Review: The Mystery at Lilac Inn

Back in my pre-teen years, I had an array of books – the American Girls, the Magic Attic series, the Little House series, My America and other historical-fiction diaries. But looming above all these were Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. They were older than my grandmother, and I never seemed to reach the end of them. I read all I could get my hands on. I used to get a stack of mysteries from the library and read three or four at the same time.

Recently, I discovered that a lot of those books were revised and condensed versions of the originals. In 1959, the publishers changed nearly three decades of Nancy Drew mysteries. The new editions were culturally and politically updated. Then, in the early nineties, the publisher began releasing the original novels. They call it Nancy Drew, as you remember her – if, apparently, you were reading Nancy Drew before 1960.

Out of curiosity, I read The Mystery at Lilac Inn, as it first appeared in 1930. Like most mysteries, it lists toward the obvious. We all knew the jewels would be stolen, and we all knew they would be recovered. No one could ever believe Nancy’s protests that the case might be just too difficult to solve. And the involvement of the strange girl Nancy met in chapter 3? I think we all saw that one coming.

The real interest of the mystery’s resolution is the process. Nancy was more stubborn and more reckless than I remembered her. The characters are brightly drawn, more colorful than deep. They become defined in the reader’s imagination – Nancy Drew’s determination, another woman’s excitability, the bold, dark-eyed girl …

I was more impressed by the writing than I expected to be. Here is the first sentence of the book:

A bright blue roadster, low-swung and smart, rolled swiftly along the winding lake road to halt suddenly before a large signboard which boldly proclaimed to all who chanced that way: LILAC INN: CHICKEN DINNERS OUR SPECIALTY.

This is not the most beautiful writing, but neither does it condescend to a younger audience. It is strongly competent: long, complexly organized, evocative (the sign boldly proclaimed), and unafraid of language not likely to be used in normal conversation (if you chance that way …).

Nancy is sixteen in this book (in the edited versions, she’s eighteen). It’s curious to see her behaving in ways that seem beyond a 16-year-old: driving out of town at will, managing a household, and hiring servants with great confidence. At one point she instructs an applicant that she seems too young to be a housekeeper, not noticing that if it comes to that, Nancy seems too young to be hiring one.

The Mystery at Lilac Inn (unedited) shows its age charmingly. Characters stop for luncheon, have particular chums, and worry about getting punctures on rough roads. The language and facts of another era add fascination.

And the assumptions of another era add trouble. Old conventions about the roles of men and women stand out: Emily can’t marry until her fiance is successful enough to support a family; after Nancy’s mother died, it fell on Nancy, not her father, to run the house.

There is also a greater emphasis on social class. I remember Hannah Gruen being the Drews’ housekeeper, but I don’t remember her being repeatedly called a servant. I certainly don’t remember her addressing Nancy as “Miss Nancy”. Once Nancy, being treated rudely by a woman who worked as a maid, fumed, “One would think she was an heiress instead of a kitchen girl!” Which sounds vaguely snobbish.

Then there is the issue of race. Nancy interviews a “colored woman” and finds her badly qualified to be a housekeeper. The next day she finds an Irish woman even worse, which, depending on your perspective, either increases or decreases the racial bias.

Of course, many people of every ethnic group are unqualified to be housekeepers, though it’s wise to leave ethnicity out of such things. The really troubling thing is the attitude that peeps through. The employment agency sends the only servant available – a “colored woman” – and Nancy “fears the worst”. Why?

This is the black mark on The Mystery at Lilac Inn: It briefly shows an attitude toward race that is – let us be charitable to the author – questionable. It remains a window into our past that is sometimes charming, often interesting, and always true. It also remains a well-written, fast-paced mystery, whose world and characters have life.

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