In this fourth book in the Nancy Drew series, if there was ever a doubt about the formula created to appeal to “tween” girls back in the day, it’s put to rest. By the tenth page, there are two stories definitely brewing that will end up being connected somehow for Nancy Drew to solve. That began in the second book, The Hidden Staircase and will continue throughout the series.
Nancy Drew is paddling a canoe up toward the Lilac Inn along with friend Helen Corning. The Inn is owned by mutual friends of theirs, Emily Willoughby and Dick Farnham. Nancy and Helen are on their way to talk about Emily’s and Dick’s wedding, in which they will both be attendants. They run into another acquaintance along the side of the river, who is surprised to see Nancy. She heard that someone else had met Nancy in a downtown drugstore in Nancy’s hometown of River Heights.
No sooner do they start on their way again than the canoe is capsized. Yet, nothing is visible in the river that would have caused this. When they arrive at the Inn, they are greeted warmly. However, there is soon a mystery for Nancy to solve as strange things have been happening. Emily is also about to receive her inheritance, a significant number of diamonds left to her by her mother. Emily intends to sell them to help with the finances for the Inn.
However, that must be put aside when Nancy receives a call from Hannah Gruen, the housekeeper in the Drew home in River Heights who has been more like a mother to Nancy since her mother died when Nancy was three. It seems the Drew home was broken into the night before when Hannah was there all by herself.
No sooner does she arrive home, than she receives a call from a downtown department store. Apparently, Nancy was there earlier and charged over two thousand dollars of merchandise. However, Nancy was at the Lilac Inn at the time. She finds that her charge plate for the store is gone, probably stolen when the house was broken into.
When Nancy returns to the Inn, she learns Emily will receive her diamonds that evening. You can probably imagine where the story is going from there…
The Mystery at Lilac Inn ratchets up the peril a bit. Nancy’s life does seem to be threatened. Whoever is responsible for what is happening at the Inn seems to have no problem taking a human life if necessary, specifically Nancy’s. It’s one of the more violent books in the series.
A common theme running through the books seems to be people Nancy’s age who have lost one or both of their parents and are now in the care of guardians. I think the reason for this is two-fold. One is it puts the character in a more sympathetic light. The other is that it gives the character a sense of independence not easily achieved with parents hanging around. It’s that sense of independence at reaching the age of maturity that largely appeals to girls this age. They think that once they are eighteen they won’t have to listen to their parents anymore, and by not having them in the picture it makes it easy to create the illusion that this will be the case. There are occasions when an eighteen-year-old Nancy does ask permission from her father to do things. Considering she has no job and no intentions of going to college, some of the deferring to him has to do with him supporting her, but it also has a lot to do with the culture of the time period.
The flow of the book is very good. There seem to be more instances of reading what Nancy is thinking in The Mystery at Lilac Inn. Instead of the story being pushed along by actions, more of the ongoing thought process is heard.
I noticed there seems to be a bit of inconsistency in regard to the timing of the books. In The Bungalow Mystery, it seems to be the month of June. Yet here, it’s stated that Nancy and Helen are hurled into the chilly May water when the canoe capsizes.
Although the age group this book is aimed at might have no trouble swallowing some of the plot points contained within, from an adult standpoint some of the stories don’t add up. In this case, the story of what the Inn’s social director is using to blackmail Emily’s aunt is terribly weak. Some of this is a carry-over from the storyline in the original 1930s version as the book was greatly updated in 1961.
There are more clues as to the exact whereabouts of River Heights. In The Mystery at Lilac Inn, Dick Farnham goes to New York to publicize the Inn. Earlier in the series, it was said to be an overnight train ride from Chicago. That would seem to indicate the town is likely located somewhere in Pennsylvania or possibly Ohio.
It’s interesting to read these books and pick up on things you didn’t when I was much younger. Reading about how Emily and Dick are planning on re-opening the old Lilac Inn, all I could think about was the amount of money they must have. They are planning what seems like a rather extravagant wedding, purchasing and fixing up the Inn, and paying what seems like a good number of staff prior to the re-opening. Although money is something of a concern – they are planning to sell the diamonds to help out with finances – they also seem to have enough to do quite a bit more than most couples starting out.
The Mystery at Lilac Inn is set a bit apart from other books in the series. Nancy has a direct threat to her life and still shows boldness and confidence. I am not sure it is behavior girls should model, but it is better for them to admire this sort of confidence than what they see coming out of the so-called role models who are the current media darlings. The books are all written on the same formula, but they work well, even for girls now. I didn’t pick up on as much dated material as there was in other books, which helps The Mystery at Lilac Inn hold up better in the test of time.
Previous book in the series (link): The Bungalow Mystery
Next book in the series (link): The Secret of Shadow Ranch