Author: Carolyn Keene
Series: Nancy Drew (#2)
Synopsis courtesy of Goodreads
Nancy resolves to help Helen Corning's relatives solve the mystery of the ghost haunting their old mansion. A mysterious man appears at the Drew home to warn Nancy that her father, Carson Drew is in danger. This warning prompts a search for the missing Willie Wharton, a land owner, who can prove he signed away his land to the railroad and save the railroad from a lawsuit. Meanwhile, the disappearance of Mr. Drew, thefts and mysterious goings on at Twin Elms, and the discovery of a hidden staircase lead Nancy to solve these baffling mysteries.
I grew up with the abridged, ‘modern’ versions of the Nancy Drew books (originally published in the 1930s). I had audio copies of the first 7 books, truly amazing ones spiced up with a rich arsenal of suspenseful music very well chosen to play over exciting or creepy parts. And now and again, when I’m tired or nostalgic, I’ll dive into one
The Hidden Staircase freaked me out so badly when I first read it as an 8 year old. The creepy happenings (unnatural faces at windows, the sound of footsteps from behind walls, swinging chandeliers-made even creepier by the fact that you know for sure from the get go that this isn’t really ‘a ghost’ but a very human villain) meant I buried the book after about 5 chapters. But I found my courage and finished it. And read it again and again and again. (I played it so often during car rides in fact, it’s a wonder my parents didn’t ‘lose’ the tapes). And the silly thing is…it still freaked the heck out of me.
Now I’m older, the chills have worn off. I’ve listened to the book so often I could quote long passages to you. But I also enjoy this slightly: it means I can pick it apart. I’ve written about Nancy academically before (and actually, this re-read was to write her profile for my Hol class on female heroes in books). I take a certain pleasure in deconstructing the plot, Nancy’s character and even the sentences, looking for what still makes these books appealing (although, I have to admit, nothing compares to reading them when I was young).
Good points: It is a thrilling ride and nothing like an episode of Scooby Doo (even though, like all of the series, it’s very contrived). Another great aspect of this is that it doesn’t ‘talk down’ in any way to its audience-it uses words that I’m pretty sure 8 year old me didn’t know but was fascinated enough to go and look up. It’s certainly one of the more ‘credible’ in the series, mainly because it doesn’t actually require Nancy to display some hither-to unmentioned but highly convenient talent. It also takes place, like a lot of them, in a wonderful setting (a graceful colonial mansion) and actually gives you some amazing circumstantial historical detail as you go along. This is true both for the ‘history’ Nancy is learning but also the time period in which the book itself is set (though this gets a little complicated given how often they’ve been updated and revised-it’s an odd mixture of 30s and 50s with some modern sensibilities)
Bad points: It is a ‘kid’s book’ (treading the uneasy line between children’s and adults fiction as it predates what we’d now call ‘YA’) and requires you to massively suspend your disbelief. Nancy herself is also far too good to be true in some aspects, though she is by no means unsympathetic. The writing is also slightly stilted and clumsy in places.
Good and Bad points: This isn’t original. It isn’t even true to the re-writes undertaken in the 1950s to sanitise the books for a ‘modern audience’. This is good because I know just how dark and prejudiced some of the early books were from reading articles. But it’s also bad because I have never been able to view the (much longer) text in its original form and I would very much like to, purely out of an academic longing to know how the series has evolved over the years and how it reflects the time in which it was written. (And a childish one to know what they might have cut out of the plot simply for length)