Carolyn Keene's second mystery featuring the young sleuth, Nancy Drew, features two main plots of criminal activity, seemingly unrelated, that are pieced together by our teenage heroine by chapter XX, entitled, suitably enough, 'Nancy's Victory'. The key to the mysteries, as the title suggests, is a hidden staircase, which turns out to be a series of hiddens staircases, linking two different colonial properties, which are in the middle of a real estate development deal with shady underpinings.
The book starts with two main events: first, one of Nancy Drew's friends has a grandmother and a greatgrandmother who think that a burglar and/or ghost is menacing their mansion. At the same time, her father, a lawyer, is warned away from a case of an unnotarized contract to sell land to the railroads by a man of questionable morals. While her father runs off to solve the railroad problem, Nancy goes to the mansion, to find out what is behind the hauntings. She suspects there are hidden passages, but spends most of the book trying to find out where they are. As the book progresses, the situation with her father comes to a head, and it all comes to a climax when Nancy finds the networks of tunnels, frees her father, and leads the police to the unscrupulous businessman. Apparently, this book, the 1959 revision of a story from 1930, had Nancy Drew being much more respectful, and law-abiding in her detective work than in the original.
Nancy Drew, and the detective books from the middle period of the last century, are well known for their cliches, even by the many people who have narrow or no experience with the original source material. Which is why I sat down and set about reading one of the actual books, to see how it compares to what I have heard from osmosis. A few points about it:
- The literary quality, or lack thereof. I know that these are books written for preteens, but the quality of the mystery, and the detective work, is lacking. The villain is introduced on the 4th page, and by the 5th page, we know he is up to something. The mystery hinges on secret passages in the mansion, secret passages that aren't too secret, with the only question being where and how in the mansion the are situated. When we find out that they are located in the attic, it doesn't exactly come as a thrilling revelation. At least one plot twist or character with hidden motives would have been interesting.
- The possible homoerotic or lesboerotic or whatever over/undertones, as such as is mentioned in Nancy Clue: Lesbian Girl Detective. I suppose if you like reading things into things, you could find some of that here. There are men mentioned, off into the distance, but the book does seem to be about Nancy and her female friends, all alone, in a mansion, looking for "secret entrances". But on the whole, the book seems too dull to have any hidden erotic meaning.
- 30s/50s social backwardness, sexism, racism, etc. Apparently, the original edition of the book had some racist parts that were changed around for the 1959 edition. The 1959 edition is, in fact, almost offensively inoffensive. Nancy Drew is portrayed as being smart, brave, and generally spunky. In fact, she seems to be the only person in the book who has any type of clue about what is going on around her. The major social problems with the book is probably the dullness with which it portrays society: besides for a few criminals, everyone is a upstanding, middle class type. The railroad company and the police department are totally trustworthy. Not, of course, that we expect that high of social commentary from books like this, but some type of occasional realistic social portrayal would be nice.
There are some parts of popular culture that can be both very entertaining, interesting, and more multilayered than would be expected. If this book is any indication, the Nancy Drew series does not provide such an experience.