It's time, guys. Time for the most ludicrous villain name in Nancy Drew history. More head-scratching than Mortimer Bartesque, El Gato or even Snorky...it's time for ...SWAHILI JOE!
Yes, our story starts out with Nancy and her friends (including a group from Emerson with Ned, Burt, and Dave) heading out for a safari in Africa. Before she goes, however, she learns of a mysterious stolen spider sapphire and Ned is kidnapped!
Oh no! Not NED!
In much faster course than I remember, however, Ned is found after Bess decodes a cryptic call and figures out he's being held in a pear orchard. He reveals that his captor is none other than...SWAHILI JOE!
What if we were all named after the language we speak? I wouldn't just be Kate, I'd be American English Kate. There would be Portuguese Miguel, French Claire, Ancient Aramaic Billy-Bob....what's next?
Anyhoo, Swahili Joe is clearly the villain of the book due to his redonkulous name. Working with him are two "Indian Blacks" named Jahan and Dhan. Really? Indian Blacks? Well, if you think that's bad, it gets worse. The book goes on to explain the difference between African blacks, American blacks. and COLOREDS, which are apparently black but from India or the Middle East. O. M. G. I admit, the usually cringe-worthy racial terms in Nancy Drew books really threw me through a loop in this one. It was all I could do to get through the first 75 or so pages, when the terminology was the worst. Dude, Stratemeyer syndicate. These are NOT the preferred nomenclatures. They're all from Africa. Just call them African (or Kenyan, or Ethiopian, whatever their country of origin is if known). Not too hard.
Anyhoo, after drowning in a sea of racisms, I'm back on track. Before Nancy and the gang head out on safari, two very important things happen. First, they are able to see an African operatic singer perform locally before they leave. The woman, Lilia, explains that she is using all of her tour money to find her lost brother, who was rumored to be mauled while on a job in Mombasa but she believes to be alive.
Another mystery...do you think they'll tie together?
The second piece is that they are introduced to their safari group, including several Emerson students and one Gwen Taylor, a histrionic girl who wears a blonde wig over her brown hair. Why she would wear a wig and not just dye her hair I don't know. She quickly shows herself to be the resident pain-in-the-ass of the book by shrieking that her father will sue the safari company and insisting that the guides retrieve the fancy camera she dropped into a bed of wild animals. Yikes. Even Gwen's boyfriend seems sick of her shenanigans. Of course, while the rest of the group has totally written her off as a spoiled brat, Bess sees a mystery only she can solve. The mystery of a girl who is so insecure thinking that she needs to be blonde that she turns into a total asshole. When a baboon grabs Gwen's wig right off of her head (yes, you read correctly, THAT HAPPENED) and waves it about in a comical gesture, finally tossing it in the mud, Bess sees her chance. She gives Gwen a total makeover, showing her how pretty her dark hair can be and, quite suddenly, Gwen is a totally different person. While I find the idea that a makeover can totally change your persona utter bullshit, my being raised amongst 1990's makeover montages makes me let it go.
Suddenly, Gwen is the best of friends with all the girls. At their safari resort (really? there were resorts in Africa and a small liberal-arts university group can pay for that?) the girls all put on a water ballet while the boys clap. And, when Nancy. Bess and George's clothes are burned by the villains (as if that would stop them), Gwen happily loans them her clothes. Of course, they have to get loaner shoes from all the girls as there are "no sensible heels for sale in Africa." First world problems, man. First world problems.
A good chunk of the book covers the group's experience in Africa, which is actually quite fun. There's only little snippets of the mystery but....oh, wait. I forgot the best part. When the girls are looking at a group of wild animals over the balcony, George is kidnapped by a baboon as his primate bride! She is carried off quite a ways before she notices that it is a man wearing a baboon suit. She wrenches the head of the costume and he drops her. But not before she sees that the man is...SWAHILI JOE!
The mystery gets more convoluted as they find out that Lilia's long-lost brother, Taizam, did survive the lion attack but is missing...and he might be in league with Swahili Joe! When the girls track down Mr. Tangor, the man from whom the spider sapphire was stolen, he tells them that the missing guide was involved in the crime. Not wanting to believe it, the girls suspect Mr. Tangor for a time, but eventually clear him of any skulduggery.
Once the group arrives in a town, they take in the African culture. Nancy even has a local man make a "death mask," which is a mask of one's face so that their loved ones will have something to comfort them in case of an early demise. A little dark, but the mortality rate is likely higher in this small village so it makes a certain amount of sense. He gives Nancy the mask for free, revealing that there is a secret compartment in the eye sockets where one can hide jewels or valuables to prevent their theft during a home robbery. I normally wouldn't dedicate a whole paragraph of the review to this, but you'll see why I did in a bit.
The girls finally find Taizam, who has been suffering from amnesia since his experience. In an absurd turn, Nancy is able to snap him out of his amnesia forever by simply singing the Swahili lullabye (oh that's right, Nancy can sing beautifully in Swahili now BTW) that his sister used to sing him. This is the craziest amnesia turnaround since The Ringmaster's Secret. Either way, the girls get the best clue yet from Taizam once he remembers his recent past. He was almost mauled after he caught the Swahili Joe gang (although he makes it seem like ole' SJ is just a strong-man) stealing the spider sapphire. Nancy and the gang realize that Jahan and Dhan must have started the rumor that Taizam was responsible to keep their own dirty affairs under wraps. Taizam remembers them mentioning an old dungeon and Vasco de Gama, so our detectives set off to find it. Once they find the dungeon, Nancy locates the spider sapphire, cleverly tucking it into the eye socket compartment of her death mask for safe keeping (see! I told you the death mask was important. So, when the evil Jahad and Dhan show up, brandishing whips, she is ready.
Not to be taken down easily, Nancy completely throws the men off their game by explaining their crime to them (Poirot-style). Somehow, in the course of the last day, she has put together the whole thing. The two men are not working for Swahili Joe, but a man named Rhim Rhao, who had been pretending to be a trusted contact of Mr. Tangor. Swahili Joe was just a pawn in all of this. Damn, I'd forgotten about that too. Apparently, the villains were so good at making it seem like he was the ringleader, even I bought into it. Also, his name is just so memorable!
Fortunately, they are able to take the men down and track down Rhim Rhao who was very surprised to be arrested for his clever cover-up. The mystery is solved, but Nancy is already jonesing for a new one. She'll have to wait until The Invisible Intruder.
This book was great in parts, but a few things ruined it for me. The racist terminology and stereotyping really pulled me out of the story. Also, while I'm perfectly willing to accept a certain level of stretching reality for the sake of the narrative, the unbelievable ease at which they are able to miraculously pull Taizam out of a years-long amnesia was too much for me. Although this could have been 4 or more, this one gets 3 1/12 out of 5 mags.
Head Injuries: 0 (21 total)
Incidents of Baboon High Jinks: 2
Racisms: Too many to count
Best villain name: Swahili Joe (Snorky is a close second)