Monday, March 31, 2014

Book #31: The Ringmaster's Secret (Revised Edition)

I think that every single sentence in this book, or at least a great number, could all begin with the word "Coincidentally,".

The Ringmaster's Secret  is what Cher in Clueless would call a "Full-on Monet."  You know, from far away it seems great but close up it's a hot mess?

The story itself is highly promising: a circus comes to River Heights and Nancy must go undercover as a bareback rider to uncover conspiracy involving the Simms' Circus' best aerialist, Lolita, and a mysterious charm bracelet that could mean a dramatic family reunion.

Coincidentally, Nancy has been taking trick riding lessons from some dude named Senor Roberto who coincidentally used to work for the Simm's Circus.  Oh, and Aunt Eloise coincidentally sent Nancy a charm bracelet that could have something to do with a mystery and a circus.  Oh, and what's that?  A circus is coming to River Heights, and coincidentally, it's the same circus that is connected to the bracelet, Senor Roberto, and an up and coming aerialist named Lolita.

When Nancy goes to the circus parade, she meets Lolita.  She is a sweet but sad girl, who Nancy soon discovers is in a secret relationship with a sexy clown named Pietro (that's right--a sexy clown).  Lolita is coincidentally also the adopted daughter of the ringmaster (Could he have...a secret?  Spoiler: Yes, he does) who seems like the poster child for bipolar disorder, at times charming as a fox and then flying off into a rage and verbally abusing his circus employees.  Lolita and Pietro want to be married but the ringmaster, Reinhold Kroon (I declare him guilty with the irrefutable evidence that is his name!), will have none of it.  Lolita also recognizes Nancy's bracelet, which, coincidentally, is identical to Lolita's necklace charm.

Nancy agrees to help Lolita, and it soon drawn even further into the action when the circus' bareback rider is injured.  The trainer asks Nancy to take over (as she has coincidentally been taking those circus riding lessons) but Nancy must hide her true identity from Reinhold Kroon, who already suspects her in interfering with circus affairs.

In her investigation, Nancy is lightly strangled with a circus whip and pelted with rocks, but she is not to be deterred.  After some skillful eavesdropping and clue hunting she discovers that Lolita's real mother might be alive, somehow hidden by the nefarious Kroon.  She heads to London, where the woman was last seen (yeah, because London is just a tiny little berg where you can ask local shopkeepers about a small, dark-haired circus performer and they'll just remember) with the sexy clown, to Ned's chagrin.  He somehow thinks that Nancy will get U.K. citizenship and elope with the sexy clown, Pietro, despite the fact that 1) That is ludicrous, and 2) The whole mystery is centered around trying to find a way for Lolita to marry Pietro.
Oh, and coincidentally, Pietro's family is also from London.  Do criminals and witnesses basically commute between large metropolitan areas and River Heights?

Anyhoo, about twenty thousand coincidences later, Nancy discovers Lolita's mother.  She apparently has a condition that can only be described as "drug-induced relapsing-remitting amnesia."  The nurses say she has amnesia, but the woman seems to remember everything when Nancy casually brings it up.  However, later, she wanders off from her hotel room in what people agree is an amnesia relapse.  Like she has a sinus infection that came back.

Right.

In any event, Nancy finds proof that Kroon is behind it all.  As they are moving to find Lolita, however, the ringmaster pushes Nancy into the lion's cage.  Yikes!  Ned is there to save her (a device I'm never particularly fond of but it has to happen sometimes I guess) and Kroon is finally put in his own cage, confessing that he took Lolita from her mother and has been drugging said mother and keeping her in a nursing home for years.

Wait.  Is the Ringmaster's secret that he's really stupid?

Is it really cost-effective to kidnap a girl, effectively making yourself responsible for her food and general care, shove her mother in a European nursing home (which isn't cheap), and pay a crooked doctor to administer drugs to further her DIRRA (drug-induced relapsing-remitting amnesia)--all because of this girl's potential career as an aerialist?

I'm serious--that's it.  There's no treasure.  The mysterious bracelet isn't worth crap.    It would be like kidnapping Justin Beiber when he was still getting second place in Canadian elementary school talent shows.  It doesn't make sense!  And there's like a million coincidences.  And there's no way that Nancy is suddenly a skilled bareback circus performer.

This book kind of disappointed me because it has a great premise.  I always love a good carnival/circus storyline (ups the creepiness factor in any mystery), the action is great, and the villain not only has a ludicrous name but is delightfully cruel and evil as well.

Unfortunately, all the aforementioned negative points are just too much.  With great ambivalence, I give this one a 2 1/2 out of 5 mags.

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Head Injuries: 0
Coincidences: Multitudinous 


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book # 30: The Clue of the Velvet Mask

Alternately titled: "Nancy Drew and the Mysterious Case of George Going Bat-Shit Crazy."

It's a lesser-known original title.  You know, like "War, What is it Good For?"

Our story starts with Nancy getting ready to attend a masquerade ball with Ned at a mutual friend's house.  Nancy is a Spanish senorita, and has a bullfighter costume all set for Ned, but it looks too tight--she is sure that Ned's muscular frame will cause the costume to burst!  I am about to suggest that Ned go as a bullfighter/The Hulk, but then I realize I am making suggestions aloud to a book written over 50 years ago. In any event, Ned manages to squeeze his evidently body-builder-like physique into the bullfighter costume and they start to head out when...

WAIT!  Carson has an ominous warning.  Apparently there has been a rash of burglaries at parties in the area and Ned and Nancy should be careful.  Nancy, of course, can barely contain her delight.  The very concept of an exciting night out at a masquerade ball was simply too dull for her to bear--she needs a mystery.

And she is not disappointed.  Not twenty minutes into the party, Nancy and Ned find a discarded VELVET MASK (Yay!  Relevant title!) and Nancy jokingly puts it on.  However, a mysterious man sees her in the mask and whisks her onto the dance floor, berating her for being late for the heist--he's mistaken her for an accomplice!  Nancy plays along, trying to smoke the gang out all in the first few pages of the book, but the lights suddenly go out, and the burglary is carried out despite the mistaken identity.

Nancy runs into a friend (doesn't it seem like she has about five thousand friends?) who works for the events company running the party, Linda Seeley, who tells her that she had warned the hosts to check invitations but hadn't been heard.  Despite this, the assistant manager of the company, Mr. Tombar, blames Linda for the theft.

Enter Nancy Drew: Party Crasher.  Nancy decides that crashing/"working undercover at" every local party is the way to go.  What ensues can truly be described as a game of cat and mouse, where at times it seems that Nancy is about to catch the Velvet gang (named for their masks), and at times it seems they are closing in on her.  At one point, Nancy is transporting an important clue and has George dress up like her to throw them off-track.  Unfortunately, the gang kidnaps George thinking she is Nancy.  They drug her heavily and threaten her in some nebulous way we don't discover until later.

After this point, George's character completely changes for the rest of the book.  She is basically an invalid, panicked and distraught at the idea of Nancy pursuing the case.  Honestly, she seems to be having a nervous breakdown.  Nancy, being a characteristically clueless friend, continues to show up at the poor girl's house and doesn't even have the common decency to lie and say she's given up the case.  That being said, I'm as concerned as Nancy is; it seems like the sporty, tough girl that is George is disappearing.

Eventually, Nancy and Bess (who has taken a more brazen role in this mystery) discover that the assistant manager at the events company, Mr. Tombar, is actually the ringleader of the velvet gang, working with his wife and a few other couples.

BRIEF RANT: What is up with all of these "double date" criminals.  I mean, do these people really go out with other couples, have a glass of wine, and then say something like: "Well, swinging isn't in fashion yet--let's go rob a bunch of people?"  Is this an acceptable group date back in the day?

Nancy and Bess head out to capture the gang, stopping briefly by George's house to check in (and apparently make her more upset.)  Fortunately, George's nervous breakdown pays off when the girls are captured and only George knows where they've gone.  When Mrs. Fayne reminds her that Nancy and Bess could be seriously hurt, George finally snaps out of it.  She leads Carson and Ned to the Blue Iris Inn, where the girls had gone to track town the criminal group, followed by the police.  They find Nancy and Bess and capture all of the crooks but one--Mr. Tombar.  George apologizes for her freak-out and explains that the gang had threatened not only Nancy and her friends, but George and Bess's families as well.  Along with the massive drugging and the fact that she saved their asses, I think all is forgiven.

And then Carson, Nancy, Bess and George head off to...WAIT.  Where the hell is Ned?

Well, turns out he tackled Tombar in the kitchen of the Inn and has been sitting on him during the entire rescue.  That's right.  Just sitting on him.  Wow.  I guess Ned IS the Hulk.

This one is good.  The action is fantastic and the story is much more cohesive, not taking the circuitous route of the sometimes-annoying "second mystery."  The focus really is on the Velvet Gang and, despite their relatively boring names, they are pretty scary.  I find myself taking away a mag because I wish they had dealt with the George storyline better.  It seemed as though they could have focused more on the extent of her drugging (I'm pretty sure she was given opiates or something) to explain her panic and paranoia.  But they didn't really spend too much time on George other than desperate pleas for Nancy to stay away from the mystery.  I feel like the shift in the end where she snaps out of it would have been stronger if they had taken more time to explore that part of the story and less time on party after party of robberies and near-misses.

4/5 mags for this one.


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Monday, March 3, 2014

Book #29: The Mystery at the Ski Jump

Nancy vs. a Fake Fur Company, that reverend from Footloose, and... herself

Two themes hail from The Mystery at the Ski Jump: 1) Diligence and evidence collection pays off, and 2) Nancy Drew is kind of an asshole.

Our story starts with bang, so to speak.  One of the Drews' neighbors has a car crash into her house.  The driver, a full-on-bitch named Mitzi Channing, manages to sell the neighbor and Hannah Gruen some fake stock and totally bail on the damages on her way out of town after the accident.  She also manages to royally piss off Nancy by mocking her detective abilities.  Ooooohhh, Mitzi.  Don't go there.  Anyway, with a name like Mitzi Channing, can't you just imagine her draped in fur and drinking a martini, plotting ways to kill off her rich husband?

Well, the imaginings I've projected onto you aren't far off, dear reader.  Mitzi Channing has been selling stolen furs, and stock in a fake fur company to all the unwitting women of River Heights.  Nancy, Bess and George follow her north from town to town, but she evades their grasp, even managing to convince a couple business owners that Nancy herself is the thief.

Oooohhhh, Mitzi.  You just made a bad situation worse.

Not to be deterred, Nancy continues to follow up on some leads.  The fake fur company seems to be located in Vermont, but it is in a place called "Dunstan Lake" which nobody seems to have ever heard of.  A Mountweazel, perhaps?  She goes to New York to visit Aunt Eloise, suspecting one of the crooks working with Mitzi has been peddling fake stock there.  Unfortunately, Mitzi's cohort, Sidney Boyd, has left a whole slew of swindling victims in his wake.

Meanwhile, Bess and George find a fur trapper named John Horn who looks "like a cross between Daniel Boone and Santa Claus" and can tell the difference between a genuine and fake fur with his eyes closed.  Naw, I'm just kidding.  His eyes really do have to be open.  Nancy briefly meets with him, but then jet-sets off to Montreal, seemingly to help her father on his own case before she continues with the fur mystery.

In Montreal, she finds even more clues as to the racketeering bunch (Seriously, why do the criminals follow her on vacation?  They're just digging their own proverbial graves...) and meets a young handsome man named Chuck Wilson.  Poor Chuck Wilson, a ski champion, has an unscrupulous uncle who threatens to keep him from his inheritance.  You see, Chuck's own parents were joyful, carefree types, but his uncle hates anything of entertainment value-he won't even let Chuck dance or listen to music.

Aaaaaaannnnd then it's Footloose.  Nancy promises to help Chuck bring dancing back to Bomont--ehr, I mean find proof to collect his inheritance.  Apparently, the only man who could possibly know the truth is an old fur trapper (CONNECTION?!) named John Horn (CONNECTION.).

Nancy and Chuck make quite the pair, skiing together, having meals, blushing when his name comes up...I feel like I'm watching trouble brew before me.  Fortunately, Nancy leaves Montreal without any chaste middle-grade indiscretions, and gets back to River Heights just in time to tell John Horn about the Footloose situation.  Having discovered several clues about the possibly-fake Dunstan Lake, Vermont, trailing it all back to a P.O. box not far from her Aunt's summer home in the Adirondacks, Nancy decides that the whole group (Bess, George, Ned, Burt and Dave) should go meet up with Aunt Eloise, along with John Horn.  Because, of course, Chuck Wilson is also going to be there for some reason.

It's all a little too convenient, but I let it slide (not without a price of half a mag).

We then realize that Nancy is a total asshole.  While visiting the Adirondacks, and a local ski lodge, it becomes apparent that Chuck and Nancy have a bit of a rapport and had been hanging out in Montreal.  At Ned's hurt expressions and clear jealousy, Nancy only shows "amusement," occasionally teasing Ned by letting Chuck insert himself into their daily activities.

Wow.  Insensitive, thy name is Nancy Drew.

The thieves, who have of course also settled back in the Adirondacks (although at least that area, Montreal, and Vermont are all slightly close together), continue to do their dirty deeds while Nancy is hot on their trail.  When she sees the nefarious Mitzi Channing ice skating nearby (because that seems smart--robbing a bunch of people and then stopping for a casual ice skating break) and discovers the twist of the book: Dunstan Lake is a MAN, not a place.

It's like a reverse Ambrose Chapel, guys!

The crooks kidnap Nancy and leave her to freeze in an abandoned cabin, but are eventually apprehended when she is freed by her friends.  In an unusual turn, the crooks maintain their innocence instead of blurting out why they did it like they're in an episode of Perry Mason (the usual m.o. of Nancy Drew criminals).  Fortunately, Nancy retraces her steps and finds evidence of stolen fur pelts, messages concerning the bad stock, and an easily-identifiable pair of stolen earrings Mitzi herself has on.

You see what happens, Mitzi?!  You see what happens when you &*&*% a *&%* in the (%&? THAT'S what happens!

Like I said, don't mess with Nancy.  She's a methodical android of a girl, and is occasionally cold-hearted enough to dismiss even Ned's puppy dog eyes.

This one was great.  I was a bit annoyed as per usual with the fact that people seemed to show up wherever Nancy went; I mean, if she were following the criminals it would be one thing, but they are clearly following her.  I kind of imagine them all (still sipping martinis and draped in fur) saying: "I say, gang.  That River Heights townie, Nancy Drew is going off to the Adirondacks.  Who does she think she is, vacationing in places we might steal in?  Let's all pay her a little visit, even though she has a 100% success rate in solving crimes perpetrated by scoundrels like us."

Idiots.

Anyhoo, I digress.  Despite this problem, which I'm beginning to see is a problem with pretty much all Nancy Drew books, this was a really good one.  It had a few twists and turns, and at one point I even thought John Horn (a.k.a. Santa Boone) might be in on the racket.  All of our favorite characters were involved in the mystery, and the pacing was a welcome change from the Clue-of-the-Black-whatever-thing-it-was I just reviewed.  This one gets 4 1/2 out of 5 mags.

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P.S. Footloose gets his inheritance, by the way, but it's pretty much an afterthought.  Nobody caaaaares, Chuck.  Nobody cares.