16 May, 2010

"George knew that Nancy and mystery were never far apart."

Nancy Drew Mystery Stories #5
The Secret of Shadow Ranch

The Case:
Nancy touches down in Arizona, where she's going to be spending some time on Shadow Ranch, owned by Bess and George's Uncle Ed and Aunt Bet. George and Bess meet Nancy with the news that there's a mystery at the ranch, and Uncle Ed might not let them stay for long unless Nancy can solve it. Protip to Uncle Ed: if you do not want a mystery at your ranch, don't call it Shadow Ranch. Call it "Happy Hippos" or something. No self-respecting detective would take on a case called "The Secret of Happy Hippos Ranch".

Turns out that Uncle Ed only purchased the ranch recently and has been trying to do it up, but so many things have been going wrong that he thinks it must be sabotage. Then, one night, the ghostly apparition of a horse appeared.

Supposedly it's the horse of the outlaw, Dirk Valentine, who was shot by the then-sheriff after he started romancing the sheriff's daughter. Dirk swore that his horse would haunt Shadow Ranch for evermore. He sounds kind of lazy, to be honest. Why not just haunt it himself? I call animal abuse.

While the cousins are explaining this, some old guy steals Nancy's knitting bag. She finds it again almost straight away, and wonders if he'd been snooping for some reason. Then the girls find him dropping a note into their car. The note reads Keep away from Shadow Ranch. Subtle. Nancy decides that clearly someone is trying to chase the ranch's new owners off the property, and thinks it was probably an inside job.

The girls give chase, but lose the note-dropping, wool-stealing weirdo, and start the long drive to the ranch instead. Bess suddenly remembers that there's another mystery they haven't told Nancy about. Their cousin Alice's father went missing six months ago, after a bank robbery. The media has hinted that he may have been involved in the robbery, but Alice refuses to believe it. Nancy agrees to help. Now, what is the likelihood that these two, completely separate, mysteries somehow end up being related? Pretty unlikely, right? I'm sorry I even brought it up.

Naturally, some crazy shit goes down during the drive. The girls are hit by a sandstorm - Nancy's excellent driving keeps them on the road - and have to make a quick stop to make sure the car's OK (and reapply their lipstick - nothing erodes make-up like a desert storm!). Bad news: the car's radiator is stuffed, and the car keeps overheating. Worse news: even though the girls thought they had brought two flasks of water, they've already drunk one, and the other one is myseriously empty! Good news: at least their make-up is flawless. Thank God for ColourStay.

The girls contemplate death from broken car and/or dehydration for a while, but they're saved by one of the workers from the ranch, Dave Gregory. (He's tall and handsome, of course.) Dave tells them off for not bringing water, and also calls them "dudes" which I guess is cowboy talk. George protests that one of the other cowboys, Shorty Steele, had said he'd fill their flasks, and Dave's eyes narrow ominously.

At the ranch, Nancy is almost attacked by a farm dog whose name is, um, Apache Chief. Since I recently read a book where not one, but two cats were called 'N-word' this doesn't appal me as much as it might otherwise. Nancy stands her ground and the dog calms down and decides to become her best friend. I add "animal whisperer" to my rapidly growing list of Nancy's skills. Uncle Ed and Aunt Bet warmly welcome Nancy to the ranch, especially now she's proven she's not bad for a "tenderfoot". At dinner, Shorty denies agreeing to fill the girls' flasks, and Nancy is pretty sure he's full of shit, although her phrasing is slightly different.

Nancy decides to look at the warning note she got earlier, and Bess digs through Nancy's knitting bag to retrieve it. Surprise! There's a second warning note tied around a rattlesnake's rattle. It's even conveniently labelled, Second warning. You know, just in case Nancy had lost count, or had thought that she'd absent-mindedly put part of a dead snake in her own knitting bag. Nancy doesn't seem particularly bothered. Even though she lies awake that night, it's because she's thinking about Dave Gregory, not about the people who are threatening to kill her. Well, he is tall and handsome, so I can't really blame her for that.

Nancy and the cook both see an intruder, and the cook is positive that he's entered the kitchen. But there's no way out of the kitchen - except through a convenient trapdoor which apparently doesn't lead to anywhere beyond the basement. Uncle Ed, Nancy and Dave go down to the basement to find him, but there's no one there. Dave tells Nancy that he wasn't in the bunkhouse when the intruder arrived because he was doing "extra sleuthing", which Nancy thinks is pretty suspicious.

The next morning, the water isn't running - someone's dicked over the pump. The clay around the pump is red - and the same clay appears on both Dave and Shorty's boots. Dave offers to go into town to collect parts to repair the pump, and says he'll give Nancy a lift as well. When Nancy brings George along he gets all grumpy and Nancy can't work out why. Apparently Nancy is good at everything except noticing when cowboys have a crush on her.

In town, Nancy pays a visit to the sheriff, and I almost fall asleep because for a book jam-packed with action this scene is ridiculously dull. Nancy, sensing my mood, stops a burglary inside a gift shop. Some guy wearing a black kerchief over his face is busy scooping jewellery into a bag as Nancy walks past. Nancy stops him, of course, and the shop's owner is overjoyed even though Nancy doesn't manage to catch the thief. The shop's owner is Mary Deer, and she's Indian. You can tell she's Indian, because she's described as Indian right there on the page. Also on the next page, and the page after that. On every page, basically.

Mary Deer: she's an Indian!

Mary Deer wants to give Nancy something to thank her, and produces an old-fashioned watch on a fleur-de-lis pin which the outlaw Dirk Valentine gave to his sweetheart, Frances Humber. Mary points out Valentine's symbol - a heart - and tells Nancy that apparently he left a treasure for Frances that she never received. Rumour is that Valentine's fortune is buried somewhere on Shadow Ranch. Could that have anything to do with the shit going down on the ranch? Probably! Nancy plays with the watch for a while, and somehow manages to open up a secret compartment with a message inside. The message says, green bottle in-. Green bottle in where? Nancy doesn't know, but despite the fact that she has the whole world to search through, she doesn't seem particularly worried.

That night, the phantom horse returns. Lead by Shorty, everyone gives chase, and while they're gone someone turns over Nancy's room, searching for the watch. Nancy is wearing the watch, so she's not too upset. She tries to follow the horse's tracks (prints?) but Shorty produces a short-cut which somehow loses the trail. I would not trust Shorty as far as I could throw him, and I throw like a girl. Also, no one seems to be suspicious of him, and when Nancy ever brings up the fact that this has to be an inside job Uncle Ed gets shirty. Jeez, no wonder he needs an eighteen-year-old to solve this thing for him.

Alice sees a picture that Nancy bought from Mary Deer's shop, and decides that her father must have drawn it. Everyone else thinks she's still in denial about him being dead, and also a crook. Still, Nancy gets the name of the artist from Mary and learns that he lives in a cabin up in the mountain, and later she organises a horse ride for the four girls to go and meet him. There's nobody at the cabin, but there is a half-finished picture - another by Alice's father. Then, suddenly - a flash flood! Nancy, George, and Alice's horses are happy to swim across the now-swollen river, but Bess's horse isn't trained for it. Nancy has to go back for her and her horse. Which... doesn't make any sense to me. Bess's horse is happy to swim, but only if its lead? Admittedly, I know jack-all about horses. Plus, Dave is so impressed by Nancy's heroism that he actually apologises to her for being such a jerk. Nancy finds this somewhat suspicious. Then he locks her in stable, which she finds even more suspicious.

Nancy pries open a window with a crowbar, and as she climbs out she notices a light on in the spring-house, where the ranch gets its water from. She rushes over, and even though she doesn't see anyone leave the spring-house is empty by the time she gets there. Nancy realises there must be a secret passage from the spring house to the cellar. Along with Bess and George, she finds a false floor under one of the vats in the spring-house, and goes down through it to the cellar, where she discovers... Dave Gregory!

Dave freely admits that he's been looking for treasure, but denies being the phantom horse or sabotages the farm. Turns out he's a descendant of Frances Humber. His family has Valentine's will, and the missing part of Nancy's clue - the word cellar - and as they're hard up financially he thought it was about time they actually looked for it. Dave apologises for being such a dick, and says that he's caught someone else snooping from time to time - Shorty.

Dave tells them more of Frances and Valentine's story. They were meant to meet at the spring-house one last time, but the Sheriff lay in wait for him and shot the outlaw dead. When he came to tell Frances the news, she was lighting a lamp. Nancy wonders why she was lighting a lamp, when surely she must have heard the shots, and wonders if she'd found the green bottle and was hiding it. The girls ask Aunt Bet if there are any lamps left from the Humber ranch, and sure enough, there's one with a green bottle inside.

It took Nancy some time to work out which lamp contained the green glass bottle.

There's a letter from Valentine to Frances inside the bottle. Nancy starts to read it, but just then the power goes out. It's been cut, as have the phonelines. Nancy suspects that the ranch's enemies are after the new palamino horses. George and Bess hurry off to find Dave, and Nancy runs into ranch-hand Tex. Together they discover the Bud, who was meant to be guarding the horses, has gone missing. Then the phantom horse appears, and Nancy is determined to catch it. She chases it on horseback, but it runs right through the palaminos, and her own horse starts and throws her. Nancy blacks out.

Nancy comes-to to the news that the fences keeping in the palaminos have been cut. The men ride off to find the stray horses, and Nancy returns to the house to read the rest of Valentino's letter. It says that the treasure is hidden in the ranch's "oldest dwelling". Aunt Bet tells her that that's the house that they're in, but the girls are unable to find anything by searching.

Nancy and Alice decide to take another ride up to the mountsin cabin to find Alice's father. Shorty offers to saddle up their horses for them, and when Nancy gets on hers it starts bucking wildly. Tex quickly finds a nettle under the blanket, but Shorty denies all knowledge. As no one has any proof, they let him go, and Nancy and Alice ride to the cabin. It's opened by the man who gave Nancy her two warning notes. He claims to be the artist, but he refers to the pastel drawing as "paintings", and Nancy knows he's full of crap. It also confirms that whoever has Alice's father is also messed up in the ranch sabotage.

Nancy and Alice return to the ranch to get ready for the rodeo, barbeque and square dance that is planned for that evening. Dave is taking Nancy, and Bud and Tex are conveniently taking George and Bess. I forget which is taking which but they're pretty much interchangeable anyway. While waiting for the rodeo to start, Nancy is told there's a phonecall for her. As she excuses herself to take it, she's grabbed by two men - Mr Bursey, the fake artist, and Mr Diamond, the man who may have burgled Mary's store.

Luckily, on the very next page Bess and George demand the men let her go, and Nancy is free - but the men escape. Nancy worries that they'll never get caught, and gets a brainwave. After the dance, while the master of ceremonies is speaking, Nancy gets up on the stage and announces that the men of Shadow Ranch are going to go digging for Valentine's treasure the next morning. Shorty tries to find out what she meant, but Nancy won't tell.

The men set out the next morning on horseback, with an extra horse for the treasure. Nancy and the girls also set out, heading in the opposite direction. Nancy is sure she knows where the treasure really is - in a set of cliff houses, up Shadow Mountain. They're not part of the ranch - but they were when Valenting wrote his note. First, they head for the artist's cabin. It's empty once again, but Nancy is sure there must be a secret passage somewhere. There is, and it leads straight up to the rundown cliff houses. There they find Alice's father, bound on the floor. And they also find Valentine's secret hideout - and his treasure!

Nancy lights a fire to signal to the men that they've found it, but Mr Diamond appears, telling her that even though the gang started off following the ranch workers, they saw the sherriff following and realised it was a trap. They saw Nancy leave the house, and trapped Bess and George - and the treasure - inside. Nancy uses every delaying tactic she knows, then starts to play the gang members off against each other. She gets confessions from Bursey and Shorty, and Diamond angrily threatens to kill everyone. But before he can, Dave and the others arrive, having seen Nancy's signal fire go out.

Conclusion: Alice's father interrupted the gang when they were robbing his bank, so they took him with them so he wouldn't identify him. Why not just kill him straight away? Mr Diamond found out about Valentine's treasure while talking to Mary Deer, and they decided to stick around to try and find it. Oh, and the phantom horse trick was done by painting a horse with phospheresent paint, and then shining a light on it, adding crulety to animals to the gang's many crimes. Their biggest crime? Stupidity. In the time it took them to not find any of the clues to the treasure, and not find the treasure itself, they could easily have robbed a couple more banks and be off somewhere nice, living the high life. Instead, they're in jail, Dave gets the treasure, and there's a horse somewhere dying very slowly of radiation poisoning. (This might not be true. I don't actually know anything about science.)

Case notes:
  • This time, Nancy's hair isn't reddish-blonde, but titian. My good friend wikipedia informs me that this is more of a brownish-orange.
  • ...and Bess is only "slightly plump"...
  • ...and, just in case you were worried, George may be tomboyish, but she's attractive too.
  • Then again, the sandwich shop at the airport is also described as attractive. I'm thinking our author just needed a decent thesaurus.
  • The book's setting is really just an excuse to get the characters to unronically use the word "pardner". And it gets old real fast.
  • Mary Deer "was wearing a vivid red beaded dress and had a glossy braid over each shoulder". Well, of course. How else would people know she was Native American?
  • Valentine is so romanticised. I find it hard to believe that any real outlaw would go around wooing sherriff's daughters and drawing hearts on his horse. Real outlaws would be raping and pillaging.
  • So, now Nancy's a good knitter, an excellent driver, a baker of delicious chocolate cakes and a natural on horseback. Bess, on the other hand, fails even to throw a lassoo.
  • On the other hand, Bess does set up Alice with Tex's brother, Jack. George, on the other hand, contributes approximately nothing to the entire story.
  • The name of the nearest town is Tumbleweed. Tumbleweed.
  • Poor Ned only gets a one line mention in this book, in which Nancy says that he's in Europe and won't be back until after she returns to River Heights. This seems a little harsh, given that she's busy getting her cowgirl on with Dave, but in the original run of the series he didn't make his first appearance until book #7. Obviously the line was added in later, to explain his absence from the plot.
  • On one of their trips into town, the girls all buy "colorful squaw dresses". They then go to a Spanish restaurant and eat tacos, that well-known Spanish dish.
  • In case you're wondering just exactly what one does at a square dance, here's one I prepared earlier:

The Cover:
This book should have been titled "The Mystery of Why Nancy Thought That Shirt Was a Good Idea". She's rocking that perm, though, and I appreciate a girl who can stay on a bucking horse without blinking an eyelid. Still, this is hardly the most exciting cov oh shit it's a ghost horse.


Emma A said...

I am really enjoying your take(s) on the teen detective genre. I never knew (when I was a kid reading them) that Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon were mere pseudonyms for a whole posse of hacks. Nor did I know that they were periodically updated: in the very early ones (1930s, I think) Nancy Drew had blonde hair! Her hair was titian red in the books I read in the 1970s/80s, and I noticed later reverted to strawberry blonde...

Carry on the good work, though!

HelenB said...

Thanks Emma!

As a kid I never noticed the various changes through the years, either - as an adult it's far more obvious that in series like the Nancy Drew Case Files they were tapping into the boys-and-shopping teen market. And I'm still not sold on the most recent version of Nancy, either - I've skimmed through a couple of the books and found them pretty blah, but I guess I'll have to pick some up for the blog sooner or later!