a whole week, was glad to know that life was going to be gay. She took Glenda off to bed, and others soon followed. The divisions between the cabins were light and thin, so that the four girls were able to communicate with one another without having to raise their voices much, and by ten o'clock everybody was in bed and conversation was in full swing.
It gradually died away, however, and by eleven o'clock there were only two people awake aboard the houseboat. One was Glenda, who was too excited to sleep, and the other was a gentleman in a black mask who had just crept on board as though unsure of his welcome.
Along with a high desire for adventure, a passion for tennis quickly bonds four girls to each other. Teammates Carol and Olive befriend Pam Stewart, their tournament rival, and Carol invites her to spend the school holiday with them at her family’s Tudor mansion. Pam’s sidekick and junior Glenda Welland is also invited, much to the younger girl’s ecstatic delight. Between matches, the quartet thoroughly investigate the treasures of the Adams house, including hidden passages, priest-holes, and a rare Thomas Malory manuscript owned by Carol’s father. After overhearing a conversation of sinister bent, Pam grows concerned that some of the houseguests may be plotting to steal the precious document.
Summer vacation finds the friends reunited once more, with Pam still wary that the manuscript is in danger. Upon Pam’s urging to ensure the papers are genuine, Mr. Adams calls upon the opinion of Sir Selim Cortez — who promptly identifies them as forgeries. Disheartened, Mr. Adams bequeaths the manuscript to Pam, which turns out to be a good decision: the resourceful young lady must use her wits to keep ahead of the thieves, who ruthlessly chase after the “useless” papers. Pam and the girls manage to enjoy all aspects of their holiday — including river boating, sight seeing, a formal ball, and, of course, a tennis tourney — while keeping the valuable Malory script safe and unmasking the scheming villains in the process.
The Malory Secret strikes me as perhaps the most successfully balanced of all Gladys Mitchell’s adventure stories for teens. Though it follows a steady formula every step of the way, this tale navigates its path from agreeable travelogue to compelling action-danger to mystery problem-solving to female bonding moments with admirable fluency. It’s still like reading a British Nancy Drew adventure, but it’s a solid and respectable, if not particularly surprising, adventure at that.
Visiting Gladys Mitchell’s tales of teenage heroes and their efforts to thwart a rogues’ gallery of lesser criminals, I often think about her intended audience: a demographic of another age, another era, with different values and interests than today’s teen readers possess. One point that delights me is Miss Mitchell’s refusal to elaborate historical and technical details: in this book, such knowledge of Thomas Malory’s literary standing and his Arthurian subject matter is assumed. Most likely, school-mistress Mitchell’s assumption that her young readers had already been taught this information was reasonable and most likely true. As for contemporary readers…not so much.
I was also pleasantly surprised that a couple of Secret’s sequences manage to generate an admirable amount of suspense. Owing to the genre and the story’s tone, the girls can’t be placed in mortal peril. And yet the staging of moments — such as a kidnapping, an intruder on the houseboat, and a manor house siege with the heroines inside and the enemy not afraid to use fire and force — offers a nice amount of tension to keep the reader intrigued. Perhaps due to this, The Malory Secret holds an interesting distinction: it was the only Gladys Mitchell book to be adapted to the screen within the author’s lifetime. (BBC Television aired a 30-minute programme based on the story in 1951, a year after publication.) In terms of dramatic action, The Malory Secret proves to be a wise candidate for adaptation.