Looking for Enid opens with an ambiguity: is it Enid Blyton's life that is properly described as "mysterious and inventive" in its subtitle, or Duncan McLaren's "Life" of Blyton? Both, in fact, as the present author undertakes his search for the past author in a curious and constructive, or reconstructive, way. His book is a blend of biography and recollection, diary, tribute, travelogue, psychoanalysis, literary detection, wild assumption, crochet and pastiche. He sometimes allows himself to be carried away by the eccentricity of his preoccupation. "Playfully subversive", a phrase he applies to a Noddy episode, sums up his own approach – at the same time suggesting a faint undermining of his adulation.
One of the things he is out to subvert is the underestimation of his Blyton. McLaren's Enid is "a brilliant writer", of "boundless" creativity and astonishing productivity – and never mind if she has been the butt of scorn and condescension on the part of po-faced critics and the "political correctness" brigade. Some of these are ungrateful grown-ups reacting angrily against books that held them spellbound at nine or ten.
McLaren, on the other hand, keeps his childhood delight in the story, while giving free rein to an adult investigation of its sources. Sources and forces – erotic, therapeutic, but never too serious – are what animate his book, as he goes about the business of getting to the bottom of Blyton with charm and ingenuity. The trail begins in Beaconsfield, where the famous Blyton house, Green Hedges, was located. Actually, it begins in a charity shop in Beaconsfield, with McLaren and his companion on the Blyton circuit, Kate, discussing the phenomenon with volunteers and picking up the odd second-hand volume to add to their store.
Then it's back to Beckenham, where the young Enid's life was wrenched off course by the defection of her beloved father, and the seeds of some future literary figurations sown. "This is Her Father" reads the caption to an illustration showing the normally irascible Uncle Quentin in the "Fives" series.
Soon the intrepid two – McLaren and Kate – are off to Swanage in Dorset on a holiday adventure. There, a host of phallic and gynaecological symbols rises up to further the process of Blyton elucidation. Think of all those towers, lighthouses, concealed entrances to tunnels, passages and secret rooms adding a frisson to plot after plot ... "Far-fetched": the tag often hurled at Enid Blyton is seized on by Duncan McLaren and gleefully turned around.
Will the Find-Outers solve the mystery? Probably, but first there's a lot of ground to be covered, motifs identified and wordplay pounced on. Striking revelations occur. "O Hugh Spoilt One", for example, comes out of the letters forming the name of Theophilus Goon, the bemused and obnoxious local bobby in the "Mystery" series. Not one jot of resemblance can one detect between this character and Enid Blyton's first husband Hugh Pollock, but clearly something of the latter has been sneaked into the former, consciously or unconsciously, via an anagram.
Well, I suppose it's no odder than casting her second husband, Kenneth Darrell Waters, as Timmy the Dog. As for Fatty – Frederick Algernon Trotteville with his strange messages, spiteful letters, missing man and so forth – he is variously McLaren, Enid Blyton's father Thomas, and Blyton herself – when she isn't being Bets.
Whew! Biographical details are mixed up with fictional events, and the fictions themselves weave in and out of one another, with the Peterswood quintet (for example) visiting Kirrin Island, and Kiki the Parrot – from a different series altogether – sitting sardonically in the margins of the "Mystery" pastiche with which each chapter ends. The effect of Looking for Enid's abundant idiosyncrasies is disorientating, illuminating and entertaining.
McLaren's dust-jacket reproduces the original cover for Five on Kirrin Island Again, in which Eileen Soper – notoriously – has George peering through a telescope backwards. It's as if McLaren has taken a cue from this image, sticking resolutely to his own way of looking at things, whether or not it's the wrong way round. Mostly, in his hands, this apparently stymied vision affords a way into all manner of mysteries, enchantments and secrets.
Patricia Craig's memoir 'Looking for Trouble' is published by BlackstaffPortobello £15.99 (319pp). Order £14.39 (free p&p) from0870 079 8897 Reuse content