This, the fourth book in the series is rather a pivotal one. It marks the end of a (short) era story-wise for Barney and the beginning of a new one. You could see how the series could easily have ended here, after a touching scene, with Snubby making one of his flippant remarks about who’s buying the ice creams. But as with so many series, Blyton ended up carrying on. The last two (which I’ll review in time) have a slightly different feel and are usually considered not as good as the first four.
But anyway, back to this one. The Lynton adults are off to America – a suitable way of getting rid of adults so that children can go off on adventures, should nobody come down with whooping cough or flu and need a holiday, like when Quentin and Fanny went off to the States in Five Have Plenty of Fun. Miss Pepper is roped in for the third time to take the children away for their hols, and chooses to take them to Rubadub-on-Sea, a little seaside village.
The name Rubadub comes from the local tourist feature – a natural whirlpool with a rock shaped like a scrubbing board. The inn, following the theme, is called Three Men in a Tub. This carries on from the fairy-tale world of Ring ‘O Bells nicely, with the children feeling they are rather back in time again at the old inn which hasn’t changed since Miss Pepper stayed there as a child.
After an interesting journey which gives you another little insight into train rides of the 1950s, they arrive in Rubadub. I call the journey interesting as they seem to gain and lose carriages with every station leaving you to wonder how anyone ever ended up in their intended location! Got in the third carriage? Whoops, you end up three towns over from where you wanted to be.
The inn is run by another of Blyton’s marvellously named woman, Gloria Glump. Snubby immediately latches onto this, and noticing she is somewhat of a gloomy person, comes up with ‘feeling down in the glumps’.
She’s not too bad a sort after all, she provides wonderful meals at any rate. The inn isn’t too busy thanks to a newer hotel nearby, but there are three of the pierrots staying. The pierrots are a group of entertainers (an upmarket version of the Barnies, if you will) who are performing nightly on the Rubadub pier. There’s Iris Nightingale the singer who Snubby takes an immediate shine to, Mr Marvel (not too dissimilar to Mr Wooh of Five Are Together Again) the conjurer and magician, and the Funny Man.
The only other guests are the elderly, grumpy and very deaf old Professor James and the gushing, twittering Miss Twitt. The children take to calling her Miss Twitter which is accurate but not very pleasing to her (much like Miss Trimble never liked being called Miss Tremble by the Find-Outers).
Naturally Barney turns up within a few chapters. He has been ill lately and is rather shabby and lonely as a result, which makes his desire to find his father even more pressing for all of them. He gets a job, first at the rather rough evening fair, and then after that with Mr Marvel in the pierrot show.
Now that the group is reunited, the mystery can begin! Rubadub not only hosts a pier, a fair, an inn and a whirpool, but just along the coast it also has a secret naval base. I say secret as clearly what’s inside is top-secret, but the fact that it’s there is well-known. You couldn’t really miss it, with all its fences and buildings stretching out into the water. Then there’s the small matter of the occasional booming explosions in the day and night. Some of those can even be seen from a handy hatch in the inn’s roof. It looks right through a cleft in the cliffs out towards the base.
The catalyst for the adventure is a submarine being blown up in the base one night. Snubby hears it and does a little sneaking around the inn, to look out the roof-window. He notices one or two of the other guests have been awake too, though all deny being aware of anything happening during the night.
Another night some secret signalling is done from that same window – harking back to smuggler’s of old – and again the inn is a hive of activity. Three suspicious someones plus Snubby are running around in the dark, yet he cannot identify any of them.
Meanwhile Mr Marvel has won over the children after his initial moments of snappishness, especially as he has promised Barney that he will find his father. It doesn’t take him long to locate the man, and Barney is promised a midnight meeting if only he will row Mr Marvel out to the whirlpool to collect some documents. For Mr Marvel is really a detective in disguise! He is working to solve the matter of the exploded submarine, and just needs a list of names to be delivered by Barney’s father.
Only, nothing works out the way Barney hopes. Not only does the man cruelly brush him off, but Mr Marvel abandons him on the rocks out at sea. This is where a Blyton staple comes in handy – an tunnel through the rocks towards the shore. This one is fraught with more than the usual danger though, as the whirlpools sucks water through as soon as the tide is high enough and creates a blow-hole at the other end. Earlier the boatman tells the dark tale of sinister men who dump an enemy in the whirlpool, intending to drown him and make sure he’s never found again. Only he escapes through the tunnel and survives, a feat Barney must then pull off if he wants to stop Mr Marvel.
Barney does make it back safely, and is in time to put a stop to Mr Marvel with a bit of help from the true detective in disguise.
This story features two more previously seen Blyton ideas. Usually the children from any series are good at telling the goodies from the baddies, but on occasion they get it badly wrong. They trust Mr Marvel, just as Julian Dick and Anne trust Mr Roland at first, and they suspect Professor James just as they suspected Mr King in their first adventure. You might have hoped they’d have learned their lesson by now!
Barney, reeling from trusting the wrong person decides he’s not going to look for his father any more. Snubby, showing an unusual sensitivity, secretly manages to find out a few things and then leaves it to Miss Pepper to arrange the rest. We then get the heart-warming ending we’ve always wanted for Barney.
There’s one person I’ve yet to mention as I wanted to write properly about him and not just throw him in in passing, and that person is Dummy. Dummy is one of those un-PC characters and has as such been rather edited in modern versions I believe. First of all he is described as A grown-up not as tall as Roger, the head rather big for the body, and the face an odd mixture of child and grown-up. As a child I have to say my imagination rather ran wild and I had a picture of a Moonface like hob-goblin. This isn’t helped by Miss Pepper thinking What a queer little man he was — more like a gnome or brownie than a human being! As an adult it all points to a person who has been born with a disability. Later, however, we are told he fell from a tight-rope and injured his brain.
Despite his difficulties in communication Dummy is a great help in the story. He provides bits and pieces of useful information and indeed is pivotal in rescuing the documents from Mr Marvel, Barney’s escape back to land and in the locating of his father. Unfortunately some of the descriptions of him could be construed as a little offensive and he isn’t particularly well-treated by some people around him. Saying that, it was a fairly positive portrayal of a disabled person for the 1950s considering he holds down a job and isn’t locked away in an asylum.
Although the mystery is slow to start (and is then wrapped up in the space of about one chapter) there’s plenty to take interest in along the way. Snubby’s imaginary banjo and zither provide great amusement and their lampooning of Miss Twitt(er) is great fun. We even get let into one or two secrets of Mr Marvel’s magic performances. As for the mystery itself it’s quite satisfying – and quite amazing that the children resolve it all without ever setting foot near the submarine base where the sabotage happens. When I say ‘the children’, truly it’s mostly Barney. Snubby does his bit, Roger has one or two moments and poor Diana does next to nothing.