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Portable Magic

Reading, for me, is entertainment and an escape from the real world. But it can also inform and stretch the boundaries of the life I live.

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The Hidden Staircase – ND2.3

1930 Chs 10-12 vs 1959 Chs 5-8

The Hidden Staircase - Carolyn Keene  The Hidden Staircase - Mildred Benson,Carolyn Keene   

Reading the 1930 & 1959 versions of The Hidden Staircase simultaneously, comparing differences in the story and characters, and pondering dated plot points. Spoilers: full plot description below!



Now we are into the middle section of the mystery, where strange things keep happening in the Turnbull’s home and Nancy’s exhaustive but fruitless investigations are detailed, but there are plenty of opportunities for her to demonstrate her intelligence, bravery, and resourcefulness.


1930 Nancy continues exploring the house and grounds, looking for clues over the next week. It seems to be long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of excitement whenever one of the strange events occurs. But even though Nancy is all over it, she’s not turning up any useful information, leaving her feeling humiliated that the “ghost” is pulling these stunts right under her nose. The creepy atmosphere builds over time: lurking shadows, strained conversation, the sisters tense and trembling. They all lock their bedroom doors at night, and Nancy sleeps with the revolver under her pillow.


There are some funny moments, such as Nancy’s inner monologue when she wakes up hearing Floretta shrieking, and her first reaction is to clutch her blanket to her throat, “as though by doing so she could protect herself from unseen danger,” then rushes out of bed with gun and flashlight, only to be horrified when she can’t get out of the room, then chagrined when she remembers that she’d locked the door. When an urn is found missing and Floretta is again screaming about ghosts, Nancy dryly remarks that a ghost wouldn’t need to push a chair up against a bookshelf to climb up and take it.


Although the Turnbull sisters are talking about leaving, Nancy is determined to stay until she solves the mystery. Although the sisters, under Nancy’s questioning, say no one has any reason to force them out of their house, they do admit that they’ve had multiple offers to sell it, including one from Nathan Gombet that was so low they’d never consider it, even if he wasn’t known to be a shady dealer. Gombet threatened them that they’d be sorry they hadn’t accepted his offer.


1959 Gomber shows up at the door to continue his apparently ongoing campaign to harass Miss Flora into selling him their house for a super cheap price. He barges into the house, hunts down Miss Flora to bully her some more, and tries to intimidate Nancy. But Nancy is having none of that, and the ladies kick him out of the house. Although he’s tried a sob story about coming from humble roots and wanting a grand old home, Nancy suspects he wants to tear the house down and flip the property for building lots. But even though he specifically mentions that Miss Flora will have to sell cheap because nobody wants a haunted house, nobody seriously considers that he might be the “ghost”. Obvious villain is obvious!


Crazy things keep happening and, although Nancy is usually able to discover enough to prove that they have logical, human cause explanations, she’s unable to catch anyone at it or figure out how they’re getting in and out of the house undetected. Nancy calls the Cliffwood police and, although they were dismissive of the old ladies before, they readily agree to send an officer to hang around outside for guard duty “every night as long as you need”. Even as a kid reading these stories, the willingness of local police to serve personal guard duty seemed pretty implausible to me. Nancy, of course, quickly forms a mutually respectful, professional relationship with the officer, who has the very Irish Cop name of Tom Patrick.


1930 Nancy starts worrying when her father fails to return from Chicago on time. She drives back and forth into town, calling their housekeeper, Hannah, for news and telegraph the Chicago law firm for information, only to find that Mr. Drew left there two days earlier and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.


1959 Carson Drew calls to let Nancy know that he hasn’t found Wharton and is on his way back from Chicago, but the next morning, Nancy receives a telegram that he’s been unavoidably detained and will let her know when he arrives. Cue ominous music!


Dated Plot Points: The advancements in communication technology from 1930 to 1959 created a bit of a problem for the revision with regards to key plot points. Most residences, especially poor households, wouldn’t have a phone in 1930. This required Nancy to roar into town to make phone calls, but other communication had to be by easily intercepted written correspondence and telegram, which wouldn't be very likely in 1959 when household phones were common. So the revision required the invention of a hidden “listening post” for the intruder to overhear phone conversations. The 1959 version was still able to keep the telegram mishap plot device, as it was perfectly plausible in 1959 to have long distance communication by telegram rather than exorbitantly expensive long-distance phone calls.


Cult of Domesticity: The 1959 author continues to ensure that Nancy demonstrates her feminine virtues, describing the cooking and cleaning. More meal descriptions – fruit cup for starters, steak and fries, fresh peas, and a “floating island” for dessert. I had never heard of floating island so had to look it up. It looks tasty but seems like more work than it would be worth. Have a Martha Stewart video of it, as she seems to be the very personification of Domesticity.


Index of posts for The Hidden Staircase: