Perhaps the most intriguing mystery for intrepid teenage detective Jill Graham to investigate is this: who was Lesley Chase? And how does the author of six novels, all published within the living memory of anyone over the age of 50, vanish without a trace? It’s perhaps reassuring, in an age when the the internet has removed almost all of the mystique from our information-drenched lives, that the enigmatic Lesley has somehow managed to remain firmly off-grid. I can see that she (or he? Even the name is tantalisingly ambiguous) wrote half-a-dozen “Jill Graham” books between 1974 and 1980, but – as far as I can ascertain – no other work has ever been published under that name. And that’s it. Neither Google nor the books themselves offer any further clues as to the author’s identity.
Thankfully, I can tell you more about Jill Graham. She’s an endlessly optimistic 16-year-old school-leaver in the midst of a long, lazy summer holiday whose life, by anyone’s standards, appears to be nigh-on perfect. She lives in a rambling cottage in the tiny village of Shayle, tucked into the corner of some fairly non-specific rural English idyll. She has two loving parents; her father being the editor of the local newspaper, and her mother a cheery, stay-at-home mum seemingly happy to provide wholesome, home-cooked meals for anyone who passes through the house at any time of day or night. Her older brother John is an tousled trainee journalist, and his best friend Geoffrey is Jill’s dashing would-be suitor. And Jill has a best friend of her own, Susan, who lives in the neighbouring village of Fallowfield and works for a local estate agent.
Jill also rides a horse called Conker. Of course she rides a horse called Conker.
There’s something almost weirdly timeless about all of this: so much so that I have a nagging suspicion that the book might not actually have written in the 1970s at all. Jill, Susan, John and Geoffrey all seem to exist in a bubble entirely divorced from the experiences of ordinary 1970s teenagers: there is no mention of TV, pop music, fashion, or films. And the escapades that follow feel more like 1950s derring-do than swinging 70s adventures, so it possible that the enigmatic Lesley Chase had been sitting on these stories for some time before finding a publisher?
Either way, it’s a gentle, straightforward ramble through a crime caper worthy of the Childrens Film Foundation. Jill, while cutting through the sun-dappled trees of the local Druids Wood, chances upon a red-bearded and vaguely untrustworthy-looking sort of chap (“He was a shabbily-dressed man, short and broad of chest”) acting suspiciously around a delapidated woodland hut. As she peers from behind the bushes, he sinks a metal box of used lightbulbs into a dank pond, and arranges a midnight tryst at the same location with Susan’s creepy boss, Mr Mostyn.
Much to-and and fro-ing through the woods commences, as the intrepid Jill takes it upon herself to prevent the unspeakable crimes that she seems convinced are an inevitable consequence of these dastardly actions. After all, what good could ever come of a man with a lop-sided eyebrow sinking a tin of lightbulbs into a woodland pond? As it happens, she’s right – there is, of course, a murder plot to uncover, and an impromptu kidnap along the way, too. All of which Jill faces with the unshakable confidence and righteousness of… well, a well-heeled Home Counties girl who rides a horse called Conker. If there were hockey sticks involved here, they would – we can be assured – be far from sullen.
It’s interesting to read a story clearly targeted at a young female readership of the 1970s: the female characters are strong and undaunted (Jill is never afraid of the dangerous situations in which she is placed), and the males remain fairly peripheral. The pleasures of domesticity are heavily stressed too, and it has none of the “wyrd” trappings that I suspect might have been included had the publishers been attempting to attract an fanbase of teenage boys. It’s a perfectly pleasant read, concise and tightly-plotted with likeable characters, and left me with the nagging suspicion that teen fiction for female readers has been somewhat overlooked in the great 21st century audit of 1970s ephemera. I look forward to discovering, in some musty bookshop of the near future, the little-known seventh book in the series, Jill Graham and the Mystery of Lesley Chase.
Mustiness Report: A wholesome 4/10. A book with the odour of a fresh breeze, gently wafting across the Fallowfield meadows on a bright, August morning.