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.

CSFF Blog Tour: The science, the scam, the history of Phrenology

Phrenology is the study of the structure of the skull to determine a person’s character and mental capacity. This pseudoscience is based on the false assumption that mental faculties are located in brain “organs” on the surface of the brain and can be detected by visible inspection of the skull. The Viennese physician Franz-Joseph Gall (1758-1828) claimed there are some 26 “organs” on the surface of the brain which affect the contour of the skull, including a “murder organ” present in murderers. Gall was an advocate of the “use it or lose it” school of thought. Brain organs which were used got bigger and those which were not used shrunk, causing the skull to rise and fall with organ development. These bumps and indentations on the skull, according to Gall, reflect specific areas of the brain that determine a person’s emotional and intellectual functions. The Skeptics Dictionary, http://www.skepdic.com/phren.html

“Fool and Phrenologist are terms nearly synonymous” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1823.

Phrenology: “The science of picking the pocket through the scalp. It consists in locating and exploiting the organ that one is a dupe with.” Ambrose Bierce

Ten-Finger is a phrenologist. That’s a showman that “reads” a feller’s character by feeling around for bumps and dents on his skullbone. A bump here means you got a short temper. A dent there means you got a generous heart. It’s real scientific sounding, but I reckon it’s all folderol and moonshine. Jonathan Rogers, The Charlatan’s Boy

During The Charlatan’s Boy, Floyd and Grady take up phrenology in between scams. I had seen phrenology in two other books, and I was tickled by its inclusion in The Charlatan’s Boy.

In Godless Ann Coulter wrote that “evolution fetishists” are turning themselves into “modern-day phrenologists”. This is the modern view of phrenology: a pseudoscience, a fanciful fraud. Helen’s Babies, published in 1876, is dated by many things, and not least that the book takes Helen seriously when she asks her brother to do a phrenological examination of her babies. Phrenology was widely accepted in the 1800s, in America and Britain. The intellectual and well-to-do often embraced it.

I enjoyed the use of phrenology in The Charlatan’s Boy, and I decided to poke around the Internet a bit. Here are some interesting things I turned up:

– Back in the day some employers would ask job candidates to undergo phrenology tests. In The Charlatan’s Boy a man asks Grady to examine his prospective son-in-law, ushering in one of my favorite sequences. Something like this may well have happened once.

– Henry Lavery spent 26 years building the psychograph, a phrenology machine. It had 1,954 parts.

– Sherlock Holmes, paragon of logic and intellection, once deduced a man’s intelligence from his hat size.

– In Huckleberry Finn, the charlatan called The Duke lectured on phrenology and provided “charts of character”. (I found these last two here, along with other examples of phrenology in popular culture.)

– Phrenology and physiognomy were in the 19th century mixed with Darwinism to assert that those with jutting jaws are mentally inferior. This was used against the Irish and the lower classes.

– Maps and charts were part of Ten-Finger’s phrenology kit. Jonathan Rogers described them much like these.

Here you read can the evaluation a phrenologist gave after examining a little girl.

Here is a man’s account (circa 1870) of his brush with phrenology.

– Phrenology always had its critics. One wrote in 1838, “Phrenology is a mass of untruth! Its physics are false and presumptuous, its metaphysics nonsensical, its ethics a gross idiotic blunder! And yet this system has numerous admirers, and its lecturers often appear in public, exhibiting the ignorance and audacity of the charlatan, in every sentence they utter, and they are generally surrounded by a gaping multitude, of bump-feeling people, eager to gain knowledge of the so-called ‘science’.”

Review: Washington’s Lady

Written by Nancy Moser

Nancy Moser’s website

“First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” This is the most famous tribute to George Washington, the father of our country. The greatness of Washington consisted not only in that he was first, but that he was first out of patriotism rather than ambition. Mount Vernon drew his heart far more than the presidency.

Martha, Washington’s lady, wanted Virginia, too, with home and family. But she followed her husband to Philadelphia, just as she had once followed him to winter camp* year after year. She was at Valley Forge. Throughout the war Martha Washington was crucial in upholding the morale of the Continental Army. She was crucial in upholding its commander-in-chief.

In Washington’s Lady Nancy Moser tells the story of Martha Washington. This is, of course, a historical novel, so I’ll start with the historicity of it. Facts are woven into the book – sometimes broadly, such as the oppressiveness of England’s rule that Americans could trade only with her, and sometimes more narrowly, such as the help of the Oneida Indians. There are parts of the account that are not really detailed. Whole years of the Revolutionary War can pass in several pages.

Washington’s Lady is not about the war so much as it’s about, well, Washington’s lady. It is also written first-person, from her viewpoint, and its perspective is limited where hers was. We hear about the 1779-1780 winter in MorristownMorisstown, and far away from Bunker Hill. – at least as bad as Valley Forge, though much more obscure – but Bunker Hill is hardly mentioned. Martha Washington was in

So how does Nancy Moser do in telling Martha Washington’s story? Very well. Martha suffered great loss in her life. She outlived two husbands, five siblings, and all her children. Moser brings her readers into a struggle toward faith, toward life – through all that stood in the way, war and death and sorrow. We are led through Martha Washington’s disappointments, her flaws, love, trials, and dedication to her husband, family, and the Cause.

Nancy Moser uses British spelling, and sometimes she uses words in an old-fashioned way. At one point George Washington says that the colonists cannot back down unless they receive consolation from England.

The story of the American Revolution is an amazing one, and George and Martha Washington were deep in the middle of it. As Nancy Moser illustrates, their lives reflected in a way that struggle – courage, sacrifice, and the ultimate dream of living in peace beneath their own vine and fig tree.


* During the winter months fighting traditionally stalled, usually stopping altogether. Wives would sometimes join the army at its winter camp, returning home when the weather warmed and warfare started again.