Funemployment Summer Reading: The Crooked Banister

I was at a book fair with one of my friends from college this past weekend when she remarked that there was something special about reading books as a kid that adult novels have not been able to recapture.

While we both still enjoy reading, we have both shifted our focuse more toward nonfiction. Even when we do dive into fiction books, the experience is not as captivating or inviting as the ones that raised us through elementary school and early adolescence. Something about those books seemed both thrilling and comforting. To me, they were fodder for ideas.

As I continue my full-time job of finding a job, I’ve also decided to reread some of the books that were so good to me as a kid. I’m not much for rereading books (except for a select few VERY favorites) so this will be an interesting challenge for me. Also, I can’t remember too much about some of these books except that I loved them, so this will be a great chance for me to rediscover them.

I’m convinced that they still have something to teach me.

I’m starting this process off with one of my favorite book series: The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories.

My parents read me the yellow-spined “flash light series” before I was old enough to read on my own, and I picked up the series as soon as I was able to. I read the series all through childhood, but I think the peak for Nancy &  me was in the first and second grades. I used to pretend that reading these books was my detective training for when I would one day be old enough to also be an amateur teen sleuth.

I occupied my time by solving “The Mystery of the Missing Pencil” or “The Secret of Where Mom Left Her Glasses” but none of these were nearly as exciting as Nancy’s escapades.

My favorite books in the series were usually the quirky ones. Like ones where someone was pretending to be a ghost (The Mystery at Lilac Inn) or busy conducting seances (The Ghost of Blackwood Hall) or anything that had some kind of “enchanted” item (The Clue of the Dancing Puppet).

I had to stop reading the books when I got to a certain age and noticed that they were rather formulaic and everyone seemed way to interested in answering Nancy’s questions. I think I used to chalk it up to people being friendlier in a safer time, but with all of these “swindlers” flying around it became harder for me to accept the glad hands that pepper these pages…a.k.a. my inner cynic was developing too quicky for Nancy Drew to keep up.

Nevertheless, Nancy Drew has always had a very special place in my heart.

And I have to say that this book totally captivated me. This story is spooky and enthralling in the way that a campfire story is. [Actually, if someone would like to rattle off a few Nancy Drew plotlines to me as I roast some marshmellows, I would be more than okay with that.]

It’s thrilling and dangerous, but Nancy and her friends are always looking out for each other and have some kind of helping hand from her father or other friendly adult. And that’s what made these books so perfect to read as a kid. I never doubted Nancy’s capabilities (and I still don’t. This girl is a BAMF and that more than holds up over time) but I felt good knowing that people were looking out for her.

I selected The Crooked Banister mostly because of the robot on the cover and the promise of a romp through a house that looks like it was designed by someone on a particularly interesting acid trip.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

Things start off like a lot of Nancy’s mysteries. Her dad asks her to help out on one of his legal cases. Nancy’s skill level is so great that she can totally handle the case AND saves her dad a ton of money in hiring an investigator because she enjoys the work so much that she always works for free even when she isn’t helping the family out.

This time Nancy’s dad asks her to help her find a con man who also happens to have a really crazy looking house. Since Nancy Drew stories move pretty quickly (action packed is an understatement), Nancy goes to check out the house in the second chapter of the book and is attacked by this homicidal robot that lives in the kitchen.

Robot

I loved these pictures as a kid.
I would often skim the pictures when trying to decide which book to read next and based upon which one had the most fantastic image, I would go from there.
This is a pretty good Nancy-Drew-Selection-Method, I think because I used it again as a twenty-something to decide to read this one for this blog post.

Nancy’s dad usually can’t stick around due to his busy law practice and The Crooked Banister is no expection. That’s all for the best though because it means her friends Bess and George can help her out.

Bess and George are cousins/polar-opposite archetypes and they help her out literally almost all of the time, but Nancy’s always excited when they’re able to work it out to follow her to some other town to decipher some bizzare happenings.

As a burgeoning feminist (before I even knew the word) I liked all of these girls for the following reasons:

—Bess is dainty and likes girly things, which I could always identify with. She’s chubby but George is literally the only one who makes an issue of it and really that’s because they’re polar-opposite archetypes who have to maintain a balance by harassing one another in a loving way. She’s usually anxious, but considering that Nancy and George were always willing to run into abandoned warehouses with shifty looking men, I think that Bess needed to be paranoid just to give them some semblance of a reality check. She also overcomes all of these fears in an instant when Nancy or George is like literally about to die, which makes her all the cooler. I mean, I would assume that Nancy or George would run into a burning building for the fun of it. But the fact that Bess does it because she cares is kind of heartwarming.

—George doesn’t conform to gender norms…another phrase I was not aware of but still appreciated the concept behind. She always helps the boys when they have to tackle some intruder and she even has a boy’s name. I grew up almost entirely around boys and always felt like a radical girl child when I would go to Toys R Us with my dad and ask for the chemistry set instead of the cool girl toy. From what I remember the chemistry set also made some kind of edible toxic-waste colored jello and now I’d kind of like to play with it again…

—Nancy is a general awesome creature and obviously too cool to be real. But I admired her as one admires a character in Greek mythology. She’s super educated and not just in the traditional stuff that one would learn from normal schools. She knows things like smoke signals and morse code and not because she’s a girl scout but because she’s just that observant and wants to learn everything she can from every single random situation she’s been in.

I never found it annoying that Nancy is flawless. She was always flawless in a kind of “work hard and you can attain this kind of way.” I may not be a super sleuth but I do think she encouraged me in some way to solve my own life’s little mysteries.

But now back to the story, Bess and George are there for like two seconds before Nancy’s boyfriend, Ned, and his friends, Burt and Dave, join them. I always loved when all of them worked together because it felt like Scooby Doo. There was not talking dog, unfortunately, but I felt like Bess took on the roll of both Shaggy and Scooby because she was always afraid to do almost any detective work.

As things play out, it becomes clear that this swindler is not only involved in selling people property that he does not own, but also that he’s involved in some kind of scam that suckers people into giving money to Navajo children on a reservation in Arizona. It turns out that these kids actually do exist but obviously have never seen any of the money.

This book was written in the early ’70’s when society was finally like “hey, maybe we should care about those people we screwed out of their land” and I appreciate that the ghostwriters over at Grosset & Dunlap decided to incorporate the message that exploiting people–especially those who have already been exploitied repeatedly–is super not acceptable. I may have wanted to be a private investigator as a six year old, but I grew up to be a social worker, so I like this element of the stories even more now. The Navajo characters are pretty stereotypical but so are most of the background characters in Nancy Drew Stories, so I’ll give them a break.

Nancy 4

Back in the crazy-house we discover that the swindler really hated his extended family and blacked out all of their faces on their portraits.
My favorite part of this picture is that he left all of their facial hair and glasses intact.

The evidence to prove all of these cons is, of course, in the ridiculous house. In order to uncover it, Nancy and friends have to climb over a firey moat by making a human chain over a dilapedated bridge. Additionally, Nancy gets her hand caught in a revolving-secret-passage-bookcase and–with the brute force of man twice her size–uses a heavy book and her weaker arm to bash in the side of the bookcase and save herself from a very unfortunate amputation. Finally, the mystery comes to a head when George and Burt crash through a wall because they slid down the staircase banister at warp speed.

Luckily, they sustain no injuries and their misadventure actually causes them to find all of the loot. (See what I mean? Scooby Doo!)

But even though Nancy has proven time and again that she is not only super strong, but also clever and cunning, there are still haters:

Nancy 1Jokes on them though because that probably was the headline of the River Heights newspaper since the teenage girl did capture the con man. All out of the goodness of her heart and compulsive love of a mystery.

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