There’s no getting away from it, for decades now The Gay Dolphin Adventure, the third Lone Pine Club book, has been saddled with an unfortunate title. There are no dolphins in this story: rather the title comes from the eponymous hotel in Rye, in West Sussex, where the Lone Piners search for and find, not for the last time, buried treasure. And both book and hotel use the word in its original meaning, cheerful, light-hearted, happy, and in a time when the word was still actively used thus, albeit when it was about to start becoming archaic.
There are Malcolm Saville fans who will be furious at the very thing being brought up, but we have to acknowledge that if The Gay Dolphin Adventure were to be offered to children of the Twenty-First Century, they would form an instant impression of what they were about to read that bears no resemblance to the actuality.
Saville uses the book to introduce both two new characters and a new, but still real setting. The book is about cousins Jon and Penny Warrender, and the hotel is in Rye, one of the Cinque Ports, once a pivotal smugglers’ haunt but now a desperate financial gamble for a woman forced to look after not merely herself but two teenage children.
For a long time, you wouldn’t know this was a Lone Pine book without being told: the story is almost a hundred pages in before the first Lone Piner appears, and even then it’s a knowingly anonymous appearance by Macbeth: a small black Scottish Terrier sat in an archway, signalling that the Mortons are about, and that they’ll more than likely be meeting these two newcomers very soon.
Jonathon and Penelope, to be formal, are as I said cousins. Jon, tall, fair-haired, intellectual, permanently disheveled in appearance, is nearly sixteen, whilst Penny, short and slim, with red curls and freckles and the volatile temperament of the classic redhead, is fifteen, at a guess six months younger than her cousin. We meet them at Charing Cross Station, on their way to Rye and the Dolphin for the first time, anticipated an adventure to occupy the September fortnight before they return to their respective boarding schools.
Penny is the more complex and realised of the two, which seems to be the case with the Lone Pine girls. Like Peter and Jenny before her, she’s another lonely girl, though she hides it better. For years, her parents have lived and worked in India, and her Aunt, Jon’s mother, has been basically a mother to her, and Jon the only other person in her world. She’s passionate, talkative, prey to emotions, where Jon is more considered, logical and stable, not only because it is his natural temperament, but also because he unconsciously understands that he has to balance out this cousin, who has been much more of a sister to him.
It’s 1945 and the War is over, but it’s effects have not yet done with overwhelming people’s lives. I said, in relation to Tom Ingles, that I don’t recall Saville ever openly acknowledging the death of his family, but there is no such reticence here. Jon’s father was killed on active service, in the Normandy Landings: that is made plain, in words of complete simplicity that any child can understand, and any adult applaud. Mrs Warrender has soon after inherited the Dolphin from an elderly Uncle, and moved to Rye to try to make it a success, about which Saville comments that, “…it would never have happened if Dad had come safely home from Normandy, but he had not returned and they had a medal instead.”
It’s a situation that many a boy or girl, reading this book in those years, would have known for themselves, and we have already had it made plain to us, again with simplicity but with a direct impact, that the Dolphin must be a success, and that if, as rumoured, a smugglers’ treasure goes with the place, it desperately needs to be found.
Hidden treasure. A gang of crooks out to get it for themselves. Secret passages. Saville blatantly borrows from Blyton’s Famous Five in this book, and in one way or another, the formula will prevail for the remainder of the books. And the crooks themselves will reappear, again and again. But this is not a Famous Five book, and though the framework being built here might be a bit obdurate and repetitive, Saville brings things to his stories that Blyton does not.
The villains are, however, predictably unpleasant. There are three of them, firstly Miss Ballinger, a stout woman with grey hair cut mannishly, with thick glasses, an artist who seemingly accidentally encounters the Warrenders at Charing Cross, a genuinely gifted artist who, despite her boorishness on the platform, is decent, friendly and even charming to Jon and Penny. But then she wants something out of them.
Next, there is ‘Slinky’ Grandon. He’s actually the Dolphin’s manager, a holdover from Uncle Charles. He’s impeccably neat, always dressed in beautiful suits, with hair slicked back by scented oils and a pencil-thin moustache. Were we taking ‘Gay’ in a non-contemporary context, we might be suspicious of him, but this being the Forties, he is a suspicious, and ultimately weak character by dint of being ‘not-English’. He’s not supposed to know the Ballinger, but he’s her plant inside the hotel.
Lastly, there’s Valerie, though she plays by far the minor role in the story. An attractive blonde, aged about twenty, she’s ostensibly the Ballinger’s niece, and certainly her go-between to Grandon. Penny hates her instantly, but that’s down to Valerie’s first appearance coming as an attempt to bribe Jon to hand over the secret papers that conceal the treasure’s whereabouts: Penny the redhead sees Jon’s attention to the older, and decidedly sexual girl, as a threat: she has a proprietress’s attitude to her cousin and accuses him of goggling (which he probably did, but not as much as Penny thinks).
But where Blyton’s settings were generic country, Saville placed his characters in real places, that could be visited and explored by his readers, but which, in the short term, he can write about with evident love and involvement. Jon and Penny and the reader make a long, detailed, almost lyrical approach from Hastings to Rye, via Winchelsea, in order to summon up the scene in the kind of detail that makes the reader fall in love with it as much as the characters.
Of course, some of it is scene-setting, for the natural disaster that forms the book’s climax, but if anything Saville comes across more in love with Rye, and the edges of Romney March, and the land reclaimed from the sea, and the little marooned ports on their miniature hills than he does Shropshire!
The hunt for the treasure, given such a personal twist by Mrs Warrender’s evident need for it, is founded on an old box of old papers, left to Jon by his Great-Uncle Charles, along with a letter that is, indirectly, a death-bed message, from a man Jon never met. He and Penny are quick to solve the hidden clues, not that they can go any further with them, until, that is, an unfair extra clue turns up right at the end.
Instead, first alone and then with the aid of the more professional Mortons, the Warrenders spend far more time trying to find out what the Ballinger’s crew already know, and keeping them from getting hold of the papers.
Yes, the Mortons. This is a Lone Pine Club book and, halfway through, they finally arrive on the scene. Untypically, they arrive via the back door.
It’s hardly surprising that the Mortons, including Mr Morton, are the Gay Dolphin’s first guests (they haven’t been able to make Shropshire this year for some unspecified reason). The Warrenders aren’t supposed to interact with the guests, but the first meeting takes place in their sleep: Jon and Penny fall asleep atop of Camber Castle and are woken by David Morton, climbing up unaware there are already others there, and inviting them to watch the show: the Twins have encountered Miss Ballinger, out painting, and are being exceedingly twinnish with her, to great and amusing effect.
The ice being thusly broken, the Warrenders decide to bring the Mortons in on their treasure hunt, and invite them up to their Smugglers Room under the eaves. The first thing they see is the Ballinger’s face! This leads to the discovery of a secret passage, all the way down to the edge of the Marsh.
But this is the limit of what the children can realistically do, except use their expanded forces to watch Ballinger and Grandon for their next move. Which is, straightforwardly, to firstly try to bribe the obviously ignorant children into handing over those papers that have not already been stolen and, when this fails, take Penny and the Twins hostage for the delivery of the papers.
All this takes place on the edge of a burgeoning natural disaster. Ballinger’s bungalow at Winchelsea beach is on reclaimed land, below sea level, protected by an artificial bank that is threatened with breach in the forthcoming storm. Ballinger pushes the genuine threat away until the Lone Piners’ defiance reaches a critical mass: she, Grandon and Valerie abandon the children, locked in the bungalow, to the sea that has breached the seawall.
Ballinger and Grandon just abandon the children and flee the area, unfulfilled, though Valerie does show a spark of decency, throwing a stone to break the window and tossing in the doorkey so that the kids can get out in time. They take refuge on high ground, though they’re stuck out there all night, whilst emergency attention is paid to the breach and repairing it.
Once they’re rescued, taken back to the Dolphin and slept it off, Jon and Penny take the decision to explain their treasure hunting to the grown-ups. And this, once a further, previously overlooked clue, is found, leads directly to success. The storm has played a crucial part: an old tree, around which a wall has been built, has been blown down, and in its roots the treasure is found, by Jon and Penny, the latter of whom is allowed to take it up: a diamond necklace.
So all is well, and there is even a letter from Peter (who could have been here had she been prepared to forsake her loyalty to her father) effectively giving the rest of the Club’s blessings to the Warrenders being added to the Club roster. I mean, we’ve known that was coming practically since the first page, but the confirmation is worth having.
Thus ends the first Lone Pine Club adventure outside of Shropshire, and taking no harm from the change of scene. Nevertheless, the main significance of The Gay Dolphin Adventure is that it is the beginning of the formula. From here onwards, there will be a certain sameness about the Lone Pine series, with the children, wherever they go, running into the criminal and the unpleasant. Kidnappings and imprisonments will become the order of the day, and the threat of real danger from natural forces will become a regular event.
As we will see in the next book.