Maybe this is a bit odd, and maybe it isn't.
But The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring was lots of fun and filled a long train journey nicely. I was disappointed that Jonathan didn't figure more, but Mrs Zimmerman is an equally excellent character, even with her suddenly-missing-umbrella (I thought this might be a bluff, but it wasn't - interesting, though, that she still has some latent power, even if she only really uses it for lighting cigars). (I'm sure there was a magic umbrella in the Oz books - in fact, maybe two...) And Rose Rita turned out to be cool too - mixed up, anxious about the future, but brave and wise. I'm so impressed at the way Bellairs subtly locates these stories in the early 1950s; apart from the fact it makes me see Edward Hopper paintings in my head, especially in lonely gas stations at dusk, it leads to small but important stories about young people sorting out their identity. Rose Rita wins a series of victories in this story, and they all come back to her being comfortable as a girl who won't follow the crowd. It actually gains a lot from showing that these victories were being sought, often with greater difficulty, in the early part of the century. It strikes me that as a bedtime read, the book could stimulate some interesting conversations between children and their parents.
I missed Gorey, even after just one book. Richard Egielski's illustrations reminded me a bit of Tomi Di Paola, but there was something a bit more crude and ugly about them. Possibly this was intentional - Gorey's work, after all, is also unsettling. (Although maybe I'm lying there. I can't help thinking that Gorey's illustration is more of an ironic parody of something unsettling - he gives you the reference but he accompanies you as you meet it.)
For me, there was a bit of drag around the middle with Aggie and her family. It felt as if it was grudgingly written - like Bellairs wanted to get onto some more action - and it might have been effective to have had another little supernatural attack somewhere around here, rather than just the frustration of being unable to contact home. After all, that's what we're in it for, yes? And after all her worry about letting her parents know that Mrs Zimmerman had disappeared, when the truth came out it was something of an anti-climax.
The plot, though, was a genius work, constantly twisting back on itself in surprising ways. Just when you think you know the way things will be sorted out, the enemy leads them in a new direction. And one of Bellairs' strengths is in his characters, and it goes beyond how interesting or exciting they are - it's that they're motivated by real, human emotion: fear and love and spite and grief. Perhaps it's surprising that the letter, though crucial to the plot, seems so small it's surprising that it's so dominant in the title - but perhaps it's because a letter is an act of communication. That Mrs Z lets Rose Rita read the whole thing, rather than just giving her the gist and leaving out the bit about the ring, implies its importance to her as a message from an estranged relative. Rose Rita's attempted telephone calls have a relevant significance. Her ultimate obstacle is that she feels she is entirely alone, and finally she overcomes that. She doesn't actually overcome the enemy herself, but she resists the same temptation - to isolate herself.