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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.

Currently reading

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The Bungalow Mystery #3
Carolyn Keene
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The Mystery at Lilac Inn
Russell H. Tandy, Mildred Benson, Carolyn Keene

The Hidden Staircase - ND2.4

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


(note: sorry about that previous post - I had last posted these before my dad passed away and lost track of where I was, so ND2.12 was a duplicate)


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!


1930 Chs 13-16; 1959 Chs 9-17


1930 Nancy is now so worried about her missing father that she doesn’t have much heart for solving the mystery anymore, but soldiers on for the old ladies’ sake. She’s certain that Gombet is behind the “haunting”, to try to force the Turnbulls to accept his lowball offer, and she’s determined to expose him. She decides to confront him, and is surprised when she finds out that he lives in the next house over. The sisters explain the history of the “twin” houses, which is similar in both versions, except that in the original, Gombet lives a miserly existence in the decrepit twin house alone with just a servant, but (how’s this for random) raises birds and has a taxidermy hobby, which somehow conjures images of Norman Bates, and now every time Nathan Gombet/Gomber is in a scene, I picture Anthony Perkins.


In the first and only scene without Nancy, we get the backstory on what happened to Carson Drew. He is met at the train station by Gombet, who claims Nancy is at his house, so badly injured in a car wreck that she can’t be moved. Mr. Drew is so distraught that he just goes along with it, and doesn’t realize he’s been tricked until he’s been locked in an upstairs bedroom. After hours alone, unable to find a way to escape, Gombet tries to coerce him into signing a check for $20,000 and a promise not to prosecute. When Drew tries to go on the attack to escape, Gombet pulls a gun on him and has his (servant? Co-conspirator? Lackey?) tie him up. Gombet threatens to starve him until he signs, then when Carson remains resolute, he threatens to dope and kidnap Nancy. Carson calls Gombet a “reprobate” and a “fiend”.


This servant is the next major example of character cleanup in the Nancy Drew series. This 1930 character is so awful that she is removed entirely from the 1959 update and the story entirely re-written so that Gombet/Gomber has landowner Willie Wharton to be his evil sidekick instead. No name is given to this woman – she’s just “the colored woman” or “the negress”, who is described as fat, slovenly-looking, clumsy, sullen, and looks as though she were an ogre. Gombet is as mean to her as to anyone else, so there’s no indication of why she’s even helping him.


1959 Nancy finds out that her father had called Hannah a few days earlier to let her know he was on the way to Cliffwood, so the “unavoidably delayed” telegram was a hoax. Nancy begins investigating her father’s disappearance, calling Chicago and transportation companies, and finally driving to the Cliffwood train station to interview employees and cabbies. She finds nothing useful until one of the cabbies is shamed into admitting that Carson Drew had passed out while riding in his taxi with some strange men, who then transferred him into another car and threatened the cabbie’s family if he told.


Nancy finally reports her father’s kidnapping to the police, who tell her that they’re on it and to leave it to them and to stay home where she belongs. Nancy promises to be a good girl and let the menfolks handle it, but internally is already making plans to continue investigating on her own. Which she does, picking up clues and telling the police what to do with them. The police seem to take this remarkably well, and readily share their findings with her.


Meanwhile, there is something exciting happening at Twin Elms in every chapter, and the clues keep piling up. Gomber finally catches Aunt Flora alone and bullies her into signing papers to sell the house, causing her an hysterical attack that confines her to bed after she refuses to go to the hospital.


Considerations (1): The differences in writing styles is more apparent in this second book in the series, since the story was extensively re-written in the revised edition. The 1930 author created tension with atmosphere & description.  The 1959 author created tension with a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, but most of it is totally manufactured drama that isn’t relevant to the story. 


Considerations (2): At one point, 1959 Nancy gets a frantic call to come back to Twin Elms right away, she doesn’t really put the pedal to the metal, but drives “as fast as the law allows”, meaning that she’s just driving the speed limit. I guess that means that she normally drives slower than the speed limit, like an old grandma. Very different than 1930 Nancy, who regularly pushes her roadster so hard that even the police can’t keep up with her.


Dated Plot Points: Related to my DPP from my ND2.3 post, the scene where Nancy is beginning her investigation into her father’s disappearance by calling Chicago and transportation companies and hospitals, I had a happy moment of nostalgia when she had to leaf through various phone books kept by the Turnbull’s phone to get contact information, and even to find out what hospitals were nearby. I had forgotten what it was like before Google, when you had a different paper phone directory for every city and they were all piled up by the main phone in the house. Nowadays, Nancy could have been searching and calling and investigating from her convertible as she drove into town, although the 1959 virtuous and law abiding Nancy probably wouldn’t do websearches while driving.


Also: Lunch at a drugstore food counter, with a flirty counterman and nobody is staging a sit-in. I wonder when drugstores stopped having these in their stores? I can only remember one, in my grandmother’s tiny rural town that was too small to even have a Dairy Queen, and that would have been before 1975.


Cult of Domesticity: In an oddly random scene, everyone tries to distract Nancy from worrying about her missing father by having a costume party (?!!), which gives them an opportunity to be super girly by dressing up in colonial era clothes (of course Nancy gets the ball gown while Helen has to wear the men’s duds), playing music, and dancing the minuet with a modern twist. More domestic details describing the care the girls take of Miss Flora, although why an attack of the vapors should require her to have a dinner of bouillon, dry toast, and plain gelatin, I don’t know. By “plain gelatin” I’m assuming they mean regular fruit flavored jello without (warning, don’t click the link if you’re hungry) bits of fruit, vegetables, or meat floating in it. There are more scenes of the girls doing housework and cooking and descriptions of meals. Drugstore lunchcounter: Hot split pea soup, declined the pie for dessert.


Index of posts for The Hidden Staircase:






ND2.4 (current post)

ND2.5 (pending)

ND2.6 (pending)

ND2.7 (pending)