What would you do if you thought you might have witnessed a theft, but aren’t sure if it was intentional or an accident…and you’re only twelve? Our Protagonist does, and the adults do take him seriously, but the possible thief has not only a plausible explanation for his actions but a grumpy dragon of a landlady who refuses to volunteer information to anybody, just on principle.
As the book begins, Mike is taking the train from Norfolk to London to visit his aunt, uncle and cousin Caroline who live in Camden Town; as an only child, his parents are concerned that Mike needs to socialize with his peers. He’s a bit dubious, as he’s still in the “girls are icky” stage of development. There are two other people in his compartment, an elderly lady festooned with knitting and oversized handbags, and a somewhat eccentrically dressed middle aged man whose intent regard leaves Mike feeling somewhat discomfited. In the flurry of the man’s departure at his station, Mike wonders if he’s taken one of the elderly lady’s suitcases along with his own, but feels uncomfortable challenging an adult based on nothing more substantial than a suspicion.
Sure enough, he’s proven right: upon the train’s arrival in London, the elderly lady, one Lady Wattlebury, notifies station police that she’s missing a valise, containing her incredibly valuable pearls hidden in a red rubber hot-water bottle, and accuses Mike of taking the case. As it is obviously not in his possession, the police allow Mike to go off with his uncle…but to his surprise, the middle aged man from his train compartment shows up that evening at Mike’s uncle’s house! Upon recognizing Mike, Mr. Bellows makes a hasty and implausible excuse and leaves.
That night, Mike has nightmares (literal and figurative) about whom to tell his suspicions of Mr. Bellows and how to tell them, while Mr. Bellows fumes about the apparent lack of value of the suitcase he’s stolen, not realizing the hot water bottle contains more than water droplets. While Uncle Tom does believe Mike, and indeed takes both him and Caroline to Mr. Bellows’ address, they are put off by the grumpy landlady. Mike and Caroline spend the day at the zoo, discussing how to investigate further. They return to Mr. Bellows’ flat, only to find that the landlady, dissatisfied with the hot water bottle as it leaked1, donated it to some kids collecting for a church fete/jumble sale who’ve accumulated a pramful of odds and ends. The two rush off, with Mr. Bellows hot on their heels, but cannot find the hot water bottle amidst all the ‘treasures’ in the jumble sale…as the kids who collected it haven’t arrived yet. The two pairs of kids quite literally run into each other, just as the pram loses its wheel yet again; after a bit of boyish consultation, the pram is fixed…leaving behind the hot water bottle that everyone’s been hunting. Mike and Caroline rush off to the police, arriving mere minutes after the anxious parents/uncle-aunt leave the station to report them missing.
All works out well in the end: Lady Wattlebury gets her pearls, Mr. Bellows gets his comeuppance, and Tom and Caroline become friends.
This isn’t a deep complex meaningful book by any means. It’s short. There isn’t much of a mystery: we know who stole the pearls because we’ve been given a glimpse into his thought process. The central plot device is flimsy–I can’t imagine the author intending it to be taken as anything more than light entertainment at the time it was written–and given it’s original publication date of 1967, more than slightly outdated now, even allowing for trans-Atlantic differences in addition to the generational ones. How many modern American kids would recognize a red rubber hot-water bottle for what it was, much less a stone one? (and have English heating systems improved at all in the past couple of generations?)
On the other hand, that very lightweight nature makes it a sweet bit of amusement, a diverting afternoon’s read, rather like eating an Aero bar or a packet of Maltesers at a go. It’s interesting to me in part for the details of what it might have been like to live in London in the ’60s. Central heating’s presumably a rarity, or the central plot point falls apart; why would someone carry a hot water bottle with them if they expected warm rooms? Caroline’s parents don’t have many of the things that families in the United States might have had–a car, a telephone, a television set–and even their house is on the small side. The evening meal is referred to as “tea”, and they eat things like liver-and-bacon. I expect that, as with many of the other books Scholastic marketed to kids a generation or two ago, this one hasn’t much appeal for modern kids…but I enjoyed it. Perhaps there are other Scholastic After School Specials style books for those of us who wax nostalgic about the era of buying books with our allowances–I found a purchase order in another similar book listing five books for $2. Sigh.
1not surprisingly, as Lady Wattlebury had cut a hole in the side for easier access to the bottle