After seven books set in either Shropshire or Rye, it must have come as something of a surprise to Malcolm Saville’s fans to find the Lone Piners suddenly despatched elsewhere. After opening in Rye, Saucers over the Moor, a very contemporary story, takes our gang to Dartmoor.
Indeed, it’s the beginning of a peripatetic phase in the series because, although Saville returns to Shropshire twice in the run of six books beginning with Saucers, the Lone Piners suddenly start ranging far and wide, to areas that, with the exception of Dartmoor, they visit only once.
Saucers over the Moor was published in 1955, at the height of the early UFO craze. It’s a rare, unrepeated dip by Saville into the world of Science Fiction, since the saucers of the title do actually exist in his story, but the subject itself would have been at the forefront of his readers’ minds when they received this story. The year before this book appeared, a report of a UFO sighting on Coniston Old Man in the Lake District was made by a seemingly reputable schoolboy, who may have gone on to read this book when it was published.
Because of the Flying Saucer theme, and Jon’s obsession with it, this book is perhaps more firmly tied to its times than any other but Mystery at Witchend, so much so that, in the Foreword to the revised Armada edition, Saville all but apologises for having written about something that, twenty years later, would have meant little to a modern audience. But the book is a good picture of the times: Jon is full of assertions that flying saucers are real, and that everyone of any intelligence or sense knows this, whilst Peter – escaping from Shropshire for the first time – is to her roots the country girl, attuned to the land and things of it, and instinctively hates and fears such things and wants not to come near them in any way.
On the other hand, the Flying Saucer theme does damage the story in the long run. At the book’s climax, the Lone Piners are told that, the following day, it will be publicly announced that Flying Saucers exist and that Britain has built them. No such announcement came, not in this world nor in that of our group of friends, and it’s a major mistake of Saville’s to have gotten so carried away.
Just as it’s similarly a mistake to bring the story he has plotted into a children’s book. Secret research stations, spies, national security, attacks by mercenaries and defence by soldiers: these are things that the teenagers cannot be brought into and cannot have more than the merest influence over, though the Lone Piners do their best. The ending has to be removed from sight, and explained to everyone, and I don’t think that is very good for an audience that wants to get involved to the last.
In its other aspects, the book is a success. It begins, as always, with Penny coming back to the home she loves in Rye, being met by her Aunt Margaret (a first name, at last) with Jon due at tea-time. But, more importantly, letters are awaiting from her parents. Three years after she last saw them (an interval introduced in The Elusive Grasshopper, though in The Gay Dolphin Adventure, Saville hinted at a vague but longer period), they are returning to England for six months.
And there are letters awaiting about secret plans. The other Warrenders love wild, lonely country, particularly down west, so they have rented a big, isolated house on Dartmoor for six months, providing fishing for him and sketching for her, and enough room for their daughter to invite not just her cousin but as many of her other friends as can get down from Shropshire and other parts.
But of course Jon and Penny start the hares off themselves when it’s their turn to host Lone Pine adventures, and that comes that first night back in Rye, when Mrs Warrender takes them out for a moonlight stroll round the town and to Jon’s thrill and the others’ consternation, they see a Flying Saucer.
The saucer is also seen by someone they believe is a guest at the Hotel, a man named Green, who is a birdwatcher. Now I am sure that there are people in the Lone Pine Universe who do genuinely watch birds for the enjoyment of it, but by this point readers have been conditioned to suspect every birdwatcher they encounter and Mr Green is no exception.
And why is he being so arsey about his injured hand?
Wisely, Saville avoids the actual reunion between Penny and her missing parents, jumping ahead a week, to the day they’re due to set off to Dartmoor, and leaving it all to a very brief memory from our favourite redhead that misses out the emotionalism we all expect from her. The plan is to collect the Mortons en route, from Exeter station, with the twins joining the Warrender car and David waiting to escort Peter from her later train.
Before we actually get to this point, we are introduced to Dan Sturt. Dan, who is only a couple of years older than the oldest Lone Piners, is a very junior reporter on a Plymouth based newspaper. He lives with his mother, who runs a cafe called The Moorland Pixie (ouch) in Princeton, home to the infamous Prison, and the crossing point of the only north-south and east-west roads across the Moor. Dan is after a story to prove himself: he too has seen a Flying Saucer.
And the expected crossing of paths occurs when Peter discovers that the faulty bike she has hired has been stolen from its resting place by the bridge, by Dan, who desperately needed to follow a lead that turns out to be Mr Green.
I don’t want to go too deeply into the story for once. It is only loosely attached to what is really going on, and is mostly peripheral. What Dan explains to the Lone Piners, who he meets the following day, is that there is a secret research station known to be concealed on the Moor, up beyond the source of the Swincombe Brook. This is where the Flying Saucers are being developed, as is openly admitted by the end, and Green is being used by enemy agents to watch the Moor as they prepare an attack by helicopter.
The Twins are set onto Green, together with a mysterious and supercilious visitor who is his Chief, and they produce one of their patented performances under the watchful eyes and cheers of David and Peter. They’ve already discovered that Donaldson, the ex-Navy man who has been installed at King’s Holt as general housekeeper, cook and factotum for the Warrenders and their party, goes out onto the Moor at night, and he’s caught on the phone making a dramatic reference to ‘564’.
So who’s on whose side? The Lone Piners split up. David and Jon, in a rare display of Fifties conservatism, hike up Swincombe Brook to see if they can find the Research Station beyond the bog at the source of the Brook. Penny takes Mary to Hexworthy to track Mr Green’s movements, and Penny and Dickie stay at King’s Holt to watch Donaldson (the Warrender parents have, conveniently, gone off into Cornwall for a few days alone).
Splitting the Twins up doesn’t prevent the traditional, and on this occasion rather perfunctory kidnapping. Green tries to persuade Peter and Mary into his car but the former very sensibly refuses. They then phone Penny at King’s Holt, who sends Dickie to the main road to watch for Green passing, but he, in a completely idiotic move that casts real doubt on the advisability of including him in any adventures, gets into Green’s car, thinking he can track him and that Green can’t do anything to him anyway: Hello? How many times have you been tied up before now?
But everything now is subordinated to the big boy’s adventure in a way that contradicts Saville’s approach to date of treating the whole club as equals. David and Jon make their way upstream a considerable distance, until a helicopter appears overhead. This is an enemy, and it produces a man from a hole in the rocks, who takes photos of it, before he falls into the ravine, busting his ankle.
This man will turn out to be a British agent, 564, on guard against attacks on the Research Station. David and Jon chase off the helicopter, from which a man has started to descend on a rope ladder. 564 is desperate that neither he, nor especially his camera, are captured by the helicopter gang, and David and Jon struggle him back to King’s Holt, passing a beaten Green on the way and hooking up with the girls and the Twins, who have recovered Dickie painlessly. (This has not only been the most ridiculous kidnapping to date but the most ineffectual one).
The problem is that, as soon as everyone get 564 back, Donaldson locks them in. By cutting up the curtains to form a rope, Penny gets down to ground level, just in time to confront a frantic Green, on the run from soldiers and demanding her help. She’s defiant, but the candlestick she tries to belt him with is too heavy, and when she slips and falls, hurting her back and screaming, Jon comes charging downstairs and smites Green with a perfect uppercut. Aww.
It’s all over bar the shouting, and a fighter pane shooting down at least one helicopter as the attack is foiled, but that’s a long way away from King’s Holt. Donaldson mops up with explanations, which basically confirm everything the Club has guessed, and Dan gets his story (subject to Secret Service vetting, naturally…). And there you go.
Speaking with my pre-teen head on, it’s pretty exciting, but from the wider perspective of the years, Saucers over the Moor offers a most unsatisfactory end, because the subject matter is just so far above anything that teenage children can deal with. Once you start getting helicopter attacks and soldiers, and mercenaries spreading over Dartmoor, your heroes become completely ineffectual, and that doesn’t work.