The Flyaway Highway (1936) by Norman Lindsay

This review comes off the back of a recommendation made to me in the Dean Street Press Facebook group. You may be wondering why. After all the title does not indicate a mystery novel and in fact it isn’t really one in the strictest sense. Instead, it is an Australian children’s literature classic, which incorporates several genres within its story. However, one of these is the country house murder mystery and therein lies the interest for this blog.

Synopsis

‘When Egbert Tomkins sneaks into Murial Jane Jones’s garden to steal berries, the last thing he expected to stumble upon is the faun, Silvander Dan. Or to be whisked away on ‘The Flyaway Highway’ to a wonderful land where crazy adventures are common-place. Travelling on the Flyaway Highway, the pair find themselves embroiled in various unexpected exploits including ‘The Adventure of the Knightly Deed of High Enterprise’, ‘The Adventure of the Scream in the Night’, event ‘The Adventure of the Place where there are no Adventures’, a strange place indeed! Most perilously of all they become suspects in ‘The Heretic Murder Mystery Adventure’, but on the Flyaway Highway this isn’t so bad because anyone suspected of evil deeds at the beginning of a story must be innocent.’

Overall Thoughts

There is no prevaricating in the setup to this tale. We are promptly introduced to Egbert and his distinctive moral outlook which enables him to justify eating fruit that doesn’t belong to him. But his petty theft is stopped in its tracks by his discovery of the faun, Silvander Dan. Yet it is hard to say who is more shocked, as Silvander Dan is stunned that anyone can see him, so much so that he chases Egbert in order to check it is true. Naturally this is misinterpreted, and comedy ensues as Egbert strikes Silvander, getting him ‘fair in the stomach […] sen[ding] him down behind the nearest bush shouting, “Enough – no more visibility tests by stones are necessary.’

It is not long until Murial Jane Jones (yes, the book spells Muriel with an ‘a’) appears on the scene and very quickly her practical, sensible, and cold aloof manner put me in mind of C. S. Lewis’ Susan Pevensey and J. M. Barrie’s Wendy Darling. Like these other characters Murial Jane is more reluctant to join in the nonsense of Silvander and Egbert, fearing looking foolish. So the opening had something quite familiar to it, and whilst you can raise the issue of children’s literature reinforcing the role of the sensible grown up young girl (contrasting with the young boys who can act less restrictedly), I found it fun nevertheless.

The Flyaway Highway is a magical place which a bit like a theme park, but more organic, has its own sections. These areas are populated by figures from specific types of stories or genres and these characters are equally governed by the tropes of their given genre. If it can happen in a story, then it can happen on the Flyaway Highway. The landscape is not fenced in any way so characters can function in genres different to their own. Like the Narnia series which was to come, Egbert and Murial Jane do not lose any time in their own world, when they spend time adventuring on the Flyaway Highway.

The fact there are different genres at play on the Flyaway Highway is something the characters are all aware of, although it is characters like Silvander Dan who provide more of a commentary on the tropes being acted out or acted upon. Such a commentary unsurprisingly includes opinions about the genres in question:

“Personally, I’ve given up using that part where the murder mysteries happen. You can hardly move a step without some noodle of a detective proving you did the crime because you were the only person in the book who couldn’t have done it.”

Lindsay’s parody of mystery fiction keys into this trope of the most unlikely person being the guilty party and in true parodic style allowing it to boomerang back on the characters. I think Lindsay’s metafictional approach to discussing genres, in particular mystery fiction, in this story, works well as he taps into the expectations readers are likely to have.

The first proper look the book takes at detective stories is in chapter 3 entitled, ‘The Heretic Murder Mystery Adventure’ and the characters walk into the following scene:

‘He was wrong there, as it proved, for round the second next corner they ran into quite a different sort of landscape; a jumbled up place of city residences and back slums, mixed up with country lanes and country mansions, populated almost entirely by policemen and detectives in bowler hats, who were constantly examining pallid butlers and terrified servant girls and alarmed guests at country houses, or else, leaping on low slum characters and instantly whipping handcuffs on them. The butlers had a frightened time, and were in such an incessant state of being examined and threatened and bullied by bowler hats that they were as pale as turnips and gave little frightened jumps if spoken to suddenly or else fainted clean away. The servant girls couldn’t bear it either and burst into tears to get off being examined, though the alarmed guests usually brazened it out, being able to invent more expressions, and so baffle the bowler hats as to which of them really did it. There were a few furtive gamekeepers and chauffeurs slinking about trying to dodge being examined, and wherever there were footprints the bowler hats were measuring them with great care, while every duck-pond had a policeman fishing revolvers out of it.’

Although there are a couple of allusions to more hard-boiled crime fiction (e.g. ‘back slums’) this parody landscape is largely concerned with more golden age moulds of mystery writing, in particular the country house mystery. The zealousness of the detectives is cranked up and there is an interesting instance of synecdoche with the bowler hat coming to represent the police force as a whole. Whilst I am familiar with the trope of the frightened maid, I was expecting the frightened butler somewhat less, as I am more used to furtive butlers who know too much for their own good. In some ways I think having both the butlers and the maids excessively frightened is less effective as the repetition lessens the impact. Irrespective of this the impression Lindsay gives of the world of classic crime fiction is that it is terribly inconveniencing when a murder occurs.

The murder case which Silvander and his friends fall into temporarily is that of the murder of Sir Futzen Bunion, the millionaire cabbage king and as Silvander fears he is soon suspected of the deed, despite his hooves being too short to match the footprints left at the crime scene. However, it is this very fact which makes the police suspicious of him: “For what’s to prevent this feller wearing an extra-sized pair of cow’s hooves to prove only a cow was there.” This is another key feature Lindsay deploys in the mystery genre sections, that of detectives and readers second guessing evidence. After all, we all know how we become highly distrusting when we learn that a suspect has a really solid alibi in a mystery. It is this principle that the author riffs on when he has Silvander come up with the most probable solution, which the police have overlooked. The police are scornful of his solution replying:

“Come, come,” said the ferret face tolerantly. “You ought to know better than that, you know. Where would our miraculous powers of induction come in if you could pick murderers in that off-hand way. Why, the very fact of this altercation between mortal enemies at the very outset of the case proves it had nothing to do with the murder, but was only got up to put us detectives off the scent.”

I think Lindsay has created his policemen characters in the earnest Inspector Lestrade mode, yet in his parody shown them to be too smart for their own good, tripped up by their own vanity. It is an interesting example though of how the characters know what sort of story they are in and therefore base their actions on their understanding of the genre.

Another example of the trope of the most unlikely suspect being referred to, comes when Silvander remarks: “One thing I always make a point of in murder mysteries is to get suspected of the crime as soon as possible, for of course, that rules you out as having done it. The end part is the dangerous time, when the detectives have to do a bit lightning deduction and grab the one that nobody had the slightest idea of.” Something to bear in mind if you ever get stuck in a mystery novel! Although if it is a Christie novel, this principle is perhaps not so reliable, as there is more than one story of hers where the people suspected at the start, are exonerated, only then to be proven guilty later.

This being a children’s story the procuring and eating of food is a key priority for the children characters, a reminder of the younger audience the tale is intended for. A consistent complaint in The Flyaway Highway is that: “The thing that’s wrong with these adventures is that they don’t have regular meal-times”. Murial Jane and Egbert frequently blame Silvander for the lack of comestibles, to which he finally retorts:

“Don’t put it on to me,” said Silvander Dan. “It’s all the fault of these authors writing pages and pages about people without ever mentioning what they had for breakfast. Meals in books only happen sometimes and that’s why they only happen sometimes on this Highway.”

This is a point which surprised me, as whilst characters going to the toilet is a rare occurrence in fiction, eating was something I thought happened a sufficient number of times. Correct me if I am wrong!

Escaping from the policemen, the central trio move onto a different landscape, one which has a more medieval-like look to it. The strong desire for food leads to Silvander being arrested for heresy, and I found it pleasing how the author uses the previous genre landscape of detective fiction, to resolve this predicament for the faun. The children decide to get one of the detectives, which Silvander consents to, although he remarks:

“However it might be worth trying, though you’ll have to tell them it’s a case that has completely baffled the police, as they never take any notice of non-baffling cases.”

I felt the writer concludes this episode of the plot very neatly and in a satisfying way for a parody.

Before returning to the country house murder mystery landscape the characters move on to several other places and I just wanted to touch upon a couple, as they include some particularly amusing moments. The first can be found in chapter 4 which is called ‘The Adventure of the Knightly Deed of High Emprise’. There is a poor knight who has vowed never to wash until he has ‘performed some deed of high emprise and derring-do.’ Unfortunately, for him (and for anyone near him) there is a dearth of such activities. Interestingly Silvander blames the detective fiction genre for this predicament:

“It’s due to these murder mysteries using up the corpse market. That strong arm open-air work of yours is out of date. You’ve got to make a dark and dirty deed of a corpse before they’ll look at it.”

Meanwhile in a later chapter we are told that the characters:

‘came to a very jumbled-up landscape put together anyhow, with sign-boards sticking out of it calling attention to places that authors might find useful to write about. The sign-boards had things like this on them: “Dangerous precipice; suitable for throwing villains over.” “Very dismal whistling wind site for haunted houses.” “Extra sharp-edged landscape for use of modern authors; can be described in sentences from six to eight words.” “Dank pond for drowning ruined stockbrokers in.”’

What sort of place is this, Silvander is asked. To which he replies:

“Oh, this is a try-out section for authors who haven’t invented things to put in it”.

This sort of metafiction made this an entertaining read as an adult. I wonder if the book operates a bit like Pixar films in that it has a plot which the child follows and then some additional humorous comments for the adult readers to pick up on.

In order to get back home the children must retrace their steps along the Flyaway Highway and the place they spend the most time on the return leg of their journey is the country house mystery location. This part of the story occurs in chapter 9, which is named ‘The Adventure of Having a Go at the Best Murder Mystery Food’. As you can see food is still a high priority!

Silvander claims that there is “plenty of the most correct food going on in that house there, if you don’t mind getting mixed in a Country House Murder Mystery.” Murial Jane asks, “Is there a murder mystery going on there?” And here we find more tropes of the genre, parodied to an extent, coming to the fore.

Firstly, Silvander points out that “country house murder mysteries never happen before dinner. They’re usually timed to take place at half-past nine in the garden.” Why? Simple, “so as the author can get all the suspected guests sorted out at the dinner-table and get the reader to learn off their names and work up his curiosity as to which one did it.” Whilst there are countless golden age detective novels which won’t fit this formula, I feel there were enough to make this an amusing comment to make, not least because it is bringing to light the authorial purpose for staging murders after dinner.

Silvander is also able to inform us of who the murderee is going to be, the owner of the country mansion, Sir Margerine Blobbs, a butter magnate. Naturally, “everybody in his house had some reason or other for doing him in. The real mystery of these country house murder mysteries is that these city magnates will insist on filling the house with people all bursting with anxiety to murder them. And they always lay out their gardens to give as many people as possible a chance to get them at exactly the same moment.”

Here are three more features of country house murder mystery that Silvander brings up in this chapter:

  • “Be careful not to walk on the flower-beds; you can see that the gardener has just raked them over carefully so that they will take a perfect imprint of footsteps.”
  • ‘All the windows were brilliantly lit up, and all the blinds were up too, because housemaids in country house murder mysteries never draw the blinds, in case suspicious things can’t be seen going on behind them.’
  • “I see this murder mystery country house has been supplied with the usual hall-stand of dangerous weapons […] These city magnates certainly do the thing properly in giving their guests a handsome assortment of tools to do the job on them.”

However, Silvander adds a complication to the predicted narrative when he rings up Scotland Yard to inform them of when the murder will happen. His reason for this is not to help the city magnate but to make it more difficult for the writer: “That will give the author a nice job to get his crime off successfully with everything set to catch the murderer in the act…” Authors of stories are referred to during the Flyaway Highway adventures, yet interestingly they never make an appearance. The only way we can see them is through the actions they put forth in the scenes the characters experience.

Unlike in the first mystery of the murder of the cabbage millionaire, in this setup Egbert and Murial Jane are made privy to all the motives Blobbs’ guests have for killing him and then they have the opportunity to speculate over who the murderer will be, based on this information.

When a Scotland Yard detective arrives, Egbert suggests going to the predicted crime scene and waiting to see if the murder is attempted. However, this suggestion is readily frowned upon by the detective:

“Tut tut! That would never do,” said the detective. “As it is, I’m not sure it’s strictly according to the rules to have one of us detectives on the spot either. Where will our miraculous powers of deduction come in if the criminal is caught in the very act?”

Again, the motivation behind the actions of the police character is vanity concerning their deductive powers and having the chance to show them off. Moreover, the word ‘rules’ comes up more than once in this chapter and it is the detective figures who employ it particularly, being the characters who seem more strongly governed by the presumed rules of the genre they are living in.

The policeman’s anxieties though are not realised, something which Silvander anticipates:

“Don’t you worry about that […] You’ll see that at the very last moment the author will invent some ingenious way of hiding the criminal from the man who saw him commit the crime.”

Further self-awareness is rendered in the following reply:

‘“Well, it’s to be hoped so, or no one will buy this thrilling murder mystery,” said the detective.’

Not only does the Flyaway Highway universe include unseen authors, but it now also shows awareness that there are readers too and more importantly readers with expectations about what makes a good or bad mystery. I think it is Lindsay’s recognition of these expectations which makes it a fun read for adults and the way tropes are brought to the forefront and are critiqued by the action that follows. I have to say I thought Lindsay concluded the mystery concerning Sir Blobbs impending death very well, ending on an entertaining note of irony.

So all in all this was a fun read. Golden Age Detective fiction, even when it was being written in the 1920s and 1930s, was often a self-referential form of mystery writing, alluding to established tropes of the genre and famous figures in it such as Sherlock Holmes. Therefore, it was interesting seeing this metafictional aspect become such an intrinsic part of a children’s story of the time.

The Living Book Press reprinted this story in 2017, so there are copies of this book available online, although prices do vary.

Rating: 4.5/5

3 comments

  1. This sounds wonderful, a book and author entirely new to me but looks well worth a read. I agree with you on the food, I find it quite common rather than rare but of course, only some might get to the levels of eating that say a Blyton book has (Christie does sometimes)

    Liked by 1 person

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