This fifth book in the Nancy Drew series has the young detective jetting off to Phoenix for her mystery. It’s nice to see her outside of the shelter of her hometown of River Heights, where she lives with her father, attorney Carson Drew, and housekeeper, Hannah Gruen. Hannah has served as a surrogate mother for Nancy, whose own mother died when Nancy was three. These two have been important presences in the first four novels, but only one phone call is made to Hanna in The Secret of Shadow Ranch.
Also jettisoned is Helen Corning, Nancy’s mystery-solving partner. In her place are Nancy’s “two best friends”, Bess Marvin and George Fayne, who are cousins. They are also complete opposites. George is tall, trim, athletic, and a bit of a tom-boy. Bess is more of a girly girl who likes food a bit too much and fusses over her appearance.
Nancy has just arrived when she is told by Bess and George that they might have to leave the next day. It seems there is a mystery at the ranch, and George and Bess’ Uncle Ed doesn’t think it’s safe for them to stay. They had just been invited to spend the summer at the Arizona ranch, but now it seems that the ranch is being sabotaged and a phantom horse has made an appearance. Also at the ranch is George and Bess’ 14-year-old cousin Alice, whose father has been missing for six months. He was the president of a bank in Chicago that was robbed and hasn’t been seen since, leading authorities to believe he’s in league with the robbers.
Of course, Nancy manages to convince Uncle Ed to let them stay and to let her try to solve the mystery. They are helped out on and off by various ranch hands, some of whom may be involved in the sabotage taking place. Nancy soon learns of a possible treasure hidden at the ranch, which is the proceeds from a life of crime by an outlaw named Dirk Valentine. The sabotage is likely related to the treasure, but can Nancy find the treasure and stop the sabotage before Uncle Ed is forced to give up the ranch?
The Secret of Shadow Ranch tones down the violence from the last book, The Mystery at Lilac Inn. Nancy and her friends are still in peril at various times, but it’s not to the same degree that it was in that last novel.
The Secret of Shadow Ranch was completely rewritten between its first release in 1931 and its re-release in 1965. The story is still geared toward the “tween” age group; girls about 9 to 12 years old. The book moves along fairly rapidly with the entire mystery being solved in a matter of days. It’s very descriptive of the ranch and surrounding area.
It seems that Nancy is a jack of all trades. In the first five books, she has excelled at skin diving, tennis, piloting a motorboat, and horseback riding in addition to her sleuthing. She is a heroine a lot like many modern teenagers on television who have parents who are largely absent, although, unlike the parents that are shown, neither Hannah nor Carson Drew are stupid. This creates the sense of independence that appeals to girls this age; thinking that once they turn that magical age of eighteen suddenly they will be smarter than adults. Nancy projects that image, even around law enforcement in a strange town.
Up until now, Nancy hasn’t had a steady beau, nor has there been mention of one. One of the ranch hands, Dave Gregory, becomes quite smitten with her and at one point George teases Nancy What’ll poor Ned do? Nancy replies We’ll be home by the time he gets back from Europe. This is the first time his name is mentioned in the series and most readers will still be clueless as to who Ned is. His inclusion here is an error, as he and Nancy do not actually meet for two more stories!
Unlike other novels, there isn’t too much here that’s dated. Much of the sexism that is exhibited can be written off to the cowboy culture. Girls might not understand why Nancy is so “dressed up” for activities we would think nothing of wearing just jeans and a t-shirt for. There are some dated references where the term “Indian” is used, rather than “Native American.” However, it’s not used in a derisive way and none of the native characters that appear are stereotyped. When they decide to dress as “Indians” for the big barbecue, they go into a show and talk about looking in the mirror to watch the wide skirts swing out. I have never seen Native dress with a wide skirt before, but perhaps that’s just me.
Another point that bothered me in the story is that when Nancy and others figure out who one of the people is involved in the mystery, they do nothing about it. Instead of having the sheriff arrest and question him, they just let him go free and attempt to use him to set up the rest instead of trying to get him to roll over on them.
The ending comes together well – maybe a bit too well. It’s a stretch to really believe these two mysteries can end up in the same place, but that’s the charm of these books. My daughters swallowed the story hook, line, and sinker (as did I at their age).
The Secret of Shadow Ranch is one of the better novels in the series. Nancy is shown as independent and it benefited her character to get away from River Heights. George and Bess are terrific new friends to add to the support Nancy has. It flows very nicely and doesn’t show too much of the time it was written in. My girls loved it and said that it’s one of their favorites in the series.
Previous book in the series (link): The Mystery at Lilac Inn
Next book in the series (link): The Secret of Red Gate Farm