Keys to mystery

Joan Aiken: The Song of Mat and Ben
A St Boan Mystery
Illustrated by Caroline Crossland
Red Fox 2001

Ned Thorne has had a dream similar to one his Aunt Lal has had, of two cherubic-faced boys in old-fashioned clothes entering the bookshop run by his Uncle Adam. Returning — not without mishap — to the Cornish town of St Boan, young Ned has to combat with blizzards, bullies and human bugbears, the ghostly appearances of those twins being just the prelude. The key that helped him solve a mystery in the first story, In Thunder’s Pocket, may prove to have a crucial part to play in The Song of Mat and Ben.

As well as the supernatural, the second novelette in the St Boan Mystery trilogy focuses on an artistic endeavour, much as the first dealt with sculpture and the third will feature poetry. This time it’s music, as the title makes clear: the song is a ballad about the siblings, Matthew and Benjamin Pernel, whose demises a century before has caused ripples of resentment down the years. The questions the reader will inevitably ask are, Does Ned manage to solve the mystery? and How are things resolved? As usual, Joan Aiken doesn’t disappoint in bringing things to unexpected but satisfying conclusions.

The author peppers many of her stories with snippets of verse and suggestions of music. This piece is no exception, and the illustration heading chapter 3 even illustrates the opening two bars of ‘The Song of Mat and Ben’, a lively jig tune in the key of D major. The rising motif bridging a perfect fourth is reminiscent of the opening of another, more famous Cornish tune, the Obby Oss song sung every May Day in the procession winding through the streets of Padstow; indeed, we are intended to recall this ceremony in the closing pages of the book, even though the action is all set during a very wintry March instead of the summer.

This being a Joan Aiken book, however straightforward a story of suspense it appears at first sight to be one can’t help being alert to all kinds of fun the author is having along the way; two examples will illustrate what I mean. Set in Cornwall, the story maintains a sense of place by referencing such symbolic signposts as ancient mines, a seaside village and its local museum, and a small community where nearly everyone wants to know their neighbour’s business. And that the key which Ned was given by Eden in the previous book doubtless brought to the author’s mind the idea of a key to a song, which in turn provided the key to this decidedly spooky and sinister mystery.


The final book of the St Boan trilogy is Bone and Dream.

In the monthly challenge set by local bookshop Book-ish this is a book with a musical theme

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11 thoughts on “Keys to mystery

    1. Entertaining is exactly the word, Lizza, and clearly she loved spinning these tales. I was intrigued to see these advertised on the back page of the Red Fox edition of The Cuckoo Tree, intrigued because I’d never heard of them before, and I don’t think you’d mentioned them on the blog (though I may have missed it).

      Anyway, highly enjoyable. I wonder, judging from the format, were they aimed at reluctant readers?

  1. Sounds like a fine read! I do love it when you can see author’s having fun with their characters and storytelling. Yet another reason I love Diana Wynne Jones so much–you can just hear her laughing during some of those exchanges between characters. After reading a bunch of “dark fantasy” books, I find myself more and more driven to keep my characters snarky. It might read like some action schlock one-liners now and then, but darnit, I’d like a laugh now and then when I read, ya know? 🙂

    1. Sometimes it’s good to have a good old guffaw, Jean, other times a sly smile. I agree, some fiction is just too relentlessly dark to be really enjoyable. Of course, it could be an age thing!

      Diana Wynne Jones: I think I’ve read all her fiction apart from stuff for younger readers, Changeover and the odd short story in collections I haven’t got. However, I haven’t reviewed a good half of them, and I’m getting a yen to re-acquaint myself with stuff I haven’t read for a good decade or more. Soon, I hope!

      1. I do hope so! I get this urge to balance out the grit in my cinema, too. All those dark DC movies, for instance. I don’t need any more “edgy-ness,” thank you very much. Time to pop in the ol’ beauty of The Batman movie starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Now THERE’S a superhero flick! Where else can one find penguin submarines and Batman running around with a bomb trying not to throw it at ducklings or nuns? 🙂 xxxxxxxxxxx

        1. Hmm, remember watching the episodes broadcast on tv in the 60s, when all my fellow students thrilled to be told that Batman has no wings, doesn’t fly, “So don’t try!” and Robin warned us about “Holy Broken Bones!”

          Innocent days…

  2. Played in my head, that seems a promising snatch. I am completely miffed that Joan Aiken (obviously well before me) has used a key, that unlocks something, as a musical one. I was proud of that touch in my ‘Regina’.

    The description you have given is alluring indeed. One of these days I must indulge in a reading banquet, and an author I shall no doubt gorge upon thanks to you will be Aiken.

    1. I know I do go on at length about her writings but I have to admit I’m utterly charmed by her and her books. If I can increase the number of her fans by even a small number I will be more than happy. 😊

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