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The Ragamuffin MysteryReview by Keith Robinson (July 22, 2006)
It's unfortunate that this series didn't end on a high with The Rubadub Mystery. Even The Rat-a-Tat Mystery would have been a fairly decent place to wrap things up—at least that one feels like part of the series by following the next logical step to Barney's new home. But, like with the Famous Five (which started out as six books, then twelve, and ended up being twenty-one), Blyton caved to popular demand and continued with the series... and the result is The Ragamuffin Mystery, a badly-conceived, formulaic, and frankly lazy novel churned out just to please her fans. You have to wonder if it actually did please them.
On the surface it's still an enjoyable read for the most part, but is riddled with contrived plot devices and cliches. Roger and Diana are going on holiday with their mother in a new caravan, the idea being to drive from place to place and stop wherever they want for the night. Sounds grand! It's a pity their father can't come with them, as he has to go to America again, but Miss Pepper will come instead. That way she and Mrs Lynton can take turns driving the car.
Off they set, and it's probably a good thing Snubby isn't cooped up with them in the car. He and Loony would drive everyone mad! Snubby is staying with Aunt Pat, much to his dismay. Still, the readers know full well that a Barney Mystery isn't going to work without the full team, so it's just a matter of time before Roger and Diana are going to be reunited with Barney, Miranda, Snubby, and Loony. And the question isn't so much when such a reunion will occur, but how .
Enter the first groan-worthy contrivance. Listening to the radio one evening, the news reader suddenly says, "Here is a message, please, for Mrs Lynton, who, with her children, is on a caravan tour. Will she please telephone Hillsley 68251 at once, as her sister is dangerously ill? I will repeat that. Here is a message for..."
I'm not sure what's worse here—the return of the much-used "dangerously ill relative" device, or the fact that the radio news team deemed it important enough to read out on the news (and with no qualms about announcing the telephone number as well). I suppose this might not be unheard of in 1959, but still it's very lucky that the Lyntons were listening in at that point. Anyway, suffice to say, Mrs Lynton immediately drives into the nearest village with Miss Pepper to make a phone call. The news is bad, and Mrs Lynton heads home at once in her car, leaving Miss Pepper with the children and the caravan... But oh, what a predicament! Now there's no car to pull the caravan!
Enter Barney and his dad, who have been off on a little jaunt of their own. They hear the same message on the radio, phone Hillsley 68251 to ascertain what's what and who's where, and send a telegram to the caravan via the nearby farm. It's amusing to me how obliging everyone is—first the kindly radio news team lend a hand, then the local post office deliver Mr Martin's telegram to Miss Pepper via a farmer, whose land the caravan is parked on; he comes puffing and panting up the hill to pass it on. Anyway, the telegram says that Mr Martin and Barney will be there shortly to help out. Mr Martin, a good reliable sort, takes matters into hand immediately and suggests that he hitches the caravan to his car and tows it to some nice place on the coast, and then leaves them there for a couple of weeks. Barney, of course, will remain with Miss Pepper, Roger, and Diana. So now there's only Snubby left to fit in!
Snubby has, during this time, been staying with Mrs Lynton's sister, Aunt Pat. Since she is now dangerously ill and in hospital, there's no one there to look after Snubby... or his uncle. Another snort of laughter! Apparently men are incapable of looking after themselves, never mind their nephews, and this one seems unable to look after his own wife in hospital. No, there's nothing for it but for Mrs Lynton to spend a couple of weeks there, a good strong woman on hand to deal with everything. But Snubby must leave; it's best all round if he just joins Barney, Roger and Diana in the caravan. Hurrah!
They find a place in Wales to park the caravan—outside a tumbledown inn on the cliff where the food is "very good, very good indeed" (as the bubbly landlady insists time and time again). The boys will stay in the caravan, but Miss Pepper and Diana will share a room in the inn. They choose a room with an enormous chimney and a lovely view, but the Welsh landlady, aptly named Mrs Jones, tells them this room is not for them. She suggests the "Best Room," and leads them to it, but despite being better furnished it's really not much nicer and the view is poor. "No," Miss Pepper insists, "that other room is much better." This seems to cause some anxiety, and Mrs Jones gets quite upset, and even relocates their bags to the Best Room at the first chance she gets... but Miss Pepper is stubborn and gets the room she wants. Then Mr Jones comes along and, like his wife, tries to move her and Diana into the other room by frightening them with stories about "noises in the night..." Frankly, if I were the owner of the building and I didn't want guests in a certain room, I wouldn't take no for an answer. But in Blyton's books, the Upper Class always tend to get their way in the end.
Enid Blyton dedicates this books to the many Welsh children who begged her to write a mystery set in Wales. "Here it is, children," she says, "written for you!" It's true that the location is Wales, and the innkeepers have the Welsh name of Jones, and their son is named Dafydd, but other than that there's very little Welsh-ness about this book. The Mountain of Adventure did a much better job, even with the annoying repetition of "look you" and "whateffer." Five Get Into a Fix also did a better job with the Welsh setting. The Ragamuffin Mystery could be based just about anywhere.
Snubby is very funny in this book, and single-handedly makes it readable and enjoyable. He arrives on an earlier train and gets a lift to the inn on the back of a straw-filled cart, managing to get himself absolutely filthy. Miss Pepper makes a very odd comment here; when she insists Snubby go and get a bath immediately, Barney suggests they all go swimming in the sea instead, as a way to get clean, and Miss Pepper says, "No. I don't see why he should make the sea absolutely black!" Eh? Anyway, Snubby gets his bath, and wears some of Roger's clothes (because he's forgotten to bring his own). It's not long before he ruins them, and he finds himself cooped up in the caravan wearing pyjamas. Oh, the nuisance!
Determined not to spend the day cooped up while waiting for Miss Pepper to wash his clothes, he nips out—in turned up pyjamas and a vest—and finds a secondhand shop where he buys some frightful old clothes—a dilapidated pair of trousers, a bright red and yellow "gay" jersey, and a cap. Quite proud of himself, Snubby leaves the shop looking exactly like some poor ragamuffin.
Here the mystery earns its title. And this is the second groan-worthy contrivance, even worse than the first. Snubby ends up on sauntering along the beach, avoiding the others, and takes a rest on some rocks with his black spaniel, Loony. He gets out a letter sent to him in code from his friend at school; together they've invented a game of sending one another coded messages. Presumably Snubby carried this with him in his pyjama pockets when he left the caravan, along with his money. Anyway, along comes a man who demands to know why Snubby is reading the letter! He snatches it from him, and leaves Snubby startled and annoyed. Get this: It transpires that another ragamuffin—a real one, about the same age as Snubby and with a black dog of his own—was supposed to sit on those very rocks and hand a coded letter to that man!
Well, I never did!
There are so many ways this situation could have been made to work more realistically that I can only feel Blyton was lazy and unimaginative with this whole scenario—especially as she did the exact same thing in The Mystery of the Missing Necklace, with Fatty dressed as a tramp, sitting on a park bench passing messages to crooks. Very disappointing indeed. Blyton's books are riddled with unbelievable coincidences, but this one takes the biscuit.
The rest of the story is quite well told, but there's nothing original; the crooks, one of whom took the message from Snubby on the beach, are coincidentally staying at the inn; there are the same old caves with passages at the back, which by coincidence link all the way to the exact room Miss Pepper and Diana and staying in at the inn... The usual stuff, and no surprises anywhere.
A weak ending to an otherwise strong series.
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