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The Rockingdown MysteryReview by Keith Robinson (June 19, 2006)
The first of the Barney "R" Mysteries takes place at Rockingdown Hall, a deserted mansion once owned by Lady Rockingdown and occupied by her son until he was killed in "a war," after which his wife died of a broken heart (is that actually a medical condition?). Tragically, their two children were also killed—little Miss Arabella fell from a high nursery window, and young Master Bob later died of scarlet fever. After that the place was emptied, locked up, and forgotten—and the nurseries on the top floor were left exactly as they were, fully furnished, to gather dust and cobwebs...
Along come Roger and Diana to stay at a cottage nearby. The brother and sister are home from school—but their parents have (rather rudely) sailed off to America, leaving the children to stay with Aunt Pam. But when Aunt Pam's kids get measles, the children instead go to stay with Mummy's old governess, Miss Pepper, at a cottage somewhere in the country. Miss Pepper is to take charge of the cottage for a few weeks, with the help of Mrs Round, the housekeeper. Roger and Diana's pest of a cousin, Snubby, who has no family of his own, is to come and stay too—much to Diana's annoyance.
Snubby makes himself a nuisance even before he shows up in the story. When Roger and Diana go to meet him at the station, it seems he's missed his train—so, after hanging around for an hour, Roger and Diana return to the cottage hot, bothered, and hungry to find Snubby already there, tucking into his tea. He cheerfully informs them that he got off at an earlier stop and walked the rest of the way!
Snubby (whose real name is Peter but is nicknamed Snubby due to his "snub nose") has a mad spaniel dog called Loony. He certainly livens things up, and almost drives Miss Pepper and Mrs Round to despair with his frantic behavior. It doesn't help that Snubby himself is a pest, always playing childish little tricks—but then, at eleven years old he's a good deal younger than Roger (14) and Diana (13).
After a few days of carefree exploring and messing about, things must settle down. The children were supposed to have a tutor for the hols, much to their dismay, but Mr Young sends a telephoned message to say he has gone down with appendicitis and cannot work. So Miss Pepper rushes about trying to find a new tutor, and almost gives up searching for a suitable candidate when along comes Mr King, a man with glowing credentials. The children aren't quite sure what to make of him at first, and Snubby's attitude in particular switches from negative to positive when Mr King says he'll allow Loony into the room while they're studying. (This whole scenario is straight out of Five Go Adventuring Again, so it's not surprising I'm suspicious of Mr King from the outset!)
Then along comes Barney. The three children meet him while out for a walk one day. Barney is described with corn-colored hair and very tanned skin, with curious blue eyes set wide apart. He's around fourteen or fifteen, about the same age as Roger, and travels from place to place with his monkey, Miranda. Having worked in circuses much of his life, and being on the road since birth, Barney is very much a nomad and little mention is made of how he gets by in life; it's hinted that he does odd jobs for money, and performs with Miranda at circuses, and sleeps rough wherever convenient. When asked where he's heading, Barney replies that he's looking for his father, whom he never knew existed until his mother passed away recently.
Barney is certainly an interesting addition to the gang, and rather than being the usual "can't read, can't write" homeless/circus character (like wild girl Tassie from The Castle of Adventure, little Aily from Five Get Into a Fix, and Jo from other Five books), Barney is smart and seemingly well educated enough to read Shakespeare! His father, reportedly an actor, has apparently performed in Shakespeare plays, so Barney's idea is to learn a little more about the plays and perhaps glean some insight into his father's career.
As interesting as all this is, a mystery wouldn't be a mystery without a mystery! So it's not long before the children fall headlong into one. When they "explore" Rockingdown Hall (that is, after they break in through a window) they discover the small bedrooms and playroom on the top floor, which are filled with old toys left from the days of old. These rooms have been locked up all this time, and are the only furnished rooms in the place. Barney decides it might a good place to sleep at night, so they all set about dusting and cleaning the rooms.
In the dead of night, Barney (alone with Miranda) hears all manner of strange noises coming from somewhere down below: bangs, screeches, and more bangs. Too tired to investigate, and without a torch, he decides it must be the veranda door banging in the wind; perhaps they'd left it open when the others left. But when morning comes, the veranda door is firmly closed—and it's so stiff it seems highly unlikely that it might have come loose in the night.
So what had made the mysterious noises?
Over the next few days and nights, the children try to figure it out. In the meantime, the children become a little suspicious of Mr King when he's spotted creeping about the grounds of Rockingdown Hall in the dead of night, flashing his torch this way and that, looking for something. What on earth could a tutor be searching for? Perhaps Mr King is not a tutor at all... Besides, he doesn't seem very wise to Snubby's constant tricks like any experienced form master should be.
It's around this point that Blyton uses another well-worn device, this time in an effort to get Miss Pepper out of the story. After a phone call to say her sister is "very ill," Miss Pepper packs her bags and heads out the door, leaving the children in the capable hands of Mr King just as the children are about convinced that the tutor is a bad lot.
As the mystery deepens, the children get warmer in their quest to find the source of the strange midnight noises. They find cellars, and explore them—and Barney announces he will sleep down there and find out once and for all what's making all the noise. The other children are horrified at the thought of sleeping in the dark, dusty cellars, with spiders crawling about everywhere, but Barney seems perfectly relaxed about it. So, that night, he tries to make himself comfortable, using one of the shelves as a make-shift bunk.
The noises come again... and Barney plunges deeper into the mystery and disappears! The others are worried, of course, and search the cellars—but it appears Barney has vanished from the face of the earth. By this time, too, the children are feeling very hostile towards Mr King, whom they believe is at the heart of the goings-on. So Roger takes the only course of action left available and goes to the police.
It would give away too much to say what happens next, but it's all quite exciting! However, it's no great surprise to say that the bad guys are finally rounded up in the end, and as usual the villains turn out to be a gang of morons, which rather deflates the element of danger felt earlier in the book. When the police demand surrender, a villain shouts back, "We give in. You're on top, and we know it all right." Somehow this doesn't sound like the sort of thing any real villain would say, but then, this was set in the fifties and maybe villains were just not as villainous back then!
Whether this is a "good mystery" or not, overall I found this novel thoroughly entertaining and very well written, especially the detailed descriptions of Rockingdown Hall and its many dusty rooms. Each character is pretty well drawn, with Barney and Snubby being the most rounded, and Miranda instantly becoming one of my favorite pets (along with Kiki the parrot and Buster the dog). Blyton does a good job of hiding Mr King's true nature with an interesting mix of stern frowns and short temper, moments of genuine friendliness, a healthy does of surprise and bewilderment, and all topped off with extremely suspicious behavior. Good guy or villain? In this case it's very hard to tell!
A quick note here about how Blyton uses illness to shape her plots. If you'll recall, first Roger and Diana's parents go away to America, leaving them with Aunt Pam. But measles strike their unfortunate aunt and the children are instead shipped off to stay with Miss Pepper. Then Mr Young, the tutor, goes down with appendicitis, so he's craftily written out of the story, leaving Mr King to slip into his place. And of course Miss Pepper's sister then gets very ill and Miss Pepper has to leave, leaving the children "at the mercy of Mr King." Never in human history has such a turn of events shaped the lives of so many for the betterment of a plot...
Besides that, this is an excellent start to this series, and—unlike most long-running series— this one hints at the next installment by having Barney bid his farewells and announce he's got a job at a circus. One might argue this is just a neat way to end things, but my guess is that Blyton had plans for a few more books in this series and, for once, wanted to tell her readers that she had big plans ahead. A link to the next book, The Rilloby Fair Mystery, was just the start; but what's more important here is the foreshadowing of Barney's search for his father... a subplot yet to be explored.
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