Given its crude and ungrammatical title (surely it should have been The Man…), I wasn’t expecting much from Man with Three Fingers, book sixteen in the series. I remembered it for Tom Ingles going through some fairly unsubtle adolescent blues, and for more overt violence than any previous Lone Pine Club story, but I was pleasantly surprised by the book. Especially after Treasure at Amorys.
Because, despite the crudity of the adventure plot, of organised lorry thefts, Saville recovers the courage of his convictions, and makes this book about Tom and Jenny, or maybe it should be Jenny and Tom. It’s about them, and about showing just how much Jenny has invested in the boy who has had her heart for years, and now she can openly tell him, and about Tom who, after his oh-so-Sixties foolishness, tells her that she is his girl, and that one day she’s going to be a farmer’s wife, and mistress of Ingles’ Farm.
In it’s way, it’s more overt than David and Peter – who need no more than an instant’s word to check that it’s ok with them, still the same – and there is none of the doubt and the emotional upheaval of Not Scarlet But Gold, because though there is a rival threatening their relationship, it is a challenger for Tom’s friendship, a lad called Ned Stacey.
Time is, once again, in flux. Tom has had a growth spurt and overtaken the Mortons to become the eldest of the Lone Piners (a graph of their ages from book to book would make very interesting reading except for the flat-line representing the Twins), whilst Jenny, like Penny in the last book, has just left school (as has Peter). But where the excitable, incurably romantic redhead has no difficulty with being a young adult, and is just as susceptible to a stranger with a sob-story as she’s ever been, Tom is going through concerns that may well have puzzled the regular audience, but which are only too familiar to the majority of those who are old adults.
Tom’s seventeen. He’s worked on the Farm for his Aunt and Uncle, who’ve been as good as parents to him and who think of him as their own. But he has no responsibilities, is constantly being told what to do, takes no decisions. He’s becoming an adult but is not being allowed to be one. Then the Farm is very small, and Onnybrook is small, and there’s nothing to do and no-one to see. The nearest girl is Peter, who’s so far out of bounds, and Jenny’s miles away, and anyway, she’s young and looks younger. Tom wants – needs – to stretch, and has nowhere to stretch into.
Save Ned Stacey. Though he’s presented through most of the book as weak, excitable, unreliable, a product of having no father, Ned’s not a bad guy. He’s older than Tom, twenty, and he’s made something of himself, even if it’s only as a motorcycle owner and a lorry driver. Ned and Tom have a lot in common, which Jenny sees as Ned dragging her man away from his real friends, but it’s not hard to sympathise with Tom at that awkward stage we all go through, when we’re older than most Lone Pine Club fans.
Jenny fears Tom being pulled physically away, and her fears are not without justification. Ned’s been trusted with his first overnight drive and wants Tom to accompany him at least part of the way, even though it’s a breach of the rules. It’s both a disaster and a godsend: Ned has been directed by his manager, Mr Danks, to take a strange diversion down a back lane, where the lorry is stopped and attacked, and both young men beaten.
It’s a horrible thing, more directly violent than any Lone Pine story to date, though a concomitant factor: if your characters are now to behave as adults, their risks must be adult. Tom is bruised, shaky and pale, and he’s scared Jenny to death, but can attest to Ned’s instructions and that they both fought: Danks denies Ned’s story and is clearly aiming to frame him.
The worst aspect of Tom’s escapade, in Jenny’s eyes, is that he has betrayed his friends, not just her exclusively. Instead of heading off on the lorry, Tom should have been at Witchend to greet the Mortons (David is now a driver). When she gets him alone, after he’s brought back from the hospital, she tears into him furiously, telling him outright how important she should be to him.
But she’s disarmed, completely, when he produces from his pocket the set of green beads he had bought for her in Shrewsbury, before it all kicked off. And when she has him put them on her, she kisses him, for the first time, and it’s not just one of those kisses of thank you.
That’s not the end of it, however. Everyone’s back together, and this has thrown the intended holiday off course, but it’s not the only thing that has. David and Peter only want to disappear off together without anyone else (wonder why?), the Twins are remarkably subdued but come to the rescue of the unfortunate and rather selfish Mrs Pantshill, thrown from her horse on the Mynd and with a possible broken ankle, and the only ones concerned with the adventure are Tom and Jenny, and she only wants to drag him away from it.
It may seem odd to long-time Lone Pine readers, but Saville is only following the logical dictates of the maturation of his characters. The Club, as an entity, is ceasing to be of interest to them, though its spirit and the friendships it has brought about are unchanged. But it is beginning to splinter as the older members find themselves concerned with better things than tracking strangers.
That’s not to say that mystery doesn’t concern them, and it’s a typical irony that, whilst Jenny wants Tom out of the dangerous mess that the lorry-jacking represents, she’s the one most avid to join the Treasure Hunt that the stranger, Amanda Gray, a New Zealand widow, brings to the reluctant Lone Piners.
It’s all about Pontesford Hall, an old house and estate that suddenly springs up just outside Onnybrook. After years of neglect, and the death of the reclusive and eccentric Miss Pontesford, it’s been bought, and is being spruced up by Colonel and Mrs Pantshill, who have offered it for the Village Flower Show. Funnily enough, this couple find the injured Tom and Ned after they’re attacked, and take them to hospital. And the Colonel counsels the boys to forget about their ordeal and shoot off to the seaside for a week at his expense. You’re not going to be surprised if I prematurely reveal who’s behind this highly organised lorry-jacking, are you?
Amanda Grey is a woman with a mission, or maybe a bee in her bonnet. She married Miss Pontesford’s nephew Donald, with whom the old lady had quarrelled irreversibly. Donald, a wastrel and loser, is dead, leaving Amanda with a baby and no inheritance, except the belief, unsupported by evidence, that there’s a Pontesford Treasure that she believes belongs to her.
Amanda’s an obsessive who never gains anyone’s trust except Jenny (the baby sells it to our little redhead), and is an awkward, never fully-realised character who keeps trying to involve the Lone Piners in house-breaking, and who can’t see why they might be more concerned about Tom, especially after he goes missing.
The Police are concerned about this spurt of lorry-jackings, and the Police around Shrewsbury means our old friend, Mister Cantor. Inspector Charles Cantor, to give him his full name, nicknamed ‘Mister’ by his colleagues, for no apparent reason and not in the least convincingly. We remember him well from The Secret of Grey Walls, but unfortunately Saville has forgotten Cantor’s brief reappearance in The Neglected Mountain, when it was disclosed that his real name was Green.
It’s only because Tom Ingles vouches for Ned’s story that Cantor is prepared to accept it, though his methods with Ned leave the excitable young man believing that he’s being framed. Worse still, Ned’s been sacked by his employers, and is far too sick to go to Shrewsbury to remonstrate. Against Jenny’s wishes, Tom volunteers to do that for him. Nevertheless, she accompanies Tom, though he’d rather she didn’t, trying to make the best of the situation.
Then it all goes wrong. In a cafe, Tom remembers a significant point: that the man who attacked him had a finger missing on his hand. Jenny pales: a man with three fingers is directly behind Tom. Against her wishes, they part, she for the Police Station and Cantor, Tom to follow Three Fingers. But before they separate, Tom pulls her to him, and kisses her, and he tells her she’s his girl. It comes far earlier than in Not Scarlet But Gold, but it is a crucial moment.
Unfortunately, things go badly wrong. Tom loses his man when he gets on a motor-cycle, but meets him again when he confronts Danks over Ned’s sacking. Losing his temper over Danks’ intransigence, Tom blurts out about the man with three fingers. Who emerges from a back room and knocks him out.
Yes, it’s the statutory kidnapping, but for once it’s an integral part of the story, and a much more serious incident. Tom is a genuine threat, and he’s in genuine danger.
What follows does not speak well for Cantor. Jenny, is in desperate misery, impresses everybody at the station with her determination to find her lad, her refusal to walk away. The lorry HQ is visited, where Danks denies Tom has ever been. Cantor accepts the man’s word for it, and stubbornly refuses Jenny’s entreaties to even speak to other people on site. Not until it turns out that the WPC looking after Jenny has a married sister who is Danks’ secretary, is it shown that Danks was lying, by which time a half day has been wasted, Cantor made to look a fool, and the whole episode like a time-filler, just intended to extend the story and set up its conclusion.
Which takes place at Pontesford Hall, at the Flower Show. Amusingly, it’s David and Peter’s entirely selfish urge to sneak off somewhere for a quiet snog that sets the denouement into motion, when they spot the neckscarf Jenny has bought for Tom pushed into the ivy. With Jenny in tow, and the Twins employed to ensure that the Pantshills don’t come back inside, the trio sneak into the house, find and release the dazed Tom (who only has eyes for Jenny).
Fortunately the Police turn up and grab hold of Harry, the three-fingered man, before he can cause any more damage, plus Panthill, who is the organiser of the lorry-jacking gang (I didn’t spoil any surprises for you, did I?). And as a bonus, the Twins find the gold-encrusted Chalice that is the Pontesford Treasure.
This latter aspect is an element that never works and would be better excised from the story, though if that were to be done, there would be practically nothing for the Twins to do. Though crude in many respects, the lorry-jacking story is a much better element, especially because it is the crucible through which Tom and Jenny are passed, the heat of which forging the bonds between them into something imperishable.
Jenny comes to terms with Tom’s friendship with Ned, who isn’t such a bad old stick after all, and accepts an invite to join a Lone Pine swimming party at Hatchholt, and Uncle Alf with Tom’s need for bigger horizons. Ingles is prepared to accept that Tom may not want to follow him onto the farm, whose future may be doomed, but Tom has come through the fire with certainties about his future. He wants to farm Ingles, he wants to make a success of it, and he wants Jenny with him, as his wife. It’s all that Alf and Betty could wish, and all that Jenny could wish too, and Tom is sure enough of himself and his feelings to tell Jenny that he will want her as his wife.
It’s this relationship that is the backbone of Man with Three Fingers, and this coming to realisations that makes it more powerful than its cruder elements might suggest.
As for the book in general. Saville withdraws at an early stage the threat to Peter’s home that he used to such effect in Not Scarlet But Gold. The Sterlings are not to go to Hereford after all, but rather to, naturally, Witchend. Jasper will become its caretaker, living in an extension, looking after the house all year round for the Mortons. Peter will share a bedroom with Mary (you were expecting…?).
Otherwise, I do have to comment again on the shifting geography of this side of the Long Mynd. I’ve already commented upon the sudden appearance of the long-established Pontesford Hall, but there’s some peculiar things going on. The Twins have discovered a hitherto unknown valley called Callow Batch, that they have dammed to create a swimming pool, but in the process seem to have eliminated Dark Hollow and, as far as the map is concerned, the State Forest and the road to it! Though the Forest does get mentioned in the book, in passing.
So, Malcolm Saville had settled two couples down out of the Lone Pine Club, and had begun the process of breaking the club up by doing so. He had rather bottled out on doing something similar for Jon and Penny Warrender. Perhaps it was a recognition that he’d let them down that drove him back to Rye again for the next book.