The Enid Blyton Society
The Rockingdown Mystery
Back Book 1 of 6 in this category Next

Book Details...

First edition: 1949
Publisher: William Collins
Illustrator: Gilbert Dunlop
Category: Barney Mystery Series
Genre: Mystery/Adventure
Type: Novels/Novelettes

On This Page...

Reprint Covers
Review by Anita Bensoussane
Further Illustrations


Spine and front cover from the 1955 edition, illustrated by Gilbert Dunlop

Spine and front cover from the 1956 edition, illustrated by Gilbert Dunlop

1st German edition published by Blüchert Verlag in 1962,
illustrated by Nikolaus Plump with the title Riddle of the Abandoned House
Foreign Titles
German: Rätsel um das verlassene Haus
French: Le Mystère du Vieux Manoir
Dutch: Robbert Jan en het geheim van berg en Dal
Spanish: Misterio en Rockingdown
Portuguese: O Mistério de Rockingdown
Norwegian: Hulemysteriet
Polish: Tajemnica palacu w Rockingdown
Icelandic: Radgatan a Rokkurholum
Latvian: Rokingdaunas noslepums

Brief Summary by Robert Houghton: Roger, Diana and their orphaned cousin Snubby, along with his dog Loony, go on holiday to Rockingdown with their mother's old governess Miss Pepper, but with the prospect of lessons taken by a tutor while they are there they feel sure they will be in for rather a dull time. Then they meet Barney the circus boy, who is searching for his long-lost father, along with Miranda, his pet monkey, and suddenly Rockingdown isn't quite so dull after all. A mysterious old house with an abandoned nursery, noises in the night, and a tutor who is acting suspiciously, all add up to a first exciting adventure for the four children, where friendships are forged and mysteries need solving...

Full Review (This may contain spoilers):

Anita Bensoussane's Review
In The Rockingdown Mystery Enid Blyton gives us an enthralling adventure story, packed with action and atmosphere. Mr and Mrs Lynton having gone to America, Roger, Diana and Snubby spend their summer holidays in the village of Rockingdown with Miss Pepper, staying in the Dower House belonging to a deserted old mansion (the latter is, confusingly, called Rockingdown Hall in some chapters and Rockingdown Manor in others.) It is at Rockingdown that they first meet Barney, the circus-boy. Together, the four children explore the mansion and Barney, who sleeps rough, takes to spending the night there. It is when he is awoken repeatedly in the night by mysterious bangs and "a curious whining, half-screeching noise" that the children begin to suspect that the building is being used for criminal activity. They investigate and become suspicious of their tutor, Mr King, believing him to be involved in whatever is going on. Alone in the cellars of the mansion, Barney comes across a hole behind a moving stone, which leads him to a rocky passage, an underground stream and caverns. Men are at work there, winching crates of smuggled goods (revolvers, silk and metal bars) along the stream and repacking them in order to dispose of them later. Barney is caught by the men and made to help them, but manages to send his pet monkey, Miranda, to the others with a note. Meanwhile, the others have discovered that Mr King is not a criminal but a detective, who has been tipped off that smuggled goods are being brought to Rockingdown. The capture of the men, and the rescue of Barney, are dramatic and exciting. At the end of the book Miss Pepper, who had been called away to care for her sister, who was ill, returns with the news that she is to take her sister and the children to the sea. The refreshing sea air is just what the children need after the suffocating atmosphere of Rockingdown, though personally I feel a pang of regret that they must leave the village so soon.

That is the story in a nutshell, but there is far more to this book than just a gripping plot. Above all, it is the melancholic atmosphere that I have never forgotten. The mansion has "an air of desolation and decay" about it, rather like the "mansion of gloom" in Edgar Allan Poe's tale, "The Fall of the House of Usher" (Tales of Mystery and Imagination.) When Miranda manages to enter the building through a barred nursery window, throwing down old toys and a handkerchief embroidered with the name "Bob," Roger muses that the nurseries may have been locked up complete with toys "because of memories, or something," reminding Diana how their own mother keeps the first tooth of his that came out, and Diana's first pair of shoes. Diana remarks that "Mothers seem to be like that," which is (unusually for her) a tactless comment in front of both Barney and Snubby, whose mothers have died.

Even before entering the old mansion, the children sense that it is a place of sadness. On talking to the woman from the general store, they learn that the nurseries were shut up after Lord and Lady Rockingdown's two children, Arabella and Robert (Bob), tragically died at the house. Then Lord Rockingdown was killed in the war and his wife died of a broken heart. The fact that she has just seen toys from the nurseries brings the past alive for Diana and she is moved: "Poor little Bob! She actually had his small hanky in her pocket. He hadn't lived to grow up — but his hanky was still there. And his soldier and book."

Later on, the children explore the nursery and the adjoining bedrooms. Eerily, the rooms are still fully furnished, there are toys on the shelves and the table is laid for a meal (initially Barney says, "...there's a meal laid on the table," which is most disconcerting, but subsequently Blyton talks only of "plates and dishes on the table, set out ready for a meal.") It is as if time had stood still and Barney feels "as if he had stepped back years and years." The "once-white cover" of the nurse's bed is "now grey with dust" and large spiders "scuttled over the ceilings...terrified to be disturbed in the midst of their long dark peace." When Enid Blyton wrote this chapter she may well have been thinking of Miss Havisham's rooms in Dickens' Great Expectations. There too we have dust and spiders, material (a wedding-dress) that was once white but is now "faded and yellow," and a table laid long ago for a meal. There is something terribly unhealthy about such rooms, which have preserved the sadness of the past within their walls.

Blyton's use of language and imagery throughout the book is striking. When Barney is trapped down in the caverns below the mansion, Blyton conjures up images of Hell which serve to underline the nightmarish qualities of the Underworld in which Barney is imprisoned. We have descriptions of dark caverns and passages, and an underground stream, "black and gleaming." A man holding a pitchfork guides crates of goods along the stream. In Tales of Long Ago Blyton re-tells ancient Greek myths, including the story of "Proserpina and the King of the Underworld." In this story she describes the Underworld, or Kingdom of the Dead, as consisting of "dark caverns underground." It is ruled by Pluto, a "dark and gloomy monarch," who carries a "two-pronged spear" resembling a pitchfork. The same book contains "The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice," in which Orpheus is ferried across "the black river Styx" to the "long, dark passages" of the Underworld. All these elements are to be found in the underground world beneath Rockingdown Hall. The mention of the man with the pitchfork also makes me think of depictions of the Devil in Christianity as a creature with horns, a tail and a pitchfork. Such images heighten the sense that Barney is surrounded by evil and is in real danger. When the boy finds his way of escape blocked by an iron-barred gate, we are reminded of the barred nursery window at the mansion, intensifying the atmosphere of imprisonment and gloom which pervades this book.

If we take a close look at words and phrases used in The Rockingdown Mystery, there are some lovely "Blytonian" gems. Near the beginning of the book, when Roger and Diana go to meet Snubby off the train, we have a delightful touch of animation when Blyton describes how the train moves off: "The train gave itself a little shake, preparing to start off again...The train steamed off importantly." Enid Blyton is often criticised for failing to use challenging vocabulary, yet it is precisely her knack for phrasing things simply, yet aptly and imaginatively, which give her writing its charm. She does not allow descriptions to slow the pace of her narrative but chooses succinct yet striking phrases that hit the nail on the head. We have brief but vivid descriptions of some of the birds in the countryside around Rockingdown — "...the queer little trill of the yellow-hammer, and the blue flash of the kingfisher..." Certainly Blyton overuses the word "queer," but "trill" and "blue flash" pick out the main characteristics of the birds very effectively. Diana's tendency to sulk is shown in two marvellous verbs — "gloomed" and "mooned." When Diana discovers that she, Roger and Snubby are to have a tutor for the holidays we are told: "Diana gloomed over her ice." A few pages later, Diana feels jealous of the bond between Roger and Snubby and we have the following sentence: "Diana mooned over her peaches and cream." In keeping with the fairytale theme that runs like a thread through this series, Diana describes Snubby as "a horrible little imp or goblin," while Snubby says of Barney, "...hasn't he got queer eyes? Like somebody belonging to the Little Folk, not to us." Mrs Round, who comes each day to do the cooking and cleaning, is summed up in just one simile which speaks volumes: " ...her face shone like the harvest moon, it was so red and round." Before meeting her, Diana asks, "Is she like her name?" and we know immediately that she will be. This is a series in which many characters, from the rather "peppery" Miss Pepper to Loony the dog, live up to their names in true Blyton fashion.

Both Mrs Round and the woman from the general store are stereotypical working-class gossips, enjoying telling tales of the old mansion and making it sound deliciously spooky. Mrs Round states: "There's doors there that shut of themselves, yes, and lock themselves too." Using non-standard grammar, Blyton captures the expressions and rhythms of working-class speech skilfully, without trying to reproduce a dialect to the point where the text becomes difficult to read.

Several times we have statements that are ironic (unintentionally so on the part of the speaker.) One of the first things Miss Pepper says to Mr King is: "Appearances don't always tell the truth," while the woman from the general store remarks (when Barney leaps up to get something from a high shelf): "You ought to be in a circus, you ought!"

Blyton tells us that Shakespeare's plays are important to Barney yet, disappointingly, she does not exploit this. We know that Barney is familiar with The Tempest and that Diana has acted the part of Titania in a school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Other children's authors, such as Gwendoline Courtney and Antonia Forest, quote from Shakespeare in their children's fiction or have characters discuss his plays, but Blyton does not go as far as that. The Rockingdown Mystery is set in the summer and, on their first visit to Rockingdown Hall, the children have their picnic tea in the nurseries while a storm rages outside, so there is plenty of opportunity to quote from both A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest. A few apt quotations could add comedy and richness to Blyton's book. How I'd love to see Diana face up to the spiders in the old mansion with the words:

     Weaving spiders come not here;
     Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence!

(A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, scene ii)

I'd also like to know, as the series progresses, which other Shakespearian plays Barney reads. Roger lends him Hamlet in The Rilloby Fair Mystery, but after that we hear nothing more. Which play is he reading in The Rubadub Mystery when he finds his father, and do he and his father ever act out scenes from Shakespeare together, just for fun? Frustratingly, Blyton never tells us.

It is strange that Roger and Diana, aged fourteen and thirteen respectively, should repeatedly refer to their mother as "Mummy" in this book. It sounds rather babyish and, perhaps realising this, Blyton has them call her "Mother" in The Rilloby Fair Mystery. However, in later books they frequently revert to "Mummy." Such inconsistency is irritating but probably inevitable when we recall that Enid Blyton claimed to have spent very little time revising her work before publication.

Another thing we have to accept when reading Blyton is that ideas used in one book are often reworked in another. In The Rockingdown Mystery Barney, who has "a real thirst for book knowledge," joins the children when they are being coached by Mr King. However, when Loony and Miranda have a battle during a lesson, Mr King bans both dog and monkey from attending classes any more. This angers Snubby, who believes that Loony has been treated unfairly, and from then on he devotes his time to playing tricks on the tutor. All this is very much like Five Go Adventuring Again (1943), in which George takes a dislike to her tutor, Mr Roland, when he forbids her to bring her dog, Timmy, to lessons. Of course, the main difference is that Mr Roland does turn out to be up to no good, whereas Mr King is actually a detective posing as a tutor.

To finish, I'd like to look at some telling moments from the story — moments in which we learn something significant about the personalities of various characters.

Near the start of the book, Roger and Diana go to meet Snubby at Rockingdown Station but are surprised to find that he is not on the train. They waste time trying to work out what could have happened to him before walking back to the Dower House in the hot sun, tired and hungry. To their astonishment, Snubby is already there, eating his lunch! Irritatingly, he teases his cousins about having failed to see him before admitting that he got out at an earlier station, where the train had a long wait, and caught a bus to Rockingdown. This may seem inconsiderate of him, but then he was not expecting to be met. As he explains to Roger and Diana: "I'm not used to kind attentions of that sort from you." Or from anyone else for that matter, we can't help thinking.

Perhaps Snubby learns his lesson later when he is suspicious of Mr King and tracks him on a long and tiring walk, only to lose sight of the tutor and have a weary walk home, "almost in tears with tiredness and hunger."

Another telling moment comes when the three cousins first meet Barney, who sleeps rough. Rather surprisingly, it is Snubby who says, "Well, where's your real home?...You must have a home!" Snubby obviously does not regard himself as "homeless," despite the fact that he "gets kicked about from one aunt to another" during the school holidays. He realises that, compared to Barney, he is lucky as he does at least have relatives who care for him.

The fact that Snubby is an orphan, and Barney is on a quest to find his father, means that there is a great deal of interest throughout this series in the family unit and in what it means to be part of a family. As a result, the "R" Mysteries are more than just typical mystery/adventure stories, leading Enid Blyton (in The Story of My Life, 1952) to declare the first four titles of this series (she had not yet written the last two) particularly suitable for older children and teenagers. If only she had known, she might have ventured to recommend them to adult Blyton enthusiasts too! These illustrations are hidden by default to ensure faster browsing. Loading the illustrations is recommended for high-speed internet users only.