Joan Aiken: Arabel, Mortimer and the Escaped Black Mamba
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
Barn Owl Books 2002 (1973)
Chris Cross comes to babysit preschooler Arabel Jones and her pet raven Mortimer but, this being an Arabel and Mortimer book, mayhem naturally ensues. The comedy of errors plays itself out, of course, and all’s well that ends well, but potential tragedy stalks our hapless innocents because this, after all, is a Joan Aiken book. Does it explain anything that there is no actual black mamba involved?
The action is initiated by a desire to procure some replacement milk for Chris while Mr and Mrs Jones are out at the Furriers’ Freewheeling Ball in Rumbury Town. Joan’s inventiveness includes Mortimer’s head being stuck in a trumpet, hitting the jackpot on an arcade fruit machine and a pair of shady characters with guns. But while Arabel, Mortimer and Chris wander the streets, Mrs Jones’ increasingly hysterical imagination and malapropisms make a drama out of a minor crisis. Quentin Blake’s minimalist illustrations perfectly capture the insouciance of the babysitter and the babysat, along with the confused adults trying to make sense out of the chaos.
When the Halloween season approaches our minds turn to the supernatural, the spectral and the sinister, with ravens often symbolising the spooky atmosphere of graveyards and haunted houses. Luckily Mortimer only reflects the ungainly aspect of these marvellous corvids, their possibly undeserved reputation for shiny things fully exploited by his search for diamonds in the most unlikely places, like airing cupboards and coal scuttles. Joan’s sense of the ridiculous surely appeals not only to this series’ young readership but also anyone who still harbours that inner child.