Book #5: The Secret of Shadow Ranch (1965 Edition)
Book #5: The Secret of Shadow Ranch (1965 Edition)
Alright, I have something potentially shocking to say. I think that the “secret” in The Secret of Shadow Ranch is that this book just isn’t very good. It had to happen eventually, and I think I have always had a slight favorable bias towards this one because it’s the first appearance of Bess and George, but I have pledged to give a fair review, and this one just doesn’t hold up. To be fair, this is a review of the 1965 rewrite, and I’ve taken off a star due to the horrendous consistency issues that were not present in the original version (more on that later).
The book starts out a bit awkwardly, with Nancy arriving at Shadow Ranch to hang with Bess and George’s relatives and pretending as though they’ve been around watching her solve mysteries for all these years. Um, when? Because it’s stated many times that Nancy’s first “real” mystery (despite perhaps being interested before) was The Secret of the Old Clock and I haven’t heard word one about Bess and George in any of the first four novels. Despite the incredible awesomeness of Bess and George, it’s clear that they’ve been brought in, much like Poochie, to boost ratings and deal with the increasing uselessness of Helen Corning. Well, the first reason is like Poochie, anyway.
They’re cousins, they’re opposites and they’re here to solve mysteries…to the extreme!
The book starts out with talk of a phantom horse (Oh yeah! A haunting! Awwwww...) which clearly isn’t a phantom but some kind of ruse. Bess and George’s aunt and uncle predictably want everyone away from the ranch but Nancy will hear nothing of it: there is an explanation and she WILL find it. Nancy, Bess and George then proceed to meet a series of cowboys, three of whom are hot, and one of whom is middle-aged, shifty and is named “Shorty Steele.”
Hmmmm…who do you think the criminal will be? I’m gonna go with the one no one is attracted to who is also spotted doing numerous shady things around the ranch. SPOILER ALERT: I’m totally right. It’s Shorty.
Nancy is also asked to solve a second mystery. Six months earlier, Bess and George’s uncle Ross went missing and his daughter Alice is beside herself because no one seems to know where he went. Um, I feel that, Alice. It IS kind of strange that, in a whole RANCH full of family members, you’re the only one concerned about your father’s disappearance. In any event, Nancy takes the case.
There are a few thin leads on Uncle Ross, but the poor old guy has to move to the back burner because here comes…the phantom horse! Except it’s obviously not a phantom. It never is, folks. It never is.
You see, the “phantom” horse is allegedly an omen of danger and destruction based on the legend of this old outlaw named Dirk Valentine who fell in love with a proper town girl named Frances Humbert. Ouch. Humbert. I would marry an outlaw for that last name-switch too. As we get more into the phantom horse, a third mystery develops concerning Dirk Valentine’s lost treasure. Handsome cowboy Dave wants the treasure almost as bad as he wants Nancy. Can she help him find it?
Okay. This is where the story really falls apart for me. We now have three mysteries, with Nancy getting leads on any one of them at random times. It gets to the point where she sees a mysterious figure and I have to wonder if it’s about Uncle Ross, or the treasure or the phantom horse. Now, of course it turns out that they are all related, but due to the story treating them as separate issues, the narrative gets kind of murky. Then, out of nowhere, Bess and George start teasing Nancy about how Ned will feel about the cowboy’s interest in her.
You mean Ned Nickerson, the boy she will not meet for another two books? Yes, I realize later as they mention him like FIVE more times. That Ned. Who doesn’t exist yet. Who they clearly introduce in a major meet-cute in The Clue in the Diary. So clearly whoever rewrote the fifth book had not read the seventh one.
I don’t want to completely under-sell this book. The addition of Bess and George to the series is a great moment in the series, and their loyalty to Nancy, bickering, and sassy attitudes really do make a perfect balance to Nancy’s almost annoying perfection in the early books. All the scenes featuring them are strong, and the friend chemistry (fremistry?) between them is definitely stronger than what she had with Helen. However, the story is a bit all over the place, relies too heavily on cutesy “old western” expression (seriously, if I took a shot whenever I read the word “tenderfoot” I’d be about fourteen sheets to the wind right now), and doesn’t build any real suspense. We always know the horse is a trick, we know that Shorty and the random mysterious men they keep seeing are responsible, and we know that Nancy will eventually find the treasure and Uncle Ross. However, the fact that no one but Alice seems to care about Uncle Ross, and that there’s no real pressing need Bess and George’s aunt and uncle have for the treasure, it all just seems a little blah.
With a heavy heart, I give this one a 2 out of 5.