In which we meet 14-year-old Daniel Quint, who, with his little brother Manou, and Manou’s pet guinea-pig Patapon, has to follow his grandfather’s detailed instructions on how to get from his school in Besançon via Paris to the family villa, the Villa Etchola, in Chiberta, near Biarritz. However, when grandfather’s plans start to go astray, will Daniel and Manou make it safely to meet up with the rest of the family?
The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man was first published in 1958 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Les Pèlerins de Chiberta, which translates literally as The Pilgrims of Chiberta, with illustrations by Barry Wilkinson. Wilkinson was an experienced artist who worked on the children’s TV programmes Rainbow and Jackanory, as well as illustrating the book Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery in 1966. He lived from 1923 to 2007, and there is a blue plaque commemorating him outside his house in Compton Avenue, Brighton. As “The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1965, and by Puffin Books in 1968. Like the previous Puffin editions, it was translated by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the second Puffin edition, reprinted in 1977, bearing the price 50p. This edition has a cover illustration by Michael Charlton, another prolific illustrator of children’s books, who lived from 1923 to 2008.
A very different tone is set at the beginning of this book, from those Berna books we’ve already read. The ruffian gangs of Gaby and Charloun, and the working-class Frederick of Magpie Corner have been replaced by the much more refined Daniel and Manou, exquisitely presented and immaculately dressed and behaved, in a fine hotel dining room, able to hold their own with their innate class. Are we going to take to these privileged young chaps in the same way that we take the earlier gang members to our hearts? It’s a risk, but Berna is a master at the art of understanding how boys’ minds work; and that’s the same whether they’re ragamuffins or private schoolboys. We very quickly take them into our affections, admire their bravery and insight, their kindness and generosity, and despise those who take advantage of them. The family is rich enough to have access to a villa, and the boys are distinctly posh, but attractively so, rather than irritatingly so. We never want them to suffer or be discriminated against for their wealth. And if anyone tries to do them down, we hope they get their just desserts!
Perhaps the most interesting aspect to the book is Daniel’s strong fraternal feelings towards little Manou. He’s prepared to be both mother and father to the boy, feed him, care for him, make sure he’s safe and comfortable before thinking about his own interests. He lets him sleep whilst he, Daniel, stays alert and awake; he protects him from bad news whilst allowing himself to worry about what to do next. “In Daniel’s mind had been the ghastly fear of having Manou torn away from him. He could imagine him all on his own, cut off from the warmth and love of his family which until now had always been his and which from now on Daniel alone must provide.”
When they later meet up with Steve and Benny, two boys who have a pretty similar relationship to Daniel and Manou, who are even wealthier, but are in a pickle distinctly of their own making, this goes to emphasise the book’s message of kindness and family protection, but not in a serious, po-faced manner. The four boys have a great deal of fun together and see in each other fellow human beings facing the same difficulties and decisions. They become one family unit themselves, never seeking to outdo or outwit the other. They make a charming and reassuring friendship group, positive role models for the young reader.
Absent for much of the book, though with his presence often felt, is the boys’ grandfather, known for his “movement orders” – precise instructions that have to be followed to the letter. It’s a bit of a family joke, but in fact, Grandfather is a complete control freak! But he means well, and is very kindly, and it says a lot that, despite every single plan going wrong in this book, the family still feel the need to cover up the mistakes and conceal the truth from the old man. As Berna reflects, when Manou doesn’t tell the truth about the flowers, “it wasn’t so very big a sin to have told this small lie. It was better than upsetting a good old man who cared so very much for his family. How could you blame him for wanting to arrange a family reunion as a celebration of his long life and his happy marriage…” Grandfather’s insistence on precision rubs off on Daniel. One of the first things we learn about Daniel is how he sticks ruthlessly to time; for instance: “at ten twenty-five he gave his hair one last flick” before heading out at the appointed hour of 10:30.
The frontispiece for the book includes a map of France and details the journey that the boys make from Paris to Chiberta. Unlike all other Berna books so far, this one is characterised by the accuracy and reality of all the places covered in their story. Often Berna suggests a real place by giving it a fictitious name that’s similar. But in this book, all the places are genuine. Not only the places; directions, forests, train tracks that split, even cafés and streets are all true. This helps give the book a sense of being something of a travelogue. If you wanted to, you too could follow the boys’ intrepid journey. Avenue Marceau, Rue Quincampois, Les Halles, Rue St Martin, Rue de Bretagne in Paris are all real; on the journey to Chiberta, so are Pranzac, where the lorry crashes, Angouleme, Barbezieux, Labouheyre, Morcenx, Dax, and of course, Bayonne, Biarritz and Chiberta itself. There’s an almost “On The Road” feel to the night-time lorry journey with Peyrol, and the various odd characters that the boys encounter on their route south almost feel like it’s a kind of autobiographical journey. You can bet your bottom dollar that Berna covered that route himself.
The title of the book rather misrepresents the actual content of the book. The Cross-Eyed Man of the title isn’t really the source of a mystery – we know it’s the Interpol superintendent, Barboton, and it doesn’t take much guesswork to realise he’s on the track of the boys because there’s going to be a reward. Manou squints whenever he sees him, which today you might think is a little cruel to be taking the mickey out of someone for an affliction that isn’t their fault. But then, that’s often the case in a Berna book, and to be fair, children can be cruel! When he’s eventually confronted by Uncle Jérôme, he’s treated pretty harshly; but then, he doesn’t help himself either. But the actions of Barboton are of limited interest in comparison with the adventure that the boys – and as a result, we – enjoy. Berna’s original title, the Pilgrims of Chiberta, sums up the story much more accurately, and emphasises the long cross-country journey our heroes undertake, like a children’s picaresque novel as Daniel and Manou survive from scrape to scrape in different parts of the country.
There are a few moments of comedy in the book – largely slapstick and physical humour – primarily, the journey in the car with the young driver who’s just passed his test and can’t wait to take his car out on the road as fast as possible; and the fête at Labouheyre, where people skim up a greasy pole only to be pecked at by an angry goose. But both those moments of comedy highlight a slightly uncomfortable difference between what’s acceptable today and what worked well in 1958. The wacky driver casts care to the wind and hurtles through birds and animals without a thought for their wellbeing – and the kids find it hysterically funny. The goose is tied with its feet together suspended at the top of the pole in an experience that it must have found terrifying and painful – no wonder the poor thing kept on nipping at people’s ankles. Even the scene at the end of the book, where the residents of the Villa Etchola turn on the stray cats and basically terrorise them into leaving the garden, feels pretty distasteful today.
There are a few other signs of the times, which are interesting to note. Whenever Daniel tried to place a telephone call it always involved the operator, and limited time to speak, and weak connections, which seems so extraordinary in our days of easy communication. The manager at the Hotel is shocked at the slow transmission of a telegram – he’d be shocked to know they no longer exist! The story is also set against a surprise strike by the train drivers; France has a long history of strikes and in 1958 things would have been just as volatile in the employment sector as they are today.
If the book lacks anything, in comparison with Berna’s previous books, it’s a sense of gang mentality and loyalty. The two sets of boys hardly constitute a gang, although they do work together in a similar way to Gaby and Charloun’s teams. But there are interesting observations and behaviour patterns that come to the fore, particularly towards the end of the book; for instance, Steve’s anxiety at seeing his father again, and Daniel’s disagreement with what Steve and Benny did, by running off and scaring their parents.
I was very interested by Daniel’s experience of being conned into buying false tickets for the train. Precisely the same thing happened to me when I went to Paris for a brief holiday in 1985. Look bewildered at a train station and some helpful chap will always come along and “help you” with the ticket buying – pocketing the full amount and giving you a worthless ticket in return. It’s obviously a Parisien thing. Apart from that, the book doesn’t have too many serious moments or themes that it tries to examine. It’s really just a fun adventure to get from Paris to Chiberta with hardly any money and no parental advice!
Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading!
Chapter One – Grandfather Issues Movement Orders. We discover the smartly presented Daniel and well-behaved Manou dining at the Hotel Régina. Their presence gently amuses the other restaurateurs and their waiter gently teases them with his top-quality service. He’s even happy to provide Manou’s pet guinea-pig Patapon with some fresh lettuce leaves. We find out that the boys are waiting to be joined by other members of their family over the next few days.
Daniel re-reads his grandfather’s detailed instructions which they have clearly followed to the letter. After dinner, Daniel and Manou retire to bed, and Manou insists on Daniel giving him a bedtime story – something Grandfather Quint had predicted would be necessary. Unfortunately, it emerges that the grandparents are themselves delayed owing to having to stay behind for a medical appointment. Still, it won’t be a problem that the children will have to check in by themselves, just for one night. Surely? Anyway, Daniel has his instructions on how to meet up with his parents the next day, at the Gare St Lazare.
Chapter Two – Telephone Alarm. As planned, the boys get up at the appointed hour, and, nicely presented as ever, make their way to the Gare St. Lazare to meet the boat train from Le Havre. It was whilst talking to the florist from whom they bought a bunch of Parma violets to give to their mother that they discover that a sudden rail strike had been called. No trains were going out; a few were coming in.
In the absence of solid information, Daniel decided that their best course was to stay put and see if the train arrived. But come lunchtime they were hungry and took a taxi back to the Régina for a meal. They met the manager and he had good news for them. “The Passengers from the Armoric left Le Havre at eleven o’clock by road […] the first coaches should reach Paris at about three or four this afternoon.” Reassured, they ate, bought extra flowers (Manou had lost the violets) and awaited the arrival of their parents. But by five, they still hadn’t turned up. M. Hébert, the manager, was confused but was sure that there must be a sensible reason and he promised that Daniel and Manou would be well looked after whilst they were at the hotel.
To distract themselves, they went for a walk along the Seine. They returned to the hotel at dinner – still no parents. And whilst at dinner, Daniel overheard one of the waiters refer to them as “the orphans” which really upset him. Daniel decides he must ring his grandfather even though it will be late. But when he finally gets through to their hotel, he hears the news that they have checked out and taken the Strasbourg-Ventimiglia Express, as Uncle Jules and his family had been involved in a car accident. Nevertheless Grandfather had emphasised his decision that Daniel and Manou (and their parents) should stay in Paris and wait for further instructions. However, without their parents, Daniel can only panic.
Chapter Three – The Two Telegrams. The next morning, sure enough a telegram arrives for Daniel’s father from his grandfather – but he reads it anyway – confirming that Jules and Elvisa were slightly hurt in a crash, but their children are fine. His instructions are for the family to continue to Chiberta, and that Grandfather will join them in four or five days’ time. Daniel determines to step up to the mark and ensure that he and Manou get to Chiberta safely – although Hébert begs him not to spend too much time on the streets.
Whilst talking to a policeman at the station – and lying about being on their own in Paris – a young man spots the two boys, and after a quick hello and a flash of a camera light darts up the stairs and away. Daniel thinks nothing of it. Thinking on his feet, he goes to the Shipping Line offices and asks the clerk to confirm that his parents did actually take the Armoric to Le Havre. Daniel is mortified to discover that they disembarked in Southampton the day before instead. The shipping clerk suggests that Daniel leaves his address so that they can contact him if they hear anything more about his parents. “Quite unsuspecting, Daniel willingly told him.”
At the hotel another telegram awaits Daniel – although it was meant for his grandfather. It was from his father, saying that they won’t be able to come to Paris as planned and will meet them in Chiberta, they will fly direct to Biarritz. The news upsets Manou, making Daniel’s job even more difficult. Nevertheless, he convinces Hébert that it will be safe for him to let them go to Biarritz by a replacement coach service.
Meanwhile, the shipping clerk has seen a photo of the boys in the Europe-Soir newspaper. The comment reveals that one of the boys might be “Benny”. The clerk rings Interpol, where Inspector Barboton is very interested in the news. It’s clear that Daniel and Manou have been mistaken for another pair of kids, named Jackson-Villars, that might be in trouble with the law…
Chapter Four – The Cross-Eyed Man. Barboton arrives at the hotel and it is revealed that he has an “appalling squint”. He asks the hall porter if the Quint children are in the hotel and, after receiving a financial bribe, the porter tells them that they’ve gone to catch a coach. Barboton hot-foots it and espies the boys looking around, trying to find where to buy the tickets. A friendly chap approaches the boys and sells them the tickets, and then places them in a VIP queue. But when they get to the front, they discover that they’ve been conned. The 60 francs paid for tickets that are worthless.
They explain what’s happened to a policeman, who takes them to the local superintendent. The brusque, impatient man dismisses them curtly and they have to hang around in a temporary Reception Centre. Manou’s always on the look out for Barboton, and whenever he sees him, he squints back at him, much to the latter’s embarrassment.
A couple of fellow travellers tell Daniel about the lorry drivers up at Place Beaubourg near Les Halles who are giving people lifts across the country in their lorries – probably won’t take any payment either. When the cops are distracted by some other people, Daniel and Manou make a break for it – much to the superintendent’s fury. He too believes them to be the Jackson-Villars children.
Chapter Five – Place Beaubourg. It’s only when Daniel and Manou eventually ask a newspaper vendor where Place Beaubourg is that they discover it’s a made up name for where the lorry drivers all park up their vehicles. No wonder they couldn’t find it! When they get there the couple they met earlier directed them to the Café Charlot, where the lorry drivers get given their jobs. Daniel speaks to Madame Julie, whilst Manou entertains the lorry drivers with a performance from Patapon.
A few police turn up and unexpectedly ask a few questions of the drivers, and peer under a few tarpaulins. It’s obvious that they are looking for the boys, believing them to be the Jackson-Villars family. Madame Julie shows them the article in the Europe-Soir. Steve and Benny Jackson-Villars had run away from their wealthy home in Chantilly. Everyone is on the lookout for them. Daniel and Manou have been caught up in an unfortunate case of mistaken identity. Julie suggests they tell the police that, but Daniel thinks that’s a guarantee that he and Manou will be split up.
The locals treat the brothers well and they have a good meal, and all Daniel’s attempts to pay are rebuffed. Eventually they meet an elderly driver, Peyrol, who is prepared to take them as far as Bordeaux in his lorry, Theophilus. He challenges them to deny they are the Jackson-Villars boys, but it turns out that Peyrol knows Grandfather Quint from business deals way back when. Shortly they set off into the night, and just as they’re leaving, the lorry lights flash on a prowler – and it’s the cross-eyed man.
Chapter Six – The Crash. Peyrol drives to the Thomasson Works at Bagneaux to collect the load. Then, with Manou asleep and Daniel fighting tiredness, they hit the road south towards Tours. Peyrol notices the sharp beam from the vehicle who’s been behind him ever since they left Bagneaux. He stops, and the yellow beams of a taxi drive past. Then they set up for an all-nighter via Orleans and Chatellerault. At a police stop, the officers find the boys but Peyrol says they’re his nephews. Back on the road, Peyrol is being followed again. This time he makes a sudden devious move off the road and the taxi behind him drives on. But it’s clearly becoming a problem.
Come morning, and there’s another, fuller roadblock. Another driver advises Peyrol to get rid of his passengers and suggests an alternative route via Angouleme. Daniel feels guilty and offers to get out of the truck, but Peyrol is having none of it, enjoying the adventure himself. Driving through the night and into the morning and all is going well until… there’s something wrong with the lorry. The brakes are failing. They’re going faster and losing control. Then….crash!
The lorry is on its side and its passengers and driver crawl out. Relatively unharmed, but the same can’t be said for Theophilus. Chassis split in two, axles broken, bonnet squashed, tyres blown. The local police will be there soon, so Peyrol suggests – orders, in fact – that the boys walk on to Angouleme and try to catch a coach there.
Chapter Seven – The Bone-Shaker. Walking into Pranzac, the boys chance upon some ladies waiting at a bus stop. The bus from Montbron was coming in, they squeezed on board and left for Angouleme. Daniel goes off to find information about future coaches and when he comes back he is horrified to find that the Cross-eyed man is standing next to Manou. Daniel charges at him with a rugby tackle. Shocked, the man protests but Daniel is furious. “You keep away from us! […] If I find you hanging around again, I promise you’ll be sorry for it!”
The boys find a pleasant, quiet spot and finish off the rest of Peyrol’s sandwiches. An older teenager appears, exhausted, from a long bike ride. Daniel offers him some lemonade, and after a brief chat, the teenager says they can have his bike – as his behind’s too red raw! So now the boys have an old bone-shaker of a bike. They prepare it as best as they can for the long cycle ahead.
Twenty miles later, beyond Barbezieux, and they’re really struggling, but they make a game of it and push themselves as much as they can. By the time they reach Bordeaux in the evening, the bike is in several pieces – but it got them there! After some free and very rustic soup, they spent the night sleeping in some straw.
Chapter Eight – Bastille Day. Fireworks wake the boys up, and Daniel realises it’s Bastille Day. A quick wash in the river, then it’s on to a café for morning chocolate and a phone call through to the Villa Etchola in the hope of catching either an uncle or the housekeeper. But there’s no reply. The Cross-Eyed Man is still there though, watching them, much to the boys’ irritation.
And then, in an instant, the two storylines cross over as Daniel overhears two other boys talking. They start to chat together and then he realises… “You wouldn’t be the Jackson-Villars boys, would you?” Shortly they’re all howling with laughter as Daniel explains how everyone thinks they are Steve and Benny, and Steve explains why he and his brother are on the run – as a protest against how the family is going to be divided up once their parents separate – Steve and his father will be in New York, while Benny and his mother will be in some other far flung location.
Daniel suggests Steve and Benny accompany Manou and him to Chiberta. After all, the police are looking for two boys, not four. Daniel sends a telegram to Steve and Benny’s parents on their behalf, apologising for running away and emphasising how much they love them. Then they blow Steve’s remaining 20 francs on lunch – still under the watchful eyes of the Cross-Eyed Man.
After lunch they continue to walk towards Bayonne, and eventually they strike it lucky with a man who will give all four boys a lift in his car. He’s a young man, and it looks like this is his first car – and his first passengers, so he’s very excited at the prospect of the journey. However, he’s just passed his test – having failed ten times before. Is this going to be the car journey from Hell?
Chapter Nine – The Empty Train. It is for Daniel! The others shriek with excitement as the young driver breaks the speed limit and barely notices the road at all. Daniel does appreciate the way the miles to Bayonne are getting shorter though! And the local wildlife had better beware as the driver doesn’t care about them either. Naturally, the car ends up hitting a bank and dislodging a headlight. Back on the road, terrifying cows, and then one of the tyres blows. Back on the road, the driver wrecks a music and dance festival and is finally – FINALLY! – stopped by two police officers, who issue him with a summons.
Unsurprisingly, the car needs to cool down. Undeterred, the driver does his best to get it started again – and then realises he needs the boys to push him into a jump start. It’s so successful that the car roars off – leaving the boys (with their luggage, fortunately) behind. The car might have got them to Chiberta – but they also might have died in the process.
They walk as far as Labouheyre, a market town which is en fête for Bastille Day and the boys join in all the sideshows and races. One of the stalls features a greasy pole but if you climb to the top you can claim one of the food prizes. Daniel has his eye on the ham, but the second person to attempt the climb gets there and chooses that prize. Steve decides to have a go. One of the prizes at the top is a live goose who likes to peck at anyone who gets close – and that’s precisely what happens to Steve, and down he comes, without a prize. Daniel, however, wins the day with his attempt, bringing down the pole as well as the dazed goose. But what to do with the bird? A restaurateur suggests swapping it for a meal for four in his restaurant. Done! And for their bed that night, Manou spots an empty train in its sidings. The boys all get in and spread out amongst the first-class compartments. Unexpected luxury!
Chapter Ten – Blast-off. Daniel wakes up from a funny dream where all his family are journeying to Chiberta on an exclusive train. But what does he see when he wakes up? The train they slept on is moving! Whilst they were sleeping it was brought into service. What are they going to do when the ticket collector asks for their tickets? They decide to keep the blinds down and hope not to be noticed. It turns out that they weren’t the only stowaways, and a number of people get off the train when it stops a mile or so from Bayonne – including the Cross Eyed Man!
They’ve got just enough coins to get the bus to Chiberta. Thrilled finally to arrive there, they make their way to the Villa Etchola. There’s no one else there yet, but Mme Bégou the housekeeper spots them and invites the boys in for some breakfast. Later on, whilst the boys are relaxing in the garden, the cross-eyed man makes another appearance. Daniel can’t take any more of this. But before he causes a scene, Steve shows him an article in the local paper that Mme Bégou left behind. The reward for finding the Jackson-Villars boys is now fifty thousand francs. Daniel decides to telegram Steve and Benny’s parents so that no one else can claim the reward.
The first family member to arrive is Uncle Jérôme, who decided to stay with friends in Bordeaux. When the boys explain their adventure to him he is most impressed. And now he also has to think what to do about the cross-eyed snooper, Barboton. He gets out his elephant gun in order to fire a warning shot. But first he gives Barboton the chance to move on. Barboton feigns deafness – but he hears the gunshot all right! And quick as a flash he’s on his bike and dashes off.
Next to arrive, just before dinner, are Pascal and Lucy. During the evening they reveal that Jules and his family are perfectly well. But how to deal with Grandfather, who will be mortified to discover that his movement orders came to nothing? Pascal and Lucy also don’t want him to know about their night in London! Daniel says that he won’t keep the fifty thousand francs, but wants to give it to the one person who suffered as a result of helping them – M. Peyrol.
Chapter Eleven – Happy Days. All’s well at the Villa Etchola as the family have some childish fun in their new environment. A telegram announces the arrival of Steve and Benny’s father by air that evening. This makes Steve anxious.
Taxis from the station bring Granny and Grandfather, Jules and Elvisa, and their two children. Grandfather insists on knowing that all his instructions were followed meticulously, and the whole family dutifully lies to him in agreement! Grandfather wants to know who Steve and Benny are – and they tell him they are schoolfriends of Daniel. Some wild cats break into the garden in the hope of eating Patapon but the family scare them off – Jérôme with his gun, the others with a hose of soaking water.
When the Jackson-Villars arrive, Grandfather recognises Steve and Benny’s mother, an attractive woman who used to be a film star. The father presents Daniel with the cheque, which he accepts on behalf of Peyrol. Jackson-Villars asks Daniel if he thinks Steve and Benny did the right thing by running away. ““No”, Daniel replied, unprompted. “I think children have better ways of making their protest just as strongly. It was bad luck Steve chose the worst way he possibly could. You can blame his Irish blood. It makes him do things on the spur of the moment.””
The book ends with Grandfather agreeing the purchase of three bottles of fine champagne to celebrate. And he suggests writing out a movement order to get them. “”No!” his three sons yelled with one voice, raising imploring arms to heaven.”
To sum up; The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man is an exciting, humorous adventure story that demonstrates care for younger family members and the ability of boys to become friends unexpectedly. As is often the case with Berna, there are few slightly worrying aspects – specifically cruelty or callousness to animals being a source of humour; but it is a product of its time. It’s a light, fun book to read, pacey and exciting. I am, though, still perplexed at how Daniel proposes to get the money to Peyrol – I don’t think they exchanged addresses, and Facebook didn’t exist in those days! If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Paul Berna’s next book was Le Champion, which has never been translated into English. After that came La Grande Alerte, translated into English as Flood Warning. I remember this as being a gripping and sometimes frightening adventure. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.