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The Ring O' Bells MysteryReview by Keith Robinson (July 7, 2006)
It's the end of the Easter holidays, and the children are due back at school. But, in one of Blyton's tried and trusted plot devices, the children are still recovering from 'flu and need a short holiday away! Mrs Lynton phones her old governess, Miss Pepper, and asks if she can suggest anywhere that might do, somewhere with plenty of walking trails. It turns out Miss Pepper has a cousin who keeps a little boarding house in the village of Ring O' Bells, near Lillinghame, and this village has stables, woods, hills... everything children need for some good fresh air and plenty of exercise.
And so, without much ado, off they go!
Ring O' Bells Village, Ring O' Bells Wood, Ring O' Bells Cottage, Ring O' Bells Hall... It's not surprising that the third installment in this series is named The Ring O' Bells Mystery. And what a fine installment this is, with its picturesque little village and quaint old characters. There's Mrs Hubbard at Hubbard Cottage, whom the children immediately refer to as Mother Hubbard, and sneak glimpses into her cupboard to see if it's bare. There's also Old Grandad, a senile gentleman who catches snoozes out in the back garden. He calls himself Button because of his button-like nose, much as Snubby is named after his own. And Old Grandad, like many old grandads in Blyton's books, has a tale or two to tell about the past, in particular Ring O' Bells Hall, which was once owned by his great-great-great-great-grandfather, Hugh Dourley.
Even Loony has a companion: another spaniel, this time a golden one, by the name of Loopy! Loony and Loopy... what a pair they are. Miss Pepper's cousin, Hannah, is only too glad to let Loopy run around with the children and Loony for the duration of the book; now she can get some peace.
There's also Naomi Barlow, who lives in the woods, wears a red cloak, and looks exactly like an elderly Red Riding Hood. The Barlows have always lived there, says Old Grandad, and he goes on to tell a tale about how, long ago, wolves once threatened to eat Mother Barlow alive, and she was rescued only because the bells of Ring O' Bells Hall rang out in the night and warned the villagers. "But here's the queer bit," says Old Grandad, "no one rang those bells—they rang theirselves!"
The story goes that the bells always mysteriously rang when there was danger afoot. But nowadays the bells are still and quiet, with their pealing ropes removed. The Hall, now a museum, is looked after by a plain-looking grey-haired woman dressed in black, who comes across unfriendly with the children—making her a prime candidate to be a villain of some sort. Roger, Snubby and Diana pay the entrance fee to see around Ring O' Bells Hall, and pay extra to see the secret passage off one of the rooms. It's hidden within the panelling, and is opened by pressing something on a picture frame, which makes the frame slide sideways, revealing a slim panel which opens, revealing another mechanism that opens the passage entrance itself... all very complicated, but exciting. But these days the passage apparently goes nowhere, just dead-ends. Naturally Snubby wants to investigate this himself, but is roughly pulled out of the passage by the grumpy woman and told to leave.
So far there's no sniff of a mystery, despite the woman's tetchy manner, and the various old tales recalled by Old Grandad. And likewise, so far there's no sniff of good old Barney either. A Barney Mystery without Barney or a Mystery just isn't the same.
But Barney is soon brought into the story. He writes a nice letter to the children, which they receive at the boarding house in Ring O' Bells (presumably this is forwarded on from Mrs Lynton, although this isn't mentioned). Barney is out of work again, so Diana writes back immediately and gives the Ring O' Bells address so that Barney and Miranda can hitchhike along to see them. Barney's little hitchiking episode is very enjoyable; it's a refreshing change to read about a homeless boy catching lifts off lorry drivers, and I almost wish there was more of it. On the last leg of his journey, as he heads towards Lillinghame, he tries to thumb a lift from an electrician—but the man sees Miranda and takes off at once, only to develop a sudden puncture. Barney rushes to help, and earns himself a ride... but not a pleasant one, for the man is very unfriendly. And what is it that frightened Miranda so much, something in the back of the van, a white thing moving about the floor in the darkness...
As things turn out, Barney arrives at Ring O' Bells late that night, and looks about for a place to sleep. There—that big old building looks just the ticket, some sort of show-place or museum. But as Barney is contemplating a way in, a van arrives... the same van that had given him a lift earlier. There are low voices... two people talking... one must be a caretaker, and the other the driver of that van... some sort of late-night delivery, perhaps? How mysterious! But after the van has driven away, and the other person has walked off up the lane, Barney decides the building is empty and finds an open window to climb in. He finds a few of the rooms furnished; yes, it seems to be some sort of museum. And there Barney spends the night, and wakes in the morning to narrowly escape the return of the caretaker once more—the plain-looking woman in black that had shown the children around Ring O' Bells Hall a day or so earlier.
With Barney's arrival, and his mysterious tale, the children are plunged once more into mystery. Snubby is determined to explore the secret passage more thoroughly, while the others are interested to know about some old books that Grandad had left with Naomi Barlow in the woods. All this leads to sneaking about the Hall at night, getting caught, finding more secret passages, and so on. There are elements of other books here, in particular finding maps with "P" for "passage" marked at each end, and the location of the other passage entrance. The latter stages of the mystery seemed a little predictable because I'd read the same kinds of plot details elsewhere, which is always a shame having read most of the Blyton mystery and adventure books; there are, after all, only so many ways into a secret passage. But it's all nicely done regardless, and this is a fine installment to this series.
The only thing I really didn't like was the portrayal of the policemen towards the end. Are they so completely inept that they have to rely on the children for ideas? It's one thing learning from the children about a secret passage—the police would have no way of knowing that otherwise. But they still seem unable to think things through on their own. "How shall we make sure that there's a disturbance this end at the same time as we want to break through?" the policeman asks Barney. Barney explains about setting a definite time, and the policeman agrees and says, "Yes—it sounds all right. What time shall we say?" In Blyton's usual way, she characterizes children well, but falls short on realism when it comes to adults, especially responsible policemen who should be capable of working out simple plans to round up a few trapped criminals!
Still, The Ring O' Bells Mystery is easily as enjoyable as the preceding two books. And the fourth installment is next: The Rubadub Mystery, reckoned by many to be the best of the series, and the only one that seems to have stuck in my memory from childhood.
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