Like most Lethal Weapon movies, an unfortunate byproduct of the times in which Nancy Drew is written is that (as I've mentioned before) the villains end up being one race of people. While I was afraid this would be the case in The Strange Message in the Parchment, especially with the presumed villains being Italian (my people, yo) but I soon realized that there was a lot more to it than met the eye.
Our mystery starts out with Nancy receiving a gift from an old friend, Junie, who now lives on a sheep farm a few hours away. Junie gives Nancy a fine sheepskin coat and an enticement to come solve a mystery at her parents' property, Triple Creek Farm. Apparently somehting having to do with a parchment? Nancy has barely shouted "Yes, yes...a thousand times yes!" to the mystery proposal when a young woman comes in through the back and snatches the sheepskin coat.
Okay, are these criminals insane? Shouldn't there be a circulated picture of Nancy and her home so that your general no-good ruffian can avoid her getting mixed up in their crime ring/ swindling circle/ ill-conceived kidnapping scheme? In any event, the girl turns out to be just some rando who saw Junie with the sheepskin jacket and couldn't stop herself from breaking and entering. Totally unrelated to the forthcoming evil Italians [Spoiler Alert!]
Nancy calls her dutiful boyfriend Ned Nickerson and friends Bess and George but all are busy until the weekend so Nancy decides to go on ahead with Junie to start on the case. However, Ned tells her to contact some (ITALIAN) artist named Vincenzo who might be able to help figure out the parchment's origins. Nancy soon meets Junie's parents, who implore her to solve the mystery behind the 4-block parchment painting they recently bought from a rude neighbor. A rude ITALIAN neighbor...duh duh duuuuuhhhhh!
Of course, several chapters into the mystery, and we're no closer to figuring out why this is a mystery at all. There's no treasure or inheritance to be found, just a couple of stray initials on the back of the parchment. Is the mystery where they should hang the parchment? Because Nancy's probably a bit overqualified for that. Then we spend some time touring the sheep farm, with a woozy Nancy considering vegetarianism after her tour of the slaughterhouse but then coming to the "practical" conclusion that the countryside would soon be overrun with farm animals if we didn't eat them. Yeah, keep telling yourself that when you choke down Hannah's lamp chops, Nancy. I'm sure it will help you sleep better at night. On their tour, they meet one of the Flockharts' shepherds, Eezy. He's a bible quoting, harp playing shepherd because of COURSE he is.
After a long and oddly propaganda-like scene in which Nancy and Junie make up funny rhymes about slaughtering sheep, I'm kind of in the dark. What are we solving here? Is it a crime or is it NOTHING? I'm starting to think it's nothing.
We finally meet our villain, Sal Rocco when he nearly plows into Nancy and Junie with his truck. Soon the girls do some snooping and realize that Rocco may be underpaying and taking advantage of undocumented Italian workers. In addition, a young boy named Tony lives on the farm, and Nancy has an odd hunch that he may be the young child depicted in one of the parchment paintings Mr. Rocco gave to the Flockharts. It's a pretty wild guess, but I tend to bet on Nancy in these cases.
After agonizing pages of nothing, finally something happens. A man slips into the Flockharts and snatches the parchment, while Nancy watches frozen in terror! She immediately chastises herself for not catching the crook, her confidence plummeting in a way I've never seen (or, rather, read). Nancy has almost given up the mystery (although at this point I still wonder what this case is exactly. Is it the mystery of why Mr. Rocco is a total dick?) and decided to go home when Junie and a local police officer convince her to stay.
Determined, Nancy recreates the parchment paintings perfectly because of COURSE she can (Nancy is a practically perfect in every way android, don't you recall?), bemoaning the fact that she can't follow a slim clue all the way to Rome because it's "too expensive." Uh, okay Nancy. Can't remember that stopping you before. Unfortunately, just as Nancy is finishing up the piece to show to Ned's Italian artist friend Vincenzo, two dudes run in and throw paint on it!
The robber who stole the original parchment, named Sid Zikes, is caught but much like any other criminal he's insisting "he's gots his rights." Presumably, Sid is working for Rocco. Why Rocco decided to sell this parchment thing at ALL is beyond me if all he wanted was to steal it back.
Nancy and Junie head back to Rocco's farm and try to interrogate the workers but they all speak a rare Italian dialect and cannot understand the girls. They do manage to discover, however, that little Tony has run away after his uncle Rocco beat him for drawing pictures. WTF, Rocco?!
Nancy and Junie find the boy, but decide to have him stay with the bible-spouting shepherd, who starts teaching him English right away (because he's got to learn if he's going to be in "these United States" Ugghhhh.) and write a note to Rocco explaining Tony's location and threatening to go to the police about the beatings.
So, yeah. This is the one where Nancy Drew kidnaps a child.
Don't get me wrong, it's in the best interest of Tony, but let's call a spade a spade here. She's a kidnapper. Two thugs also say as much when they show up with fake badges and try to arrest her for abduction, but they are working for Rocco.
After what seems like an eternity, Bess, George, Ned, Burt and Dave show up and start to pull their weight. Junie seems nice and all, but a little green in the mystery department. Within just a few pages, the gang has figured out that Rocco is running a fake union scam, collecting dues from workers seeking to earn higher wages, AND that Tony has a long lost mother in Italy. Evidently, after this poor woman's husband died, her brother in law stole her money and absconded with her infant son as well. She is also the painter of the parchment art, which depicted her husband's accident, her young boy and a self-portrait. So Rocco stole that too.
Yeah, he's really a grade-A dick. And also kind of stupid, or at least his muscle is. When Nancy and Mrs. Bolardo (Tony's mom) go to find him, Rocco's men tie them up but then just sort of leave, saying they'll be back later. Um, what? These guys have NO follow-through!
Probably the best moment of the entire book other than when Bess is forced to tour the slaughterhouse is the climax, in which Rocco hears an angry mob outside his house. He asks the police to protect him, but they're basically like "Sorry, dude, you made your bed."
After that I'm pretty sure he just got arrested, but I like to imagine the mob of duped Unioneers surrounding him and eating him like Ramsay Bolton's dogs.
This one was...okay. Pretty middle-run. Parts of it really dragged, and I felt like Nancy's characterization was sort of all over the place. But, no fat shamings so plus!