This is the last of the five “Chudleigh Hold” books and, unusually for Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) is an adventure book written about a young man, presumably with a target audience of boys. Nobody is described as being “dainty” or “delicate”, and the only major female character is a wonderful, feisty elderly lady who runs her own business and has never married because she was too busy doing other things. I didn’t have very high hopes for this book when I started reading it, because I couldn’t imagine a Boys’ Own book written by EBD, but it was actually very, very good!
Hawk Chudleigh, the brother of the Chalet School’s Gillian Culver (I’m hoping at some point to acquire copies of the other Chudleigh Hold books, but I gather that even they don’t explain why the Culver/Chudleigh family haven’t got the same surname as they have in the Chalet School books) has been dispatched to Australia, to work as an engineer but also to carry “Top Secret” papers detailing how future wars can be prevented using some mysterious thing which won’t hurt anyone. If only such a thing existed. Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s Toby at Tibbs Cross contained a similar idea about a mysterious way of preventing wars: I don’t know whether or not EBD had read that.
Of course, some baddies are on to Hawk. But, before they can do anything to him, the ship he’s on explodes, apparently due to a Japanese landmine remaining from the war years. (The book’s set in the 1950s.). But he and another lad are sleeping in a lifeboat as their cabins were too hot (as you do), and the lifeboat’s set adrift, and eventually came to an island on which was a well-to-do family’s holiday home, easy to break into and well-stocked with food. OK, nobody said that adventure books had to be realistic! It’s written so well that the story genuinely doesn’t seem silly, even to an adult reader, though.
The island was off the coast of New Zealand, and how they got there when they’d been sailing SW from Tasmania is, er, anyone’s guess, but never mind! The family then arrive; and are totally cool with the two lads having broken into their home. Everyone’s getting along jolly well when, whaddaya know, there’s a hurricane. Then, during the clean-up operation, a group of armed baddies arrive. They’re led by an old university pal of Hawk’s, turned traitor. This is Cold War stuff: the group are working for the Soviets.
The baddies then torture our boys and their friends (the houseowners). It’s quite nasty, worse than is usually found in a children’s book. But, hurrah, the secret papers have already been sent away, concealed inside a gardening catalogue, and one of the family escapes to fetch help, from a ship conveniently positioned nearby. The baddies are, needless to say, overpowered.
And then it turns out that Hawk’s friend from the ship that blew up is the great-nephew of the houseowning family’s amnesiac adopted son. Of course he is. EBD did love a long-lost relative story!
It sounds a bit bonkers, but children’s adventure books always are. I could imagine G A Henty writing something like this, if he’d been around in the 1950s. I wasn’t expecting much, but I should know better than to underestimate EBD. I loved this, and am on a quest to find affordable copies of the other Chudleigh Hold books ASAP.
2 thoughts on “Top Secret by Elinor M Brent-Dyer”
So glad to hear this is good. I enjoyed Chudleigh Hold, Fardingales and the Susannah Adventure, but absolutely hated Condor Crags. It was great seeing the characters from the previous novels coming together but it is dated in the worst ways and is really quite offensive to a modern reader. Glad to hear I should persevere to the last book.
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I really did enjoy this one.