In which we make a welcome reacquaintance with young Bobby Thiriet, his family and friends, and the student journalists who work on the P. S. N. – the Puisay Students News. At the end of The Clue of the Black Cat, it was reported that a mule had been found running along a motorway. How did it get there, and what was it running from? Did it survive the experience? Charlie Baron of the P. S. N. thinks there could be a story in this – and he is right! What is the story of the mule who was found dodging the traffic, and if there are criminals involved, will Bobby and the gang get to the bottom of it?
The Mule on the Motorway was first published in 1967 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Commissaire Sinet et le mystère de l’autoroute du sud, which translates literally as Commissioner Sinet and the mystery of the southern highway, with illustrations by Gareth Floyd, a prolific children’s illustrator best known for his illustrations on BBC TV’s Jackanory programme. As “The Mule on the Motorway”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1967, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the first edition. It was published in the US under the more appropriate title The Mule on the Expressway. Currently I can only see one second hand copy for sale online, in Australia.
Once again we’re in the company of Bobby Thiriet and his friends, whom we met in The Clue of the Black Cat. Commissioner Sinet is still in charge of the local Puisay police, and the students at Bobby’s school still run the P. S. N. – the Puisay Students’ News. The story of the Mule on the Motorway was set up at the end of the previous book, so it’s quite a surprise that it took four years for the book to come to fruition – in the meantime Berna had been writing other books (for adults) under his pseudonym Paul Gerrard. The first chapter makes it clear that the activity of The Clue of the Black Cat wasn’t very long ago – those missing years have vanished into thin air!
As always, Berna gives a great insight into what it’s like being a member of a gang. In the previous book, it was Bobby who, although he’s the youngest in the group, is definitely the hero of the story. In this book, Bobby sits at one end of the story, with his preoccupation with looking after Quicksilver, the mule, and providing his voice in the back column of the newspaper. But at the business end of the story, Charlie Baron plays a much more prominent role as the editor of the P. S. N., generally masterminding everyone’s activities and bringing the story together under one narrative roof, so to speak. The gang mentality is always there in the background, but isn’t forced to the forefront of the story as it sometimes is with Berna. In the previous book, it was Sinet who revealed himself a little jealous no longer to be a gang member; in this book it’s Bobby’s father George. He continues to admire his sons’ activities, with just a tinge of remorse: “George Thiriet was once more discussing the activities of the boys with a sarcasm and a bitterness which cloaked his jealousy, and, no doubt, his regret at having grown too old to join in.”
Now that the Thiriets live in the Belloy Estate, there isn’t such a distinction to be made between the wealth or poverty of the characters, as there was in The Clue of the Black Cat. In fact, classes mix seamlessly in this story, with the obviously wealthy and well-to-do Colonel Brousse exercising his largesse and allowing Quicksilver to live in his stables. With Bobby almost exclusively at the stables while he’s not at school, there’s no real difference between the haves and the have-nots in this story.
Commissioner Sinet is once more in charge, initially disappointed not to have had any communication from Bobby and the guys, but the story soon makes up for that. We also meet the Gendarme Patard, whom Bobby first thinks might be a character they could poke fun at, but later plays a small but very significant part in the investigations. Later we also discover Sinet’s colleague Commissioner Charrel, an avuncular, pipe-smoking, decent sort of chap whom Sinet has briefed well about the capabilities of the gang.
It’s an excellent companion piece to The Clue of the Black Cat, which remains my favourite Berna book and in fact my favourite children’s book of all time. I like how the characters have developed from how we met them in the first book; Bobby’s love of animals continues to play a focal role in the stories, and it’s essentially another exciting thriller/whodunit, with a genuinely surprising secret that gets revealed towards the end. Plus there’s the fun of the student journos; and once again Berna sets up his next book A Truckload of Rice from a throwaway line by Charlie towards the end. With the Black Cat up front and the Truck of Rice at the back, the three books more or less make a mule sandwich!
As with the previous story, the setting for this book is the fictional Parisien suburb of Puisay. This time, Berna has furnished us with a detailed map of the town, showing the location of the police station, the Belloy Estate and more. We can locate the riding club, M Broquin’s nursery, Patard’s home in the Rue Gaboriau, even the premises of Ariméca. He shows us the areas that are old Puisay, new Puisay and those areas scheduled for redevelopment. The district of Puisay does not stand still. However, of course, just outside Puisay Berna brings real locations into the story. Verrières-le-Buisson, for example, where Poussard discovers M. Lantoine, does exist; it’s the next-door town to Antony. Wissous, site of the Carbonato car lot, is also a real town, adjacent to Orly Airport.
I had noted that the one thing the previous book lacks is a strong female presence. Again, this book very much has the same cast of characters, and it’s still an issue. The only active female presence is Lily, and she is still rather put upon and her brother Charlie only allows her to do the typing – very misogynistic in its approach. She’s sent out to see Broquin because he sells flowers and “flowers are girls’ things” says Belmont. Charlie is very dismissive of his sister: “Run a comb through your hair and get your make-up on!… Look at her! She looks as though she’s been pulled through a hedge backwards.” However, her role does develop during the course of the book. When she comes up trumps with suggestions for pushing the investigation forward, Charlie comments: “We’ve been making a big mistake in shutting you up in the news-room all the evening. You’re as good as Flatfoot or the three Thiriets on an outside job.” High praise indeed, he says, sarcastically.
Naturally, Berna’s writing is a joy throughout the book, but the short paragraph I enjoyed the most is when he describes the crushing procedure of the scrap metal at the site in Wissous. “The burnt-out or shattered wrecks were laid out in some sort of order, depending on their state of damage. Tractors were continually moving up and down the lines to tow away he better samples to the salvage depot which formed one end of this mournful motor show-room. Men in asbestos gloves and fibre-glass masks cut the wrecks up with blow-lamps, removing the last scrap of alloy or special steel, and leaving merely a shapeless mass of chassis or coach-work. This was then picked up by a mobile crane and dropped into the jaws of a gigantic hydraulic press, mounted on rails and dominating the landscape […] The jaws of this mechanical ogre crushed the metal with a sinister snapping sound. The mass, now reduced to two-thirds of its original size, was passed on to be squeezed still smaller in the angry hiss of the steam-press, to become first a cube, then a rectangle and finally, at the end of the process, to be thrown out like a parcel. All that remained of what had once been a gleaming, speeding car was reduced to the ridiculous dimensions of a suitcase.” There’s a sense of innocent excitement, and an admiration for the skill and ingenuity involved, at this industrial procedure that otherwise might simply be a commonplace observation. Berna can wring delight out of the simplest thing.
The other aspect of the book which strikes you so strongly today is the prevalence of smoking amongst the young people. As in Magpie Corner, it’s so alien to our minds that a children’s book should have anything involving smoking. But this is France in the 1960s, which was a very different society. In one scene, played for laughs, Sinet offers Quicksilver some Gitanes cigarettes, and the mule obliges by chomping and chewing them. In another scene Charlie offers the Gendarme Patard his last cigarette. Can you imagine today a boy offering a policeman a cigarette?
Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. By the way, this is only the third Berna title (after Magpie Corner and Flood Warning) where the chapters don’t have individual titles. 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. Bobby Thiriet arrives at the police station wanting to meet Commissioner Sinet. New policeman Patard wonders why the boy is so familiar with Sinet and the station, and Malin, “the Commissioner’s right-hand man”, explains the con trick that the Thiriets endured a few weeks before – the plot of The Clue of the Black Cat. Surprised, Patard is given a copy of the Puisay Students’ News where he reads how the case of the black cat had now come to an end. But now there is a new problem to solve – the stray mule who was “run over one December night on the motorway between Arcueil and Rungis. Where had he come from, and where was he going?”
Patard is unimpressed. But Malin recommends he keeps reading future editions of the P. S. N. – and if he rubs Bobby up the wrong way, he’ll end up appearing in the paper “under a false name, but everyone in Puisay will be able to recognise Patard the policeman.” Meanwhile Sinet is disappointed that Bobby hasn’t kept in touch much recently. Sinet has a bombshell for Bobby – the mule didn’t die in the accident. However, it has been sent to the abattoir at Vaugirard, to be auctioned in a few days’ time. That’s one slaughtered mule and one story less for the P. S. N. Is there anything that can be done about it? Bobby and Sinet go into secret discussion.
The scene changes to the offices of the P. S. N. Charlie Baron is in charge; his ace investigators are Bobby’s brothers, Jacques and Laurent; Belmont is the best at doorstep interviews, Patureau – better known as Flatfoot – is the cartoonist and photographer, and Charlie’s sister Lily is the typist. Bobby arrives and tells them what Sinet said – including that, if they could get the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to back them, they might be able to buy the mule from the slaughterhouse. Charlie’s thoughts turn to how to re-write the P. S. N. headlines – including a subscription for the rescue of the mule.
Meanwhile, back at the Thiriets’ apartment, George, Bobby’s father, doesn’t see how the “flimsy story” of the mule is going to be of any interest to anyone. Bobby plays with Ivanhoe, the black cat that Sinet gave him at the end of the previous book; he doesn’t agree with his father. “That mule didn’t get into the rush hour traffic from Paris all by himself. So one of two things must have happened: either someone must have wanted to get rid of him so badly that they pushed him on to the motorway and they’d have to be pretty good swine to do that, or else the mule was being ill-treated and chased by some toughs and this was the only way to escape his pursuers.” Not only that, but the mule was pulling a cart – and there’s no sign of that anywhere – where is it? Thiriet is certain that the boys shouldn’t interfere with the police and should take no further part in the investigation. But the Thiriet boys have other ideas…
Chapter Two. On Friday morning the P. S. N. was on sale as usual. Flatfoot had come up with an excellent photo of a mule – albeit not the one in question, but who was to know? Charlie has written some purple prose to accompany the image, referring to the “beseeching, almost a reproachful, look in his dim eyes”. It’s accompanied by a demand for the readers to donate money to save “the poor orphan”. Some students planned to be generous with their contributions; others saw it as just a joke. Flatfoot does some investigating and concludes that 39% of the school are behind them all the way.
At the P. S. N. offices, Lily is in charge of receiving the cash. But the initial response is not as good as they had hoped. ““Ninety-five francs fifty,” Lily announced. “That’s not a very bright start.”” No one is waiting to make a donation. “Perhaps the chaps thought this mule on the motorway was an April Fool joke,” suggests Belmont. Charlie rounds on Flatfoot for his poor quality research. Just then, one of Bobby’s friends, Poussard, popped in with two francs, apologising for not being able to give more. This gives the others hope that they might be on the right track after all.
Just then, an unexpected visitor arrives in the form of Colonel Brousse, who runs the local stables and riding club. He makes an offer to stable the mule for free, in return for its doing some odd jobs. Charlie is overwhelmed. Brousse criticises the write-up though – the mule needs a name, and the photograph is of a Picardy donkey! He donates fifty francs and leaves. The boys suggest a number of names but in the end it is Laurent’s suggestion that wins favour – they decide to call the mule Quicksilver.
Chapter Three. Sinet has taken responsibility for buying the mule from the auction, but the prices are rising. ““By Wednesday evening mule-on-the-hoof had risen to a thousand francs, and they were very far from having that amount of money. “Got it?” Monsieur Sinet asked the youngster, with deliberate coldness. “Only eight hundred,” Bobby answered with a tremor in his voice. “And even that’s the result of a terrific effort on our part.”” Bobby and Sinet realise there might be something suspicious in the fact that so much money is being offered for the beast. They’re 250 francs short – but a Madame Gilardoni, who runs The Society for the Welfare of Slaughter House Animals, has donated 150 francs, and Sinet himself is prepared to give a hundred “in memory of all the excitement the Black Cat gave us.” Sinet also reveals that it was he who advised Brousse about the mule, so the offer of the stabling is genuine. Sinet says they should pick a name for the mule – and when he finds out what they’re calling him, he buries his head in his hands.
The Thiriet brothers arrive at the Saint Just riding club, and meet Joel Brousse, the stable lad. He shows them the stable that’s been prepared for Quicksilver. Flatfoot arrives on his Vespa, accompanied by the Colonel, Sinet and the mule, who is distinctly skittish. “What do you think of him”, asks the Colonel. “At first Charlie and the others could not speak. They were amazed and appalled by the sheer ugliness of the beast, for it was still in its winter coat, a tangle of coarse, dull black with a coppery sheen in places. The scar from his accident had left a broad strip of bare, black skin running along his right side from shoulder to haunch. To add to it all, his groom at the slaughterhouse had shaved his mane and docked his tail, as they do to all horses before they are killed. “What a ghastly sight!” Lily sighed. “To think we took all this trouble to save that old door-mat from the knackers…””
From his teeth, two stable lads estimate the mule is nearer twenty-five years old than twenty. But he has good hoofs and shoes, and Charlie is convinced they’ll drag the mule’s secret out of him – or Bobby will, with his way with animals. In fact, Bobby spends some time with Quicksilver, giving him food, helping him settle in to his new stable. He tells the others that he and Quicksilver have had a private chat. “He doesn’t want to meet those shady characters in Puisay again; the ones who hung around offering three times what we paid for him.” This chance remark fills Charlie with optimism for good material for the P. S. N. and arouses Sinet’s suspicion that All Is Not Quite Right.
Chapter Four. Friday’s P. S. N. is dominated by news about Quicksilver. News, opinion, maps and a back page piece by Bobby written as though by the mule himself. He confesses he has lost his memory, but guesses he was mistreated by his former master and wonders where he is hiding now. He also refers to the large sums that were surprisingly being offered for him. Quicksilver challenges the reader to solve the problem and work out what happened to him and who was his master. He also reveals that he can be visited – for free if you had contributed to his fund, or for one franc if you hadn’t.
Quicksilver receives twenty or thirty regular visitors, much to the delight of Colonel Brousse who expects to increase his membership as a result. Lily is also delighted at the additional income. But the investigations quickly come to a standstill. Belmont suggests they widen their search area. But then Poussard arrives with news from Verrières-le-Buisson; it might belong to M. Lantoine, the market-gardener. Lantoine told Poussard that his mule Dynamo wasn’t missing and was well-behaved; but Poussard didn’t believe him. Flatfoot leads a group of them to Lantoine’s farm on the pretence that they have to take a photograph of a mule. Lantoine lets them visit Dynamo’s stable, but warns them he can be grumpy. But true enough, there’s a mule there, who got very grumpy when they photographed him.
Meanwhile at the riding club, Brousse gets an unexpected visitor in the form of Vlado Markovitch of the Brandenburg Circus in Rotterdam, resplendent in a Tyrolean hat, looking for a mule to join the Bengal Tigers in their circus act. It sounds very unlikely – but Brousse directs him to where Quicksilver is stabled.
Chapter Five. Bobby has been spending all his spare time looking after Quicksilver, and already the mule is in better condition. Bobby was just chatting to him and preparing to leave for the evening when Markovitch approached him. He repeats his unlikely offer (which includes five thousand francs for the owner) which has Bobby in fits of laughter. Bobby tells Markovitch to tell Quicksilver the plan, at which “the mule suddenly shot out its neck. Its teeth snapped so close to Vlado’s ear that the Tyrolean hat flew up into the air.”
The offer obviously rejected by both boy and mule, Markovitch goes off, muttering angrily. The Colonel asks how much he offered Bobby, and deduces “I’m beginning to think that the animal’s been involved in something pretty murky.” Bobby agrees – but anything that Quicksilver has told him is staying a secret for the moment. Sinet arrives, and goes up to the stall. The Thiriet brothers are there, talking with Joel Brousse and Poussard. Meanwhile, Quicksilver enjoys chewing on Sinet’s Gitanes cigarettes.
They are all perplexed as to why people are willing to part with so much money for the mule, when he’s not worth anything like that much on the market. Sinet’s suspicion is that he was “used in some criminal activity, and that he might be recognised by someone who witnessed what happened, and that this would give the police a lead to the crooks who used him.” He thinks further: when the crooks thought the mule had died, they thought they were in the clear. But when they discover that he survived, and has been bought from the slaughterhouse, they have to do something to get him back. And Sinet’s not convinced that Lantoine has no connection with the crime either; although there’s no need to question him further at the moment. “Just leave it all to Quicksilver, or rather to Bobby.”
Chapter Six. Brousse secures his copy of the latest P. S. N. It tells how a character (now named Igor Popovitch) has appeared at the stable wanting to buy the mule. Quicksilver’s own reminiscences are also in print (courtesy of Bobby). He says he remembers being led away by Popovitch and then being knocked down by more than one car and left to die – and when Popovitch returned to collect him, he refused to go along with his story. “I’d rather have died in the slaughterhouse than trot round the ring in front of five thousand people with a Bengal tiger perched on my back.”
That afternoon at the stable, an older boy named Langlais – one of Charlie’s enemies – comes to see Quicksilver. It turns out he knows Lantoine and Dynamo. Dynamo has a tendency to escape and cause damage, so Lantoine decided to get rid of him. Langlais is convinced Quicksilver is Dynamo. Bobby tells him to go to the P. S. N. offices, tell Charlie, and go off with Belmont to confront Lantoine.
Langlais and Belmont help the market-gardener with some work and Langlais goes to see Dynamo. He realises it’s a different mule – and Lantoine confirms this. “Every mule I’ve had for the last twenty years has been called Dynamo. This one’s the fourth in the line.” Lantoine goes on to tell the boys what happened to the previous Dynamo. “About the middle of December, some idiot came round and gave me two thousand francs for that lump of dogs’ meat. I managed to replace that horror and still have a bit over as well – this mule only cost me half that.” But who was it who bought the mule? Broquin, an ugly nurseryman from Puisay, accompanied by “a fat little man, as dark as an Indian, with a little moustache. Very well dressed, he was.” Could that be Markovitch, thinks Belmont? Lantoine agrees that Broquin paid too much for Dynamo: “[he] didn’t know the prices and he didn’t bargain for more than a few minutes. He wanted a mule and a cart in a hurry for some sort of job. I don’t know what it was. He paid me in cash and off he went. What he did next is none of my business.”
It’s agreed that Lily and Langlais should go to see Broquin.
Chapter Seven. The two investigators walk around the nursery as though they’re lovey-dovey in love. Eventually Broquin introduces himself to them and asks how he can help. They respond by asking about plants they can put on the balcony, but inside they are shocked that the man they are talking to is Broquin as he is not ugly, and nothing like the description that Lantoine gave. Broquin sadly tells them that he’s retiring soon – against his will, but there was no future in his business. But he doesn’t believe the two and asks for the real purpose of their visit. “A mule”, replies Langlais. Broquin introduces them to his mule – a little yellow tractor, that does the work far better. But when Langlais explains exactly why they are there, Broquin is offended. He denies any knowledge of the animal and escorts the pair off his property. But as they are ready to leave, Langlais spots hoof-marks on the edge of the path. The penny drops, and Langlais offers to help find out if he sold goods to someone with a mule on the day in question. “Your fellow seems to have been here with his mule and cart on the sixteenth of December last. He made four trips during the course of the afternoon to remove six tons of compost and twenty bags of fertiliser. He paid cash.” His name? Lantoine. So it’s a double bluff.
And that’s not all. The day before, another man was looking for a big load of compost. A well dressed, middle-aged gentleman. It doesn’t add up. Why “he should have considered it essential to buy a mule and cart especially for the job […] when a tipper-truck would have finished it all in one go.” They tell Broquin to start buying the P. S. N. to find out more. Broquin’s final suggestion is that “now you’ve got hold of the mule, why don’t you try to get hold of the cart?”
Chapter Eight. The first decision of the day at the P. S. N. is to give a name to the mystery man who has duped by Broquin and Lantoine. Laurent suggests Slewjaw because both men said his jaw was lopsided. Then Lily comes up with the idea that the cart might have been left on a car-dump. Belmont agrees to check out the site at La Croix-de-Berny, and Jacques the place at Wissous. When Belmont returns, he has no news – the site is a free for all, and anyone could help themselves to anything there. And there was no sign of the cart.
Jacques, however, has more luck. He’s entranced by watching the hydraulic press that crushes the metal of all the old vehicles that have been dumped there. But then he spies a little cart – “painted dark green, it had rubber tyres with wavy treads and it seemed in first-rate order.” There’s a sticky black mess at the bottom, which Jacques believes is the remains of the compost after rain. The foreman offers it to him for a hundred francs, but Jacques tells him he only has fifty. The offer is accepted, and the business concluded.
Chapter Nine. Jacques hurtles at full speed to the stable to tell Bobby that he has found Lantoine’s cart. Bobby instantly asks him if he completely sure and Jacques feels slightly worried but is satisfied he did the right thing. They tell the Colonel, who suggests Bobby leads the mule to Wissous. Bobby is very alarmed at this – happy that he’s got the confession from Bobby that he isn’t 100% in tune with the animal, Brousse agrees to send one of his lads, Candau, with him. On the way, Candau, whose nickname is Tom Thumb, tells Bobby he thinks Quicksilver is a difficult animal, hard to predict or understand. Bobby thinks the mule is frightened taking this journey. Nevertheless, when they get to Wissous, Quicksilver seems to recognise the cart and Candau hitches it to the mule, whilst Bobby goes for a walkabout.
Bobby is shocked when he recognises someone in the office, through the window. The manager’s name is advertised as Carbonato, but it’s Markovitch! Bobby panics and tells Candau they have to get out quick. But at the exit, the foreman asks to see Bobby’s receipt again. They realise the men working there had stopped their work and were starting to surround them. “But Quicksilver had other ideas. He suddenly took the bit between his teeth, swung round in the opposite direction and tried to make his escape down a side-path beyond which nothing was to be seen. A workman sprang up in his path, waving an oxy-acetylene cutter that spat a long blue flame. Quicksilver gave a heart-rending bray and swung off, galloping still faster. The cart rocked crazily over the rutted ground. It was then Bobby realised that the mule was going through the same nightmare sequence of events as before, in the same surroundings and with the same tormentors.” When Bobby looks round and sees the workman push up his mask, he sees he has a lopsided face – it’s Slewjaw!
Meanwhile Candau is terrified because Quicksilver is out of control. Heading once again for the motorway, the mule manages to stay on his feet “and still he galloped on, twisting and turning among the speeding vehicles” but they get to the Wissous fly-over, Quicksilver slows to a walk and somehow they make their escape on the quiet road to Puisay.
Back at the stables, Candau confirms to the others that Carbonato’s men were like a bunch of rustlers and that they all had it in for the mule. Meanwhile Charlie and the gang were investigating the cart and discovered hidden away at the bottom five plastic bags containing what they think is artificial fertiliser. Later Sinet comes along and confirms that Carbonato-Markovitch and Slewjaw both have police records. And another surprise: “Among the men who scared you so badly was one of our plain-clothes squad. It was Quicksilver who wrecked everything […] We let the little fish swim around until we can catch fifty or a hundred at once. In other words there’s someone behind Markovitch and Slewjaw – the big fish. And until we can get our hands on him, we’ll never be able to solve the mystery.”
Chapter Ten. The headline on the next P. S. N. read Mule on the Motorway Again! and had a print run of 5,000 copies sold at double the usual price – fifty centimes. Flatfoot sent a copy to Carbonato Carwreckers, just for good measure. Brousse and Sinet buy their copies at exactly the same time and start reading. The Colonel asks Sinet more about their undercover officer. He deals with “industrial offences”. Puisay “has grown far more important than its neighbours from the point of view of research and technical equipment. Inevitably this modernisation has attracted a certain type of criminal to the town. Their activities are unpublicised, they work in the shadows and they seldom use violence, but they do as much damage to the economy of the country as a whole wave of recessions… Do I have to tell you who they are?” “Industrial spies?” murmured the Colonel […] “The cream of the joke,“ Sinet added, “is that our budding detectives haven’t guessed what the whole business is about, yet. The only thing that seems to matter to them is to expose the cruelty inflicted on that beast of burden they’ve taken under their wing.”
Charlie asks, through his newspaper column, for witnesses to the unloading of the compost from the cart to help trace Quicksilver’s steps; and Bobby has written another eloquent article by the mule. To the Colonel’s surprise, Sinet thinks that by following the evidence of the cart and the compost the boys are getting closer to the truth. And the first person to arrive at the P. S. N. offices as a witness is Madame Deuzy, who still gets a free copy of the paper after her help in solving the case of the Black Cat. She reports having seen the mule, with cart and man walking alongside, several times on the same day, a damp and foggy afternoon sometime in December. The boys try to work out Quicksilver’s route from a map based on what Madame Deuzy has told them. They conclude that the most likely route was along the Rue Pincevent. Other witnesses confirm this – but the trail vanishes somewhere down the Boulevard de Rungis. Charlie and Jacques get into an argument about what to do next, with Charlie caring more about his circulation and Jacques caring more about Quicksilver.
The argument is interrupted by the arrival of Patard, Sinet’s colleague. He has information for them. He lives in the Rue Gaboriau, off the Boulevard de Rungis, and saw Quicksilver trot by with his cart several times on the 16th December. Charlie offers him his last cigarette, and Patard remembers that it wasn’t more than ten minutes between seeing the mule going in one direction and coming back in the other – so the delivery point for the compost can’t be far from the Rue Gaboriau. It’s late, but Charlie needs the copy for the P. S. N. Flatfoot agrees to play the part of Quicksilver and time a journey from outside Patard’s house and see where he arrives five minutes later.
Chapter Eleven. Flatfoot gets into character at the Rue Gaboriau as he pretends to be Quicksilver, emulating his “heavy and regular tread”. As bemused onlookers watch on, he heads towards the Boulevard, uncertain which direction he would take from there. He turns right – Charlie yells stop at the moment his stopwatch reached five minutes – and Flatfoot/Quicksilver had reached the premises of a company called Ariméca. This doesn’t seem a likely place for Quicksilver to have brought four deliveries of compost. A van approaches the building and is subjected to an intense automatic security check before being allowed in.
The boys (and Lily) have never seen such a contraption before, so Flatfoot plucks up courage to ask the security guards what it was for. They say it’s an ultra-sensitive radiation detector. And anyone or anything going in or out is subjected to the same scrutiny. Even a mule and a cart. Stunned by this comment, the guard continues: “A few months ago our Assistant Works Manager was raising a roof for some compost to go on the flower-beds round the office block. Then some nurseryman from Puisay offered him four cart-loads which were duly delivered one afternoon. This was the occasion when the portcullises at Ariméca were raised for a mule.”
The guard offers to give Flatfoot an exhibition of how Oscar, the machine, works. But once all seven of them have walked through to watch, the portcullis comes down and they are trapped. “It’s our job to hold any inquisitive people we find hanging around the gates”. “Bring them to me!” says a snarling voice via the intercom.
Chapter Twelve. However, when the gang met the two men who were waiting for them inside, the first thing Charlie notices is that they have copies of the P. S. N. on a table. The first man introduces himself to them as Commissioner Charrel; the other man is Monsieur Steven who’s in charge of security at Ariméca. They know all about the gang from conversations with Sinet. Charrel asks them what they hope to achieve with their investigations, and Jacques replies that they don’t know – and it depends on what is being manufactured at Ariméca. Steven explains: “Ariméca is a research centre financed by a dozen major organisations specialising in the production of heat-resistant metals. A few months ago a sample of tetrital was stolen from our laboratories. This is a revolutionary alloy designed for use in the manufacture of space-capsules and capable of standing up to temperatures in the region of 3000°C. Our directors were at their wits’ end. They were in danger of losing all profit from the discovery should it be prematurely revealed.”
Charrel goes on to say that the company contacted Interpol, who put Charrel on to the case. They’re satisfied that the secret hasn’t left the country, but what they are looking for is a bar, eighteen inches long, weighing about two pounds. It was stolen and replaced by a different bar, but they think the original sample may still well be hidden in the building. The date the theft was discovered? December 17th. Charrel agrees that the men at the car-dump in Wissous are under suspicion. He thinks the boss there must have been tempted when he discovered how much foreign firms would pay for the secret of a new process. But the company hasn’t acted so far because they are waiting for the big fish to show up – whoever it is who would be willing to pay a lot for the bar. Lily suggests the bar could be hidden in the earth of some hydrangeas – an idea that Steven rejects. Charlie asks if he can name Ariméca in his articles – but Steven says if he tries that, he’ll bring an injunction on the printing works.
Chapter Thirteen. Langlais and the Colonel come to meet Bobby at the stable. He tells Bobby of the developments in light of the visit to Ariméca. Bobby listens quietly and impassively. In the end he says that nothing “won’t stop me believing that Quicksilver really did get out of the factory with the sample of that wonderful metal.” So why are Carbonato and Slewjaw so intent on getting the mule back? Maybe there’s something still in the cart? A thorough inspection reveals nothing. What about the bags of fertiliser? The club gardener took them. Bobby and Langlais inspect them closely and one bag is heavier – but it only reveals four horseshoes. Old ones of Quicksilver, maybe? So what shoes is he wearing now? The penny drops. Quicksilver is wearing shoes made of tetrital! Slewjaw must have substituted the shoes, and when the mule was outside the premises of Ariméca, they tried to get them off him, but frightened the mule so he did a bolt.
Langlais has another surprise. He remembers the description Broquin gave of the well-dressed man who asked him if he had compost for sale. He recognised that description in someone he’d seen very recently – Monsieur Steven! There’s no proof that Steven is wrapped up in this; but they decide to tell Sinet, who’ll tell Charrel. And Brousse has a plan, to lay a trap “with Quicksilver playing the part of the tethered goat.”
Chapter Fourteen. The next P. S. N. sells out rapidly. Charlie has written a great spread which includes a reconstruction of Quicksilver’s journey, the evidence of Mme Deuzy and Gendarme Patard (here renamed Tapard) and also the fact that a major part of the story remains censored. And Bobby’s column for Quicksilver shows that the mule wants to move on and leave his sorry past behind him. He recounts the way he passes his time every day, and adds that Bobby is going to get him a new set of shoes. Carbonato is not going to receive a free copy of this edition! Tom Thumb wonders how much Quicksilver’s shoes might be worth – Bobby suggests ten or fifteen million, making the mule more valuable than any Derby winner.
They put the bridle on Quicksilver and begin a walk into Puisay to visit the blacksmith, Monsieur Taupin. If Carbonato and his men want to kidnap him, Charrel’s watchdogs will be there to prevent it. Quicksilver started to get anxious as he sensed the motorway was near, but they reach the blacksmith’s yard and M Taupin starts work. The blacksmith is not impressed with Quicksilver’s old shoes – “it’s not even iron! Why, your mule could have broken his neck twenty times over on his way here. You try running barefoot on gravel and you’ll discover what it feels like.”
Whilst Candau and Taupin have a beer together in the forge, Bobby and Quicksilver wait outside. Then four men come into the yard. Carbonato and Slewjaw, and two others. “Who owns this mule?” asks one. “I’ve never seen you before,” said Bobby with a nasty smile, “but someone was talking about you only yesterday evening. You’re Monsieur Steven, and you’ve come to grab the precious fragments of tetrital stolen from Ariméca… For your private account?” Steven is furious, but at that point Taupin appears. Carbonato offers to buy the shoes that have been removed from Quicksilver but Taupin says they are already sold. “Who to?” And Commissioner Charrel appears, with the four horseshoes tied together. Steven and the other men try to make their escape and walk straight into the hands of Sinet.
Sinet has a plan for Quicksilver’s retirement, working at a Wild West Club in Chantilly “where anyone from Paris who wants to play at cowboys can let off steam.” The last P. S. N. to wrap up the story of the mule on the motorway has to be written quickly so a new issue can be printed the next day. Sinet tells Bobby that his success in solving this case means he’ll almost certainly get promotion, and Bobby is delighted for him.
And what next for Bobby and the gang, the P. S. N. and the local police? A story concerning a goldfish? “The new chemist in the Avenue de Paris has been giving one away to all his customers.” There must be a story in that!
To sum up; A very satisfying, amusing and readable book with entertaining characters and a surprisingly inventive story with a great surprise ending. And, again, the story sets another book up featuring Bobby and the gang, this time involving the goldfish. 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. Next up in the Paul Berna Challenge is the book that results from Charlie’s suggestion that next time Bobby becomes involved in an intrigue surrounding a goldfish, Le Commissaire Sinet et le mystère des poissons rouges, translated into English as A Truckload of Rice. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.