Book review

The House of Rats by Stephen Elboz (1991)

Here's a mysterious story. It's about a huge, old house occupied by the master and his servants and the four orphaned children in his care, Zachary and Esther, Carl and Frankie. The master is exacting but not unfriendly. The house runs to a published timetable with a clock in every room. Meals are taken in silence in the dining room, every mouthful chewed thirty-seven times before swallowing. Lessons are taken in the schoolroom, and bedtime is eight thirty on the dot. But the children are happy enough. They are safe from the wolves who howl at the forest edge all through the long winter.

Quite suddenly, one morning the master disappears, and never returns. Of course, the servants go out searching for him in the forest, but no trace is discovered. And for a while, life goes on in the house as before, in accordance with the published timetable.

But that could not go on for ever. Gradually, the routine decays and the servants begin to take advantage of the master's absence. You know how it is? The teacher leaves the classroom for a while, and as the minutes tick by, the general noise level rises until by the end everyone is bellowing his head off. Well, it is like that in the big house when the master leaves. The clocks stop, dust gathers on the furniture, the schoolmistress starts reading her own ghastly poetry aloud ...

Now, the children don't know what to do. They would have liked to ask the advice of Mr Dunn the butler, who they are rather fond of. Unfortunately, Mrs Dunn, the awful Aphid, is in complete control of Mr Dunn, and Aphid has plans to better herself. With no-one to raise any objection, the Dunns move into the big house:

Dunn served the soup. They began to eat but stopped suddenly and began staring at Dunn. He had removed his bowler and hooked it over the back of the master's chair. Now he was peeling off his gloves. And ... and ... he was actually settling himself in the master's place and lifting a spoon to eat. Urgent looks were swapped across the table. For some inexplicable reason Esther wanted to cry.
Glancing up, Dunn saw them watching him and his mouth fell open.
'Shame to waste a good drop of soup,' he smiled. 'And this is a truly spondoolish slurp.'

The children's position becomes difficult, and then downright dangerous. Aphid doesn't want them in the house, of course, but can't get rid of them until the master's will is found. It wouldn't do for a stranger to come across the master's will and find the house bequeathed to the children, if Aphid had just disposed of them all back to the local orphanage, or worse.

The only thing that Aphid doesn't seem to have allowed for in her plans is the fact that she can't get a wink of sleep in the big house for the sound of the rats scratching behind the walls all night long.

What is to be done about the rats? Aphid sends for the dreadful ratcatcher, Moses Mummery. But the rats who live in the big house are a very special kind of rat. The master knew all about them, but Aphid does not. Read the book to see if Aphid is a match for the rats ... I think you will be surprised at the way this story goes.

What can I read next?

This is a brilliant book, sinister and funny at the same time. And if you enjoy this one, you will probably enjoy:

also by Stephen Elboz. You might also like to look at one by Alan Temperley:

You might also really enjoy this one by William Nicholson:

Or you could have a look at this one by Joan Aiken, which is the first part of a huge series:

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