Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Mystery Mine

(This is a revised version of the original essay, based on the full, First edition text, not the edited Second edition produced in 1969 for Armada, and upon second thoughts.)

Mystery Mine is the one Lone Pine Club book I have read only as an adult, and to which I only have an adult’s responses. Though the story prominently features Harriet Sparrow once again, and she is again a wonderful addition to the Club, even though she is still not yet an official member, ultimately, I found myself disappointed with the book.
The story brings back old adversaries in the form of the ‘Doctor’ and John Robens (here calling himself Charles Warner) of The Neglected Mountain, which sits awkwardly, since Saville does nothing to bridge the inconsistency between the ending of that book, which Robens breaking with his older companion and going willingly with the Police, and what is, for all intents and purposes, the identical set-up here.
This is made especially incongruous by the ending which is, essentially, a repeat of The Neglected Mountain, with Robens/Warner reaching a point where, with children in danger, he refuses to carry on, and surrenders himself to the Police, intent on turning Queen’s Evidence.
Once again, we’re in a new part of the country, in this case, the North Yorkshire Moors, above Whitby. The Warrenders are visiting the Mortons at Brownlow Square, but David and Jon want to go off on their own, hiking. Harriet’s Grandad is now revealed as a Yorkshireman with a desire to retire to his native county and own a piece of it: he has agreed to swap shops with a Mr Venton of Spaunton. They are going up for a month’s trial and he invites the Twins to accompany Harriet.
So the boys head for Spaunton, arriving in a sea-roke (i.e. a mist), that sees them pass the mine-shaft on Sparrow’s land. Implausible though it may seem to us now (and I had to look this up, in disbelief), the story was written at a time when the Government was genuinely supporting a push to identify deposits of uranium in Britain, and of course there’s a rich vein in Sparrow’s mine.
So the ‘Doctor’s scheme is for Robens/Warner to identify the sites and negotiate purchase of the land, enabling the ‘Doctor’ to profit by resale to the Government. The drawback is that Mr Sparrow isn’t interested in the money and won’t sell.
The Lone Piners have to work out what all this interest in the land is about, whilst racking their brains over where they have previously seen Robens. This is convincingly delayed as he has regrown the beard he wore at the start of The Neglected Mountain, though once Peter and Penny are brought over from Shropshire, the former recognises him on the spot.
Though Penny gets herself briefly kidnapped, as a diversion that has more significance for the relationship between the two Warrender cousins, the plot itself develops via the kidnapping of Harriet, with Mary in tow, as a clumsy and completely ineffectual means of compelling her Grandpa to sell. Once again, Robens turns on the older man when the welfare of children becomes an issue, and all’s well again once the Police turn up.
As plots go, it’s lacking in invention, and owes too much to the Lone Pine formula that by now is tying Saville’s hands. A change is coming that will transform the series, and in this book, and the ones before it and after it, I’m starting to sense Saville himself growing frustrated at the limitations put upon him by his contented audience, especially with regard to no-one getting older.
This latter point is noticeable with regard to the two pairs involved, Peter and David, Penny and Jon, but it is dealt with in completely opposite fashions. I have put the girl first in each pair, because Saville gives each of them a raw deal, especially Penny.
Penny is invited to Brownlow Square for a holiday. Within a couple of hours of her arrival, and behind her back, her cousin and her friend decide to go off on their own, and abandon her. It’s an awful piece of rudeness, and the volatile Penny is the one Lone Piner who will feel this the most.
What’s worse is that nobody, not even Mrs Morton, seems to think there is anything wrong about this. It’s regarded as perfectly natural for the boys to want to test themselves with a long-distance hike, and in isolation, it is. By all means, invite Jon on his own to do this, but don’t drag Penny to London as well and abandon her the moment she arrives.
But Saville seems to think there is nothing wrong with this behaviour, notwithstanding that it’s deliberately against the Lone Piner’s oath. Penny, after a couple of days with Mrs Morton, makes the best of it by going on to Hatchholt to stay with Peter, who has been similarly slighted. She arrives still pissed off, but within twenty-four hours, David calls to summon both of them and the girls meekly trot off to North Yorkshire, where Penny’s righteous grievance is quickly written off as her not being able to stay angry at Jon for more than a couple of days.
What’s worse is the Warrender’s solo adventure. Jon has sussed out the uranium connection but, rather childishly, is refusing to state his suspicions until he checks it out at Whitby Library. Penny goes with him for the ride, even though he’s at his most condescending, saying he hasn’t seen much of her recently.

Whilst he’s in the Library, Penny sees Robens and follows him to his lodgings, where she’s captured and bullied by the ‘Doctor’. By the time she’s released, it’s long past the time she was due to meet Jon, and the pair and tearing round Whitby looking for each other. When she finally finds him, his first response is to unleash a horribly chauvinist attack on her, berating her as an empty-headed idiot. There’s not a moment in that attack where he gives the slightest impression that there may have been a reason for her absence.
Penny, in hurt fury, retaliates by direct reference to what she has gone through. It’s tempered by the fact that, in her searching for Jon, her need for his reassurance, she has begun to perceive that she no longer sees him as a substitute-brother but as something more, and her justifiable tirade is stopped short by the realisation that Jon’s anger is born not of rage but of fear for her.
It marks a distinct turning point in the relationship of the two Warrenders, but the overall effect is that the boy gets away with everything and the girl folds up and accepts it, passively.
Peter is equally passive. She’s not as directly affected by the boy’s hiking party as she’s at Hatchholt, and David has already said it’s unlikely the Mortons senior can go to Shropshire until the summer. She’s happy at Penny’s company, and she’s also happy at two pages of a letter David has sent her that she doesn’t read to Penny, but once she gets to North Yorkshire, she’s far from the Peter we have known to date.
From her first appearance, Peter has been straightforward, forthright and active. She speaks her mind, isn’t prepared to let things slide, and turns out in jodhpurs. But in Mystery Mine, all that’s gone. She’s changed her hairstyle again, undoing the plaits and wearing it in a bun (a sixteen year old girl in the late Fifties? Seriously?) She’s wearing a cotton skirt for walking around the Moors.
And when she loses Harriet, having taken responsibility for her and Mary when Harry sprains an ankle, Peter panics. She actually tells herself to try to think what David would do, when she’s a perfectly good head on her own shoulders, and she’s in floods of tears until David takes over and she gratefully passes all responsibility to him.
Saville was a conservative author, and a committed Christian as well, so perhaps it’s not entirely surprising to see Peter becoming increasingly feminised and subordinate to David, but in the past she would at least protest a little, before giving in, sensibly.
I’m not impressed with the baddies either. There’s more of the ‘get out and forget everything’ when Penny’s been captured, and the Lone Piners are still reassuring themselves that nothing, really can be done to hurt them, which is getting a little bit too formulaic.
And I’m confused by Saville’s introduction of geologist and archaeologist Philip Sharman, who is also found trespassing in pursuit of the mine, and who displays a suspicious and secretive interest in what’s going on, including getting the Lone Piners out into wild country to visit the Roman Road.
Sharman’s set up as another potential threat, and acts equally suspiciously but more politely than Robens and Co, but in the end he’s on Mr Sparrow’s side. He’s not a Cantor-like undercover policeman though. In fact, he has no status in this save for what we might charitably call nosiness. Ultimately, he’s no more than a red herring, but before now, Saville would still have integrated his red herring into the story. Sharman is no more than a loose end, which is uncharacteristically sloppy.
As I say, though, Harriet is once again the star of proceedings, and it’s something of a mockery to find her listed among the Other Persons at the beginning and not as a Lone Piner. She doesn’t like it either, forcefully making the point that she is sharing adventures with them, obeying the Captain and Vice-Captain and she’s not yet been made an official member.
At least the Twins, who don’t act towards Harry as they do to their other seniors, take the initiative of giving her a blood-signed note at the end, confirming her as a member-designate.
Speaking of the Twins, there’s a moment where they go completely OTT with Robens, and even recognise themselves that they have gone too far, but once again they’re allowed to get away with it. Thankfully, Saville only tells us how bad it is, he doesn’t show us, and it is Robens.
But taken overall, I am not impressed by Mystery Mine, and especially not the edited Second Edition, which was so badly treated that even mention of Peter’s new hairstyle did not survive the cut. The next book was my least favourite as a kid, and hasn’t improved with age, but the frustration I perceive in Saville at not being allowed to grow his characters does not have much longer to wait before he would finally let his instincts prevail.


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