So we reach Mystery Mine, the mystery Lone Pine Club book I could never find when I was young, and which I have now read for the first time as an adult. This was the twelfth Lone Pine book, published in 1959, the year I turned four, and it’s the third of the last five books to travel beyond the usual haunts of Shropshire and Rye, starting in London but spending more of its time on the North Yorkshire Moors, above Whitby.
As with the series I did on Sandman Mystery Theatre, the further I go into the Lone Pine series, the less interest I start to have in the actual adventures. Rather than a series of books, I’m seeing the series as a long, unfolding single story, in which the most interesting aspects are the relationships between the characters, and especially between the elder half dozen, the boy-girl pairs.
Thus I am far less concerned with the opening chapter, in which Saville again leads with his bad guys, a pair with whom we are already familiar (no: not Ballinger and Co.) but rather the second chapter, when Jon and Penny Warrender arrive in London to holiday with the Mortons at Brownlow Square.
The bad guys, meeting at the port in Whitby, are John Robens (now going by the name Charles Warner) and ‘The Doctor’ from Lone Pine Five. Despite Saville giving the impression at the end of that book of Robens breaking with the older man, it seems the ‘Doctor’ still has just as much of a hold over him. Robens is one of a team of men covering the North of England in sections, looking for something that their scientific expertise can determine.
Improbably, this is uranium deposits: the Government are offering financial assistance to British landowners who have uranium deposits, which Robens et al will identify in advance and the ‘Doctor’ will then buy from the unknowing owners. I found the whole thing improbable, but like Saucers over the Moor Saville was making use of a genuine contemporary concern, with the British Geological Society assisting several commercial companies in the search for British uranium deposits!
The Lone Piners come into things in the second chapter, with David Morton collecting Jon and Penny Warrender from the station on the first day of their holiday in London. There will apparently be some delay about getting up to Shropshire as the Morton parents can’t go yet, for some undisclosed reason. And then, before Penny has barely unpacked her suitcase, David and Jon decide that they want to go off hiking for a week, on their own.
Penny is devastated and deeply hurt by this idea to abandon her before even an afternoon is out, but at no point in the whole story do the boys show any indication of recognising that they are being incredibly rude and selfish. Penny flares up at them in her best sarcastic manner, not just on her own behalf but on that of Peter, who is being similarly abandoned, without this penetrating for a moment.The biggest surprise is that Mrs Morton, who recognises how hurt Penny is, regards the boys as entitled to go off on their own with no regard for their friends.
It’s an unforgivably chauvinist approach. The adult me is as shocked as Penny, especially as the Lone Pine oath requires the members to be true to each other, no matter what, and David and Jon are being anything but. What the child me would have thought, I can’t imagine, though I’d probably have been more on their side. Saville was a conservative-minded writer, in a conservative-minded age, but it is rare that this is so baldly reflected. Indeed, both alone and jointly, there are instances later in the book where Peter and Penny, in order to progress, have to think themselves into a ‘what would the boys do?’ state that, given their own, well-established resourcefulness, seems both peculiar and totally unnecessary.
Harriet Sparrow is back, and she’s a little bit bolshie with it, over the fact that she’s been promised Lone Pine Club membership, and she’s expected to join in, but she hasn’t yet been made a member. I really liked the dynamic Harriet brought with her, especially her insistence on sticking up for herself, and she’s the key to the adventure, or rather her grandfather is.
Mr Albert Sparrow has suddenly become a Yorkshireman by birth, and a Tyke eager to return to his native heath and own a chunk of it. He’s done a deal to swap his London antiques shop for a similar establishment in Spaunton, on the North Yorks Moors, with a Mr Venton who wants to run a London shop. Somebody’s been trying to buy Venton’s business and land (which includes an old mine-shaft) but Venton is a man of honour and sticks by his existing deal.
So the Twins go up to Yorkshire with Harriet, David and Jon set off to hike to Whitby and the disgusted Penny, refusing to sit and mope until she’s called for, goes off to Hatchholt as the guest of Peter and Mr Sterling, determined not to let Jon ruin her holiday.
No sooner do the boys get there, after a tiring moorland trek in a sea-roke, than they find someone trespassing on Mr Sparrow’s mineshaft. This is naturally Robens, and he is found underground the next day, much to Sparrow’s disgust. But the ‘Doctor’ is already putting on the pressure to sell, which Sparrow refuses to consider.
So a belated phonecall is made by David to Peter, to invite her to Yorkshire, to which Jon adds a request for Penny to join them. The girls give in far too easily.
The Warrenders are the only ones who have not met the bad guys before, but Robens has regrown his wild beard, which confuses the Mortons, until Peter, the only one to see him face-fuzzed, becomes the last to catch sight of him. The Twins badger him unmercifully, in a way that’s only acceptable because he is a bad guy, although it’s borderline as to whether it’s acceptable at all.
The situation is further confused by the appearance of Philip Sharman, a young man who claims to be a geologist and archaeologist, who wants to see the mine, and to take the Lone Piners to the old Roman ruins at Coram Street. In the end, he turns out to be on the side of the angels, though he denies being Police and who he represents – or whether he represents anyone at all – is left unexplained.
Sharman’s presence starts Jon getting an inkling of what this may all be about, and half an hour in Whitby Library puts him on the trail of the uranium deal. Meanwhile, Penny spots and follows Robens to his digs in the mean and shabby Prospect Way, only to find herself captured and locked in by the ‘Doctor’.
She’s appropriately defiant, but also badly frightened, as he delivers the usual ‘get out if you know what’s good for you’ threats. By the time she is let go, she is very late for her rendezvous with Jon who, when he finally catches up with her, berates her explosively. But, in one of the few positive developments, Penny realises that its is not anger that lies behind his behaviour but fear, fear of losing her.
As an aside, it’s funny to note that the pairing that includes the oldest of the Lone Piners is also the one that proceeds with the most indirection. Even Tom and Jenny, the youngest of the three couples, have made more of an overt commitment to one another by this point.
By now, the ‘Doctor’ is applying pretty crude pressure on Sparrow to sell, including a pretty direct threat as to Harriet’s safety that no-one seems to twig to. Thus, when Sharman takes everybody out to see the Roman Road, and Harriet falls and twists her ankle, she is taken back to Sparrow’s house by only Peter and Mary. This sets up a kidnapping, in which Mary is insistent on not being separated from her friend, whilst Peter is naive in allowing herself to be got out of the way.
It’s a rare pleasure that the statutory Twin-kidnapping should turn out to not be in any way their fault for once.
Peter comes closer than ever before to panicking at her failure, catching up with the party in a distraught condition. Sharman takes charge, first linking the party with Sparrow, back from London with Venton, who he has been consulting, and bringing in the Police (at least Mr & Mrs Morton are far away and unable to make their displeasure felt again).
Mary and Harriet have to escape from a burning cottage, an incident memorialised on the cover of the Armada paperback, though in the book this is much less of an incident than it might seem, and Robens throws over the ‘Doctor’ again and goes off with the Police, this time never to be seen again. Sparrow and Venton agree to share any profits from the uranium in the mine, and the last word comes from the delightful Harriet, still annoyed at having no official Lone Pine status, and insistent that she at least gets a piece of paper, admitting her to the Club.
I’ve got to be honest: my recollections of Harriet were few and dim, and I was prepared to describe her as colourless. I doubt I would have been able to think that had I read Mystery Mine in my youth.
She reappears in the next but one book, where the series undertakes an irreversible change, and in two further adventures after that. I can’t remember how she performs in any of the remaining stories, but the Harriet of this book is a genuine find and a real asset to the series. She’s worth the entire story alone.
But I would have been happier if either of the boys would have shown at least some remorse for their thoughtless actions at the start instead of their ongoing smugness at their own independence. Which we don’t even get to see!