Saturday, June 3, 2023

Children's Hour--Lady Bountiful in a Red Roadster: The Hidden Staircase (1930) and The Secret of Red Gate Farm (1931), by "Carolyn Keene"

My sister's bedroom in our ranch house in Northport, Alabama back in the 1970s was decorated in colors of pale yellow and blue.  In the corner, by the only window in the room, which looked down the sloping lawn, was a metal bookcase, painted yellow, where she kept her books.  Being extremely bookish from a young age, I naturally took peeks at them now and again.  She had some books my Grandmother Ada from California had bought her, like The Borrowers, Mr. Mysterious and Company,  the first two of Frank Baum's Oz novels and a number of Nancy Drew mysteries, the yellowbacks with the pictures directly on the front covers (no dust jackets).  I can still remember the ones she had from looking up the covers on the internet: The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Mystery at Lilac Inn, The Secret at Red Gate Farm, The Clue in the Diary, The Sign of the Twisted Candles, The Secret in the Old Attic, The Clue in the Old Album.  (I don't recognize any others.)  

I don't know that my sister was too devoted to Nancy Drew; she wasn't a big reader in general.  I remember being intrigued by that Hidden Staircase cover with Nancy, looking rather school librarian-ish in her sensible blue blouse, skirt and shoes, intrepidly traversing that old stone staircase, that beaming flashlight in her hand.  I never read any of them, however, at least that I can recall.  

By 1974 I had started reading Agatha Christie mysteries, starting with four Pocket paperbacks that my Mom bought when we lived in Mexico City  (Easy to Kill as it was called, Ten Little Indians, as it was called, Funerals Are Fatal as it was called, and The ABC Murders).  Before Agatha my favorite book compulsion was L. Frank Baum's Oz series of fantasy children's books.  (I was the only kid in my set who knew there was more than one.)  Nancy had to wait.  As for the Hardy Boys, I had one my Mom got me, when I was in the fourth grade I think, called The Scarlet Claw.  I don't believe I ever even cracked the covers.  Oddly enough I did read a Bobbsey Twins book that had mysterious elements, but I forget the title.

When the 1990s rolled around and I was in graduate school studying history (and a great mystery reader), I bought some of the facsimile eds. of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries reissued by the publisher Applewood.  The fact that these were replicas of the actual stories from the 1920s and 1930s interested me.  Beginning in 1959, the year my sister was born, the older Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys were heavily edited and updated, in some cases essentially rewritten.  I had no interest in any of that.  A love of history and "Golden Age," between-the-wars mystery, I wanted to read those books, if I ever got around to reading them, as they originally appeared, within the true context of their times.

Finally I've gotten around to reading a couple of Nancy Drews: The Hidden Staircase (Yes!) and The Secret of Red Gate Farm, the second and sixth books in the series, originally published in 1930 and 1931 respectively, in the heart of the Golden Age of detective fiction.  

Many of you will be very familiar indeed with the plots of these beloved children's mystery novels.  Hidden Staircase may be the single most famous Nancy Drew title.  It opens when privileged, blonde, sixteen-year-old teenage do-gooder Nancy, all alone at the Drew home in River Heights (her father, big shot attorney Carson Drew, has been called out of town on a case, and the housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, has her day off), gets a visit from a repulsive, rude stranger from nearby Cliffwood, Nathan Gombet, who to Nancy accuses her father of having cheated him in a land deal.  Nathan, you see, is a miser and frankly rather off his rocker.  

After Nancy gets rid of this objectionable person, the book rather hangs fire for a bit.  The teen gets a visit from Allie Horner, one of the many people, it seems, who has benefitted from Nancy's crusading goodness.  Allie and her sister Grace had lived on a farm, where they "were undernourished and beset with financial worries," but, all due to the efforts of Nancy, "the girls had come into an inheritance and their troubles had vanished."  (All this is detailed in the debut mystery in the series, The Secret of the Old Clock.)  They discuss Nathan Gombet a bit and Allie confirms he is bad news.  Then Carson Drew gets home and they discuss Nathan some more. 

A few days late Nancy visits the cottage of Abigail Rowen, another beneficiary of Nancy's decsive intervention in the Old Clock case: "Nancy had found in her deplorable condition.  There was little food, or money with which to buy it, and Abigail had firmly refused medical attention because she could not pay for it.  It was through Nancy's instigation that she had received her inheritance from the Crowley estate...."

Ronen Mansion, Stone City, Iowa
Abigail introduces Nancy to her friend Rosemary Turnbull, "an elderly maiden lady" (she's actually no more than forty-five by my calculation) who resides in Cliffwood with her twin sister Floretta at an old stone mansion, naturally called The Mansion.  It seems that, like all the other maiden ladies mentioned above, the Turnbull sisters have a problem for Nancy Drew to solve: their house is infested with poltergeists!  

Noises all over the house, shadows on the walls and objects disappearing, even when all the doors and windows are locked.  Yes, technically this is a locked room mystery, though you will have about as much trouble answering that riddle as you would in a Carolyn Wells detective novel.

Finally, after forty pages and five chapters, Nancy gets to The Mansion, where she finds Floretta all aflutter!  She wants to move out of the house immediately!  Hey--could this be someone's clever plot to drive the Turnbull sisters out of their ancestral home, built before the Civil War?  I'll bet you a bag of Scooby snacks it could!

Nancy quickly decides that the Turnbulls are worthy objects of her benevolence and gets to work trying to find the true guise of the poltergeist.  Gazing at the family portraits that adorn The Mansion, she realizes "that once the Turnbulls had been the leading family in Cliffwood."  Although Rosemary and Floretta, the last of the local Turnbull line, are decayed gentlewomen with "an income only sufficient for their needs," they are, Nancy appreciates, "welcome in the best of society."  (Okay, this is apparently Iowa, so let's not get too carried away with pretensions.)  

As Nancy tells her father, "They come from an excellent family.  I believe The Mansion has belonged to the Turnbulls ever since it was built....It would be a tragedy if they had to sell the place now...I want so badly to help them."

Carson Drew has to go on a business trip to Chicago, but he hands daughter Nancy a revolver and tells her you go, girl, basically.  Which she does.  The gun doesn't play any real role in the novel, however, it's mostly just Nancy snooping around at the Turnbull place and later at another stone house that looks a lot like theirs.  It turns out that the pair of houses were built by two Turnbull brothers who were once close but then became enemies during the Civil War....And that wicked Nathan Gombet lives in the other house....And that he has been pressuring Rosemary and Floretta to sell their house to him cheap....

Solved the mystery yet?  Could a hidden staircase be involved somehow?  One thing you can say, at least this story has truth in advertising.  

Truth is, Nancy is no great detective here, just very determined.  But it's an enjoyable story nevertheless.  If there's one thing kids love, it's mysterious, secret passages in old houses and you sure get them in this novel.

A few books later Nancy is at it again, trying to discover The Secret of Red Gate Farm.  This time she has two pals, cousins George and Bess, whom she meant in the previous books when she was deciphering The Secret of Shadow Ranch.  George is a tomboy type and Bess is girly type of girl, with Nancy naturally being the golden (literally) mean.  (Wait for the modern adaptation where George is a lesbian of color.)  I think these two were added to the series because Nancy seemed a little lonely in Hidden Staircase.  (In that book her only friend, as opposed to charity case, who appears is Helen Corning, whom Nancy deems too gossipy to bring into the case.)  Never fear, though, George and Bess take orders from Nancy, who is very much the "Head Girl" type.  

Red Gate Farm opens with Nancy and Bess and George finishing a shopping trip in a nearby city.  They find a "quaint Oriental shop" on their way to the train station and stop in the place.  There they encounter an unpleasant Eurasian shopgirl, Yvonne Wong, and request to purchase from her a certain "Oriental scent" which pervades the shop; but the shopgirl does not want to sell it to them.  Finally, after being repeatedly badgered by the girls, she offers it to them for three dollars (about $53 today), and the girls chip in to buy it.  Of course this perfume will figure significantly into the story....

The girls head for the train station, grousing all the while complaining about the Eurasian shopkeeper.  "Snippy," pronounces George.  "I didn't like her looks.  She was too flashy or something."  On the train, however, they encounter an altogether nicer girl, Millie Burd, who will become the latest object of Nancy's benevolence.  They learn that Millie is seeking a job in the city because she and her grandmother, who live at Red Gate Farm, have to pay off the farm's mortgage and don't have the money.  Nancy accompanies Millie to her job interview and becomes suspicious that her would-be employer is a nogoodnik.  (He has "harsh features," saucy manners and wears a "bold" suit and "gaudy" necktie.)  Millie, who is rather a noodge really, doesn't get the job, and Nancy decides that she, along with Bess and George, will spend part of their summer vacation at Red Gate Farm as boarders to help out the Burds financially.  

not quite the nature cult the author had in mind
So off they all go to Red Gate Farm, where they are soon plunged in another mystery!  It seems that Grandma Burd has let part of her land (including a cave) to a weird nature cult of some sort, the Black Snake Colony, who dress up in white robes that make them resemble Ku Klux Klan members and dance about in the moonlight.  Well, of course Nancy has to get to the bottom of this!  And she does, but not until she and her chums face grave peril.  

Red Gate Farm is an enjoyable story, more eventful, than Hidden Staircase, but the whole edifice is built upon a succession of coincidences:  Nancy and her chums just happen to go into the Oriental shop and buy the bottle of perfume, which they they just happen, when a certain nogoodnik is present, to break on the train, where they just happen to encounter Millie Burd, who just happens to apply for a job at a place connected with the Black Snake Colony, which just happens to rent some land at Red Gate Farm, where Nancy and her chums just happen to board out for the summer.  Wow!  The gods surely know Nancy loves solving mysteries and are doing everything they can to help her along.  Fortune's child, that girl!

From the perspective of a Golden Age mystery fan, it's interesting to see a spurious religious cult popping up in Red Gate Farm, for these insidious organizations often are up to no good in adult mysteries of that time.  And of course there's the crooked Eurasian, with no "good" minority character to balance her.  In Hidden Staircase wicked Nathan Gombet--whom some have argued is Jewish, although I don't believe Gombet is a specifically Jewish surname--has a wicked black housekeeper accomplice, who is only ever described as "the colored woman" and has a hosts of negative descriptions: "fat," "slovenly," "surly-looking," "positively vicious," "looks as though she were an ogre."  

All the characters whom Nancy helps was well-born (by American standards), "nice" WASPish women, down on their luck.  The only minorities depicted in the book are villainous.  The other villains are obvious gangster types and are all marked by cruel faces and colorful dress.  One woman in Red Gate Farm declares that you can't tell who the criminals are these days, but I would say that so far in the Nancy Drew tales that is precisely wrong.  Villainy is openly revealed to Nancy, at least, in countenance and costume.  

Thankfully Nancy is more than capable of combating it.  Does Nancy ever actually attend high school, I had to wonder, when reading these books.  She seems to have ever so much free time.  My thought after reading these novels was Nancy is a Lady Bountiful type and sure enough when I searched those terms I came up with "American Sweethearts" Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture, an academic monograph by Ilana Nash.  She notes that Harriet Stratemeyer Adams--who for over half a century ran the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which published the Nancy Drew books, and wrote the original outlines for most of the Nancy Drew novels (many of which actually were then written by Mildred Wirt Benson)--very much believed in the Lady Bountiful ideal.  

A Wellesley College graduate and high society matron, Harriet Adams, according to Nash, adhered to a "model of female citizenship predicated on noblesse oblige, in which women influence the public sphere by uplifting the less fortunate and performing acts of philanthropy.  Adams frequently told interviewers that she used the Wellesley College motto to inform the character of Nancy Drew: "Non ministrari, sed ministrare ('Not to be ministered unto, but to minister')."  

Nash describes all this as a "vision of the ideal woman as a sort of Lady Bountiful," informed with "the ideas of first wave feminists of the turn of the century, whose vision of proper womanhood remained conservatively focused on the white privileged classes...."

I really sensed this myself reading these two Nancy Drew books and it put me off Nancy a bit, even though I enjoyed the books.  Nancy just seems so perfect and remote, almost like a Greek goddess or Amazonian princess.  She doesn't even seem ever to attend school and of course does not hold a professional job, instead devoting herself, in the classic manner, to amateur sleuthing, in order to charitably help those less fortunate than herself, these being, so far, entirely white women of good stock who through ill fortune and a certain lack of pluck have fallen on hard times.

Famously the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1959 began revising the earlier Nancy Drew titles, a task not completed until 1975, when all the novels published between 1930 and 1956 were revised.  Certainly a character like the "colored woman" from Hidden Staircase could never have survived to the present day.  That she even made it up to 1959 is striking.  Harriet Adams herself carried out the revisions of that novel.  

I'll keep looking at the Nancy Drew books, however (along with those from the rival Judy Bolton series).  These books will always take me back to my youth and my sister's little Nancy Drew collection.  Later on she began reading Seventeen, Madeisemiselle and Cosmopolitan and Seventies potboilers like Harold Robbins' The Betsy and John Jakes' The Bastard.  (I looked at those too.)  Nancy Drew and her more innocent mysteries of life had been left far behind, with George and Bess and her shiny red roadster.

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