This is a bit of a strange one. I’ve always heard (or indeed read) that the series takes a dip in quality after Rubadub. Ragamuffin always seems to come last in the popularity stakes – but I believed Rat-a-Tat wasn’t far behind. And yet – I’ve seen two people already this week who profess Rat-a-Tat to be their favourite! I’m not convinced it’s the best of the series, but after re-reading it I can’t say it pales in comparison to early entries.
There are plenty of classic Blyton elements throughout, for a start. Loony continues to be Loony, taking up hall-sliding and ice-sliding in equal measures. Snubby is still irrepressible, having added a real mouth-organ to his repertoire, as well as furniture rearranging. Miranda is possibly even more naughty then ever with her new habit of blowing candles out. There’s night-time escapades, detective work following mysterious footsteps, an old village tale of traitors and a mysterious disappearance,
There are also several elements that have been seen in previous books, or would be seen in those to come. The snow house built by the boys reminded me of the one built by the toys in Naughty Amelia Jane (1941) though they didn’t use ice for glass in the window or accidentally melt it with a fire. The lake with its boat-house (and hidden loot) could be Gloomy Water if Five on a Hike (1951) was set in the depths of winter. The criminals are smuggling large quantities of guns somewhat like in The Adventurous Four (1941) and the plot of them being hidden in the cellars of an abandoned house then lowered down a hole could be seen as similar to the events of The Rockingdown Mystery (1949). The snowy retreat with tobogganing is one that is revisited by the Five in Five Get Into a Fix (1958) as well – though they don’t have a pond to skate on at Magga Glen.
THE MAIN PLOT
To quickly recap – the Lyntons – and Snubby and Loony – are getting under each others feet after Christmas. Well, mostly Snubby and Loony are being difficult and are in danger of being shipped off to Aunt Agatha. This means that Barney can’t come to stay with them, but luckily instead, he invites them to come visit him. They go and have lunch at the Martins’ home and meet Mr Martin and Barney’s grandmother, then the children go off to a lakeside house that belongs to the family for some winter sports. Mrs Tickle, the woman there to cook and generally keep an eye on them, tells them the local legends about Mr No-One who knocks on the front door when there’s a traitor around. They dismiss this as nonsense and carry on with their plans to toboggan, skate, throw snowballs and build a snowman.
However, late one night there is a sudden and deafening RAT-A-TAT at the front door. Bravely the boys look out and see no-one there. Mr No-one? Investigating the next day they find enormous footsteps in the snow going up to the door, yet, mysteriously, there are none going away. Then the snowman disappears only to amble past the kitchen window and terrify Mrs Tickle, and they realise that something sinister is going on. With the phone lines down and the roads impassible it is up to the children to find out what’s happening.
What is happening is that two men have hidden several large, heavy boxes in the cellar and are desperate to scare away the house’s inhabitants. When that has failed, they are forced to sneak in anyway to fetch their cargo. It is Snubby who catches them in the act – and then ends up caught himself. He ends up trapped in the cellar for the night, and then in the morning when he is freed, they all go hunting for the boxes. They have no luck but by this time the phone is back on and so they can summon help. The police arrive by helicopter with Mr Martin, and by a bit of luck – and a stubbed toe – they find where the boxes have been hidden.
The story is somewhat chilling at times, with the children and Mrs Tickle trapped out in the middle of nowhere while an unknown person spies on them from outside. Miranda provides plenty of amusement, and the children have good clean fun in between strange occurrences. Some good detecting is done, though sometimes they seem very slow to have their great ideas, and the main resolutions come about mostly by accident. The most disappointing thing is the ending. The boxes have been located, and the police decide to leave them there so that the men can return for them and be captured. And that’s where we leave it. Can you imagine if the police in Five On a Hike had said “oh, Dick and Maggie are stuck in the marsh, we’ll go back and get them later,” and we had not had the report of a successful capture?
There are also a few minor niggles – Miranda and her paws constantly being referred to as small and particularly tiny began to grate around half-way through the story. There are a few other phrases and situations which I’m sure are used too many times but I can’t remember what they were.
Not necessarily a criticism of the book but I found Mr Lynton particularly objectionable in the opening chapters. He is, in past tales, grumpy and easily irritated and he is exceptionally bad-tempered here. Despite only seeing his children during school holidays, and his nephew (his orphaned nephew) a few times a year, it hasn’t taken him long to become sick and tired of the children’s chatter and noise. He is even willing to invite boring Great-Uncle Robert, knowing fine well that Snubby will then have to go elsewhere, to a miserable aunt who makes Loony sleep in a kennel. Mr Martin is much more amiable and pleasant, yet even he is quite happy to pack Barney and the other children off to the middle of no-where instead of going with them.
This wasn’t a terrible book by any means, but it didn’t quite live up to its potential either. Surely there was room for a secret passage, a trifle more danger and some quicker thinking from our seasoned mystery solvers?