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The Rat-a-Tat MysteryReview by Keith Robinson (July 22, 2006)
For a book that was "not supposed to have been written" (as according to the inside flap of an early edition), this much-demanded fifth installment of the Barney series seems to fit right in with the other four, and follows the perfectly logical course of having the children go to stay with Barney's new family. It's not as good as the others, but not too bad either.
It's just after Christmas, and it's drizzling outside. Confined to the house, Roger, Diana and Snubby are driving Mr Lynton up the wall. "Why must they always talk at the tops of their voices?" he complains. (What a miserable so-and-so!) But most of the problem, he says, stems from Snubby, whose presence seems to make Roger and Diana about three times noisier than usual. And Loony certainly doesn't help matters! So it's not surprising that when Roger, Diana and Snubby have the bright idea of having Barney over to visit, Mr Lynton flatly refuses. "Also," he says, "I've got your Great-Uncle Robert coming for three days, and I've really been wondering if I can't send Snubby and Loony off to Aunt Agatha while Great-Uncle is here..."
Snubby is horrified at this news. But then the phone rings; it's Barney, asking if the three (and Loony) would like to come and stay with him, at a house that his grandmother owns by a little lake, surrounded by hills. The lake is frozen over, and the hills are covered with snow, so there'll be skating and tobogganing. And of course, the four children will be together again!
So arrangements are made, and off they trot to Barney's. They meet his father, Mr Martin, a very nice man—a sort of grown-up Barney, with the same color hair and eyes. Barney is extremely proud of his father, and the feeling appears to be mutual, so it's all very pleasant. They also meet Barney's grandmother, who has a monkey of her very own named Jinny. This is the old lady who didn't want her son mixed up with some circus girl, so was "unkind" to Barney's mother and drove her away before Barney was even born. Before finding this out, Barney had guessed his mother had run away because she was used to living in a caravan, and not a house, which perhaps is part of the "unkind grandmother" theory. Meanwhile, Barney's father was supposed to be a Shakespearean actor, and yet there's absolutely no mention of this past life here. So we have a grandmother who has changed her personality, and a father who has forgotten his acting career. Also, the grandmother has a monkey, and she says that pet monkeys run in her family—that is, her family, the Martins, not Barney's mother's family! If that's so, I have to assume this "Martin family trait" rubbed off on Barney's mother before Barney was born... unless both families had a liking for pet monkeys, which would be quite a coincidence. So many little bit and pieces don't add up it makes me want to write a prequel about Life Before Barney.
Anyway, after a very happy lunch, with a fire crackling away in the fireplace, Mr Martin drives the children to the house by the lake, where the children are to stay with the cook's sister, Mrs Tickle. There's also mention of one of Barney's cousins coming to stay with them at the house, but he apparently gets a cold and plans to join them in a few days. More on him later.
Rat-a-Tat House is so-named after the legend of the front door's enormous knocker, which supposedly rat-a-tat-tats on its own when there are traitors in the house! Despite this ominous tall story, everything seems wonderful—an isolated spot in the hills, right next to a frozen lake, snow all around... and plenty of excellent food! Even the lack of electricity adds to the excitement, as the children have to light candles and lanterns on their way up to bed each night.
The first few days pass peacefully. The children go tobagganing, and completely wear themselevs out. Then they try skating and find that Barney, despite being a novice, takes to it like a duck to water. They have a terrific snowball fight and build a huge snowman. They even build a snow house, a sort of igloo that's big enough to climb inside. Everything is very nice indeed.
But then, while playing cards one night, Snubby thinks he spots someone standing outside beyond the snow house. Diana and Mrs Tickle are a little spooked by this, so the other two boys try to brush it off as Snubby "seeing things." Snubby agrees it must be his eyes playing tricks on him. But the next day he finds a glove by his snow house—a glove that's far too large for children. Who does it belong to? Where did it come from? Straight away the three boys start to wonder whether someone had been standing out by the snow house after all, watching them. But why?
That night, a thunderous noises jolts everyone awake. RAT-A-TAT-TAT! RAT-A-TAT-TAT! Everyone is fearful. Could it be Mr No-One knocking on the door to warn them of traitors? "Stuff!" says Roger firmly. "Rubbish! Fiddlesticks! That's a silly old legend." Still, nobody wants to go down and answer the door, although this is more to do with the fact that they're miles from anywhere and it's just not sensible to answer the door in the dead of night. So Barney leans out of an upstairs window instead: "Who's there?" But there's no answer.
This is just the start of some very peculiar happenings at Rat-a-Tat House. Investigating the mysterious knocking at the door, the children find large footprints leading to the door—but no footprints leading away. Then the snowman disappears, which is odd in itself, but not half as odd as when it peeps in the window at Mrs Tickle.
Mysterious or not, none of the children are fooled by "supernatural events" and they are sure someone is trying to scare them. But why? The mystery thickens, and so does the snow. The roads become impassable and the telephone lines break. The children are stuck in the house on their own!
I didn't remember any of the details of this book from my last reading some 25 years ago, so it was like reading it new. At some point I wondered idly if Cousin Dick had turned up as promised, after getting over his cold, and was playing tricks. This would have been quite plausible as the rat-a-tatting and other tricks started a number of days after they first arrived; however, I'm not sure how Cousin Dick would have got to the house in all that snow. As it turned out, Cousin Dick had no part in the story at all, and seemed to be The Character That Never Was. Why did Blyton even bother mentioning him? It was like she planned on bringing him in, and then changed her mind. And right at the end of the book, when the police have been and gone in their helicopter, and Barney's father plans to stay at Rat-a-Tat House with the children for the remainder of the holiday, Barney asks his father where Cousin Dick is. His father replies that there wasn't room to bring him in the helicopter.
It's nice that this book has no secret passages or tunnels for a change (we've already had plenty in two of the four previous books, three if you include the blowhole in The Rubadub Mystery). This books also gives a fairly nice of winter, with its deep snow, biting air, and ice-covered lake; little details like wearing gloves of leather instead of wool (because wool soaks up water) adds to the realism. I loved the snowball fight, with Miranda making teeny-tiny marble-sized snowballs of her own. The snow house made me want to rush out and make my own (although it would have to snow here first). And the hiding place of the, ahem, "illegal stash" is quite clever.
The Rat-a-Tat Mystery is a fairly good follow-up to the previous four installments, but does stink a little of being tacked on the end due to popular demand despite that it attempts to follow the logical path of meeting Barney's family. Part of what bothers me is that we don't really meet Barney's family at all. We bump into them, get a few vague details, and then we're off again to an isolated place where the children can have a mystery unhampered by responsible adults. It would have been much nicer, I think, to have the mystery take place at Barney's grandmother's house. There we could have got to know this once-unkind woman, and found out how come her family's love for monkeys rubbed off on Barney's mother. We might have learned much more about Barney's father, Mr Martin, and why he gave up his acting career (if indeed he did) and what he does for a living now. I think this would have rounded off the series in a much more satisfactory way.
Still, a pretty good read, and enjoyable in itself.
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