Author: Carolyn Keene
In Nancy’s previous adventure, The Secret of Shadow Ranch, she threw on some cowboy boots and hit the Wild West in search of an old legend and a ghost horse. Now, it’s time for Nancy to hit the road again, although this time she isn’t going that far afield. Indeed, both a new mystery and a new friend appear right after a strange shopping experience. Before long, Nancy and friends journey to Red Gate Farm, a failing yet charming country residence.
Joanne Byrd, the new age appropriate girl-in-need-of-help edition to the group, is trying to convince her grandmother to keep Red Gate Farm, which is less of a chickens and cattle farm and more about boarders and rented land (which is held by a mysterious cave dwelling nature cult nearby.) Intent on helping Joanne find a job and a way of helping her grandmother to afford the hefty mortgage, Nancy, Bess, and George stay a week as paying tenants. Soon the focus, however, is less on getting Joanne a good career and more on the unsavory would-be buyer and his possible connection to the cult.
One of my favorite Nancy adventures growing up, the novel starts with a seemingly unconnected purchase – Bess buys a massively overpriced perfume from an eccentric sales lady who does not want to part with it. The perfume further attracts some unwanted attention, including mistaken identities, on the train home. Meanwhile, just as Nancy feels that she is closing in on a criminal group, the very same group the police have been warning people about and searching for, events conspire to shift her focus back to Joanne’s farm. In the world of Nancy Drew, however, there is no such thing as coincidence or unconnected side stories. When a big foreign car (always a bad omen in a Nancy mystery) starts following them, it’s only a matter of time before the girls tie all the loose pieces together, figuring out what the clandestine cult and the at-large criminals are really about and how they are connected.
This leads to a moonlight meeting of the be-robed cult where Nancy and her friends sneak in, under hoods and robes they’ve made themselves, to secretly observe the cult’s famous moon dances. This leads to one of Nancy’s more daring moves and dangerous, near-miss escapes. Finally, the aura of sheer mystery leads to a Scooby-Do like conclusion that all things supernatural are cover-ups for very human criminals. No wonder I loved this particular adventure of Nancy’s as a kid with its spooky aura and complex plot, complete with the usual cliff hanger chapters and imminent peril.
It is a Nancy Drew novel, though, so everything resolves with a predictable happily-ever-after for Red Gate Farm. The particular perps, this time, however, are even more real than usual, their operation strongly adult (hint, money related shenanigans) without being dumbed-down or overly simplified for the young audience. This makes the mystery even more authentic and suspenseful, and I remember as a kid being impressed that Keene trusted her young audience to figure out and understand the seemingly baffling money schemes and secret communication codes.
From here, I’ve recovered my old ground, reading the original six novels, and as I follow my nostalgic blast from the past, I’ll now be reading into uncharted territory, discovering Nancy stories for the first time at age thirty.
– Frances Carden
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