The Enid Blyton Society
The Rat-a-Tat Mystery
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Book Details...

First edition: 1956
Publisher: William Collins
Illustrator: Anyon Cook
Category: Barney Mystery Series
Genre: Mystery/Adventure
Type: Novels/Novelettes

On This Page...

Reprint Covers
Review by Anita Bensoussane
Further Illustrations


Wraparound dustwrapper from the 1st edition, illustrated by Anyon Cook

Frontis from the 1st edition, illustrated by Anyon Cook

1st German edition published by Blüchert Verlag in 1962,
illustrated by Nikolaus Plump with the title Riddle of the Walking Snowman
Foreign Titles
German: Rätsel um den wandelnden Schneemann
French: Le Mystère de M.Personne
Dutch: Robbert Jan en de geheimzinnige Mister X
Spanish: Misterio en villa Rat-A-Tat
Portuguese: O Mistério da Casa da Neve
Latvian: Retatetas noslepums
Slovakian: Skrivnost Hise Ratatata

Brief Summary by Robert Houghton: Staying at a creepy old house in the country surrounded by snowed-up roads, cut off from civilisation, Roger, Diana, Snubby and Barney witness strange goings-on, all tied up with ancient old legends of how the great knocker on the front door always bangs by itself to warn that traitors are in the house. When someone bangs on the door in the middle of the night but then mysteriously vanishes, faces peep in at windows, snowmen seemingly move by themselves and the phone is suddenly cut off, the children decide that it's their job to unravel the mysteries surrounding Rat-a-Tat House.

Full Review (This may contain spoilers):

Anita Bensoussane's Review
The Rat-a-Tat Mystery has all the ingredients of a thriller — or perhaps "chiller" would be a more apt word for a story set in a snowy January landscape! Roger, Diana, Barney, Snubby and Loony go to stay in a remote lakeside house, where they become snowbound. The house is "like a house in a story book," it has "seen a bit of history" and there is a legend about a mysterious Mr. No-One who knocks on the door to warn of traitors. Hmm — a strong feeling of déjà vu for the reader here, I think!

Right on cue, spooky things begin to happen. The lion's head door-knocker knocks by itself; a trail of footprints leads to the door, yet there are no prints leading away; and the face of a snowman appears at the window. When the children try to summon help, they find that the telephone lines are down. What is the explanation of these peculiar goings-on? On investigation, the children discover that the knocking, the footprints and the "snowman" were the work of two men — Stan and Jim — who were desperate to frighten away the occupants of the house so that they could collect boxes of stolen guns which they had hidden in the cellar.

Stan and Jim manage to remove the boxes one night and hide them elsewhere, locking Snubby in the cellar in the process. They intend to retrieve them when the snow melts and the roads are no longer impassable — but how can things possibly go according to plan when there is a bunch of meddling children on the trail?

Substitute Velma, Daphne, Fred, Shaggy and Scooby for Roger and the others and you have a typical Scooby Doo scenario, in which spooky happenings invariably turn out to have been engineered by crooks in order to scare people away. It could even be said that The Rat-a-Tat Mystery is less engaging than an episode of Scooby Doo, since Blyton fails to give us the satisfaction of seeing the villains apprehended at the end of the story.

Mr. Martin and the police arrive by helicopter and a search ensues for the boxes that Stan and Jim removed from the cellar. It is discovered that a circular piece of ice was sawn from the surface of the frozen lake and that the boxes were lowered down into the water before ice formed over them once more. Mr. Martin explains that the guns in the boxes were stolen from an army camp and that they were probably going to be shipped out of the country secretly and used against Britain. It occurs to Barney that this is "traitor's business" and he remembers that the knocker was said to have sounded whenever there was a traitor at Rat-a-Tat House. The twist this time is that the knocker was sounded by one of the traitors! This is all very much like The Ring O' Bells Mystery, in which the bells rang out to warn of enemies just as the old legends told.

The police state their intention of arresting the thieves once the snow has thawed, as they will then be able to catch them red-handed when the thieves come with a lorry to collect the guns. This is unsatisfactory, I think. Stan and Jim are still at large for the time being, in extreme weather conditions, and could be a danger to the public. And where could they possibly be hiding in such bitter weather? Formerly, they are supposed to have slept in a boat-house which had a broken window. Brrr!

Offered a reward for his part in solving the mystery, it is typical of Snubby that he chooses to crash the lion's head knocker! Inquisitive and impulsive, he itches to try things out. Earlier in the book Mrs. Lynton cried, exasperated: "Stop turning on the taps, Snubby. I said stop." And in previous titles we have seen him pull the bell-pull at Rockingdown Hall and long to ring the bells at Ring O' Bells Hall, or bang on the sailing ship knocker at the inn in Rubadub.

Ridiculous rather than spine-chilling, The Rat-a-Tat Mystery is undoubtedly the weakest of the "R" Mysteries. Blyton does not build up suspense sufficiently to involve the reader in the emotions of the characters — a contrast to The Ring O' Bells Mystery and The Rubadub Mystery, in which the reader was drawn into the delicious darkness of the stories. The lonely countryside location, the bleakness of mid-winter and Rat-a-Tat House being cut off by snow are the devices used by Blyton to create a feeling of isolation and oppression. However, her minimalist descriptions let her down. Only occasionally are the sounds and rhythms of Blyton's writing comparable to those of earlier titles, for example when the children are awoken at midnight by the crash of the knocker:
"The night was still and the frost was hard. There was not a sound to be heard, for even the owl was too cold to hoot, and flew sadly on his silent wings, looking for mice that he could not see. They were far under the snow, safe in their cosy holes.

And then a thunderous sound split the deep silence..."
The intense cold and the palpable silence suggest that things are suspended and that something is about to happen — as indeed it does! There are echoes here of the opening lines of Keats' The Eve of St. Agnes:
"St. Agnes' Eve — Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold."
Throughout the rest of The Rat-a-Tat Mystery the wintry weather seems too pretty to be menacing. The snow is "enchanting" and "dazzling," and the landscape is "softened" by it. Compare this with Susan Cooper's marvellous book, The Dark is Rising, in which relentlessly falling snow is animated as a malevolent force, obliterating all that is familiar. The Rat-a-Tat Mystery would have worked better if Blyton too had concentrated on creating an atmosphere of unease. Instead, she focuses on the beauty of the snow, the exhilaration of activities such as skating, and the charm of winter evenings around a blazing fire. It doesn't help that Blyton continually conjures up visions of "winter-warmers" — stew, fried potatoes, hot scones and treacle pudding — so that the chief impression is one of cosiness and security when what is really required is tension and uncertainty.

Then there is Mrs. Tickle, the comic and comforting house-keeper — kindly, talkative, fond of legends and determined to tackle intruders with a rolling-pin! She gives the children a warm welcome, remarking: "I'm right down glad to see you all, I was afeard you'd not get through the snow." (Has anyone else noticed how frequently Blyton's working-class characters say "right down," or, to ring the changes, "downright"?) Although Mrs. Tickle has great comic potential, not enough is made of this and I've always found her irritating. That might have something to do with her name, which makes her sound as if she belongs in one of Roger Hargreaves' "Mr. Men" books!

The Secret of Moon Castle, published in 1953 — three years before The Rat-a-Tat Mystery — is similar in that it also concerns villains who make "spooky" things happen in an old building, with the aim of driving away a group of children. However, The Secret of Moon Castle is much more successful when it comes to suspense. Perhaps that is due partly to the three lady caretakers, Mrs. Brimming and her sisters, who are hostile and on edge and appear to be hiding something. They have an almost mythical quality about them, like the three Fates or three Gorgons of Greek legend, three old hags from a folk-tale, or the three "weird sisters" in Macbeth. There is the secretive and sinister figure of Guy too, whom we sense is a real threat. Truly mystifying things happen, such as the boys contracting pins and needles after witnessing a strange fire in the old tin mines. By contrast, The Rat-a-Tat Mystery is lacking in intrigue. Mrs. Tickle is not a discomfiting character, like the three sisters, and the things that happen, such as a snowman peeping through the window, are too ludicrous to be scary.

Snubby jokes that it's a pity that the snowman does not come into the kitchen: "He would go and warm himself at your big fire, Mrs. Tickle, and in a few minutes all you'd have to do would be to mop up a big pool of water, and empty the snowman down the sink." This recalls an episode from The Enchanted Wood (1939), in which Jo is captured by an evil snowman in the Land of Ice and Snow. Moon-Face stokes the fire in order to melt the snowman and, finally, there is nothing left "except a very large puddle of water." The snowman sequence in The Enchanted Wood is far more terrifying than that in The Rat-a-Tat Mystery because, The Enchanted Wood being a fantasy story, the situation is so much more surreal and nightmare-like.

Repetition of words occurs in this book as it did in The Rubadub Mystery, but this time the repetition seems to serve no purpose and may simply be a sign of slapdash writing. The Rat-a-Tat Mystery is a half-hearted add-on to the series and there are indications that Blyton dashed off this book "at top speed" ("at top speed" being a favourite phrase of hers which is to be found at least three times in this book — including twice on page 36 of my Armada paperback edition — as well as in nearly every other Blyton book I've read recently.) "Floundered" appears numerous times and "scrimmage" twice, which is annoying when Blyton could so easily have sought alternatives.

The repeated use of various forms of "jig" is interesting. In The Rat-a-Tat Mystery Blyton uses the phrase "jigging up and down" three times about Miranda, and once about Snubby. When the children start to piece together what is going on, Barney remarks, Fatty-like: "I'm beginning to see how all the happenings can fit together like pieces in a jigsaw," while that afternoon the children have "a jigsaw battle." And, although no-one comments on it, the circle of ice cut from the lake resembles a piece from a jigsaw. Whether Blyton was conscious of these echoes or whether they occurred spontaneously, through writing at speed, is hard to judge.

One thing I noticed while re-reading this book as an adult is how close Barney and Diana have become. Diana admires Barney in his smart clothes — "he looked extremely nice, and Diana gazed at him in admiration" — and she partners him for many activities — tobogganing, skating, snowball-fighting and building a snowman. There is no real suggestion of romance, though, as there is in the adventure books of authors like Malcolm Saville. Incidentally, Diana names the snowman Mr. Icy-Cold. Mister Icy-Cold (1948) was the title of one of Enid Blyton's short-story collections, containing a story about a snowman.

Fatherhood is an important issue throughout the "R" Mysteries. The idea of a father who was always there, contributing emotionally as well as financially to the home, was something that obviously appealed to Enid Blyton but which proved elusive in real life. That the role of a father was a preoccupation with Enid is not surprising. Her own father walked out when she was not quite thirteen and, following her divorce from Hugh Pollock, she made sure that her daughters never saw their father again. Blyton's behaviour towards Hugh is difficult to understand. Did she never feel troubled by what she had done? In The "R" Mysteries, she indulges in wish-fulfilment and gives Barney an "ideal father." What strikes me about Mr. Martin is how different he is from the remote and formal Mr. Lynton. The Rat-a-Tat Mystery opens with Mr. Lynton asking: "How LONG do these Christmas holidays last?" He is impatient and grumpy, like a fractious child, and cannot wait for Roger and the others to return to school. His wife soothes him as if he were a little boy: " don't really mean that, dear...You'll be back at the office soon." When Roger and Diana knock on their father's study door he assumes that they have come to pester him for pocket-money, perhaps a natural reaction for a man who appears to regard his role in the family to be that of breadwinner — and nothing more. Compare his manner with that of Mr. Martin, who speaks less formally ("Hallo, kids!", "Hop in!") and is far more willing to accommodate the children. When the car gets stuck in the snow on the way to Rat-a-Tat House, Mr. Martin takes it all in his stride, unlike Mr. Lynton who would certainly be fuming!

After having waited so long to meet Barney's father properly, it is disappointing that we do not find out what he does for a living, and whether he is still an actor. Blyton was understandably anxious to give Barney a comfortable home after his life of hardship but, personally, I'd like Mr. Martin to have been an actor with a touring theatre company. Barney could have toured with him during the school holidays, thereby continuing to some extent with an itinerant lifestyle, while spending the rest of the year at his grandmother's house or at boarding-school.

The Rat-a-Tat Mystery contains some humour but it is tame compared to the wonderful wit and comic capers of The Rilloby Fair Mystery. The only comment which made me laugh out loud may actually be unintentionally humorous. It comes on the first page of the book, when Mr. Lynton is angry at the crashes coming from upstairs and Snubby calls down: "Oh — sorry! I was only moving things round a bit — and the dressing-table fell over. I forgot you were underneath." I don't know whether Blyton intended the reader to form a mental image of Mr. Lynton being squashed flat beneath a dressing-table, but that's what comes into my mind!

I'm also reminded at this point of what I've heard of Enid's annoyance at being disturbed by her children's noisy play while she was trying to work. Imogen Smallwood writes, in A Childhood at Green Hedges (1989), that the nursery at Green Hedges was directly over Enid Blyton's lounge. "There was a big round lamp, like a dish, hanging from the ceiling in the lounge. Any bumps or bangs from the nursery above rattled it alarmingly. In addition, the screams that I emitted when my sister tickled and teased me were easily audible downstairs. Most of my mother's visits to the nursery were hasty, angry ones rather than benevolent." Could there be a little of Blyton herself in Mr. Lynton, I wonder?!

One anomaly in The Rat-a-Tat Mystery is that Mr. Martin now lives in Little Wendleman, whereas in the last book he lived in Cherrydale. It's also odd that Barney's grandmother should be described as a nice old lady who, like Barney, has a pet monkey. She is the "unkind" grandmother who, according to Dummy in The Rubadub Mystery, drove Barney's mother away because she did not approve of her son having married a circus-girl. All this does not quite fit, somehow.

The Rat-a-Tat Mystery is the only book in the series to have been illustrated by Anyon Cook and, although reasonably attractive, Cook's illustrations lack the fluidity of those by Gilbert Dunlop.

On the whole, The Rat-a-Tat Mystery is a disappointing book which fails to thrill because the supposedly "spooky" happenings are too silly to be seriously spine-chilling. The sparkle has gone from the series and the final title — The Ragamuffin Mystery — is yet another damp squib. These illustrations are hidden by default to ensure faster browsing. Loading the illustrations is recommended for high-speed internet users only.