Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Nancy Drew Diaries, No. 15 - The Professor and the Puzzle

When Simon & Schuster reduced the number of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books being published per year, I had hoped that meant two things - (1) the books would have a greater page count within which to allow a story to be more fleshed out with greater character development, and (2) that the stories would have more depth and be more engaging. This most recent Nancy Drew mystery, however, evidences the fact that S&S is still trying to sell this series based on the brand name alone, which is sad.

The Professor and the Puzzle (really?  I mean, who in the world came up with this name for the mystery?) has a fairly good premise to it. Nancy, Bess and George are invited to Oracle College's Greek Gala, a big fundraising event for the college that also serves as a way to help boost their enrollment. It's a huge event just outside of River Heights where everyone, from students to faculty to sponsors, dresses up as a Greek god or goddess. This year's event, however, goes south when the keynote speaker falls from a balcony and is seriously injured.

Was it an accident?  Or did someone sabotage the railing that the young man was leaning on as he gave his speech?  And if it were sabotage, why would someone want to hurt a student who everyone claims is so well-loved at the college?  With Nancy Drew in attendance, it's a pretty sure bet she'll be on the case!

Even though the plot deals with sabotage (which these S&S writers can't seem to do anything but sabotage, making it a tiresome plot device), the underlying mystery is actually pretty good.  [NOTE:  SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!]  At first, it appears that someone has it in for Sebastian Rivera, one of the most popular students at school that everyone appears to love.  When he falls from the balcony while giving a speech, Nancy quickly discovers that the balcony railing had been sabotaged so that it would break if anyone leaned on it.  Only, everything is not what it first appears, for soon after, Nancy finds she is on the wrong track when it turns out one of the professors who is not well-liked at all was the intended speaker, but a last minute change put Sebastian on the balcony instead.  When that professor's prized parrot goes missing, Nancy is sure someone is out to get her. Then, during her investigation, Nancy is knocked out a window and is almost seriously injured in an accident meant for the professor, Nancy realizes the stakes are high and she must find out who is behind the attacks on the professor!

And there are some great moments in the story as well - while Nancy and Bess both dress up for the party as goddesses, it is interesting to note that the author has George dress up as Hermes, a Greek god. This begs the question as to why Nancy and Bess would dress in female form, while George would choose to dress in the male form?  There's also the introduction of Iris Pappas, who is toted as an "old friend" of Nancy's from her early childhood.  The interaction between Nancy and Iris is one between good friends, and even Iris' father refers to Nancy as his "little fox."  There is a reference to "The Case of the Missing Cat," which Nancy and Iris tried to solve when they were very young.  Iris could also be a replacement for Helen Corning from the original series, as Bess and George must both leave the college early the next morning after the party, so they are unable to assist with the mystery-solving as they normally do, leaving Iris to become Nancy's new partner-in-crime (even helping her break into the security room at one point to look at the security camera footage from the night of the party).

Unfortunately, all of this could not overcome the weaker elements of the writing.  Such as, when has Nancy suddenly developed a phobia of being in large crowds?  Several times in this story, the author has Nancy become overwhelmed, to the point where she needs to sit down, from being crowded with so many people around her.  Was this some new "human weakness" that the author tried to instill in Nancy to make her more relatable with her readers?  In addition, since when did everyone start referring to Nancy as simply "Drew"?  Both George and Iris refer to her in this way throughout the story, and it makes me wonder if the book was written some time around when the television pilot was being considered for a series, since the title for that show was simply Drew. And then we have the culprit behind all of the sabotage.  To say the culprit's identity is pretty obvious from the get-go is a pretty fair statement.  It leaves the reader with a feeling that Nancy is simply blind in this story to miss all of the glaring clues that literally jump off the page when they appear!  I won't go into them for fear of spoiling it too much for those who want to read the story, but let's just say this mystery is not one of Nancy's finer moments.

And on a side-note - it is confirmed in this book that Nancy, Bess and George are still in high school.   On page 26, Iris's father, who also happens to run the college, tells the girls he hopes they will consider Oracle College after they graduate.  Later, on page 88, Iris's father warns Nancy to keep her investigation on the down-low, as he and his college will become a laughingstock if people discovery he is allowing a "high-schooler" play private eye on his campus.  Now, this could mean the girls are seniors in high school, getting ready to graduate, which could place them at 18-years old or so; or it could be the summer between their junior and senior years; or they could be juniors in high school, placing them at 16 or 17 years of age.  At any rate, Nancy and friends are no longer as carefree as the original series when they were out of school.  I would love to see this series character outlines to find out exactly how S&S sees Nancy, Bess, and George these days.

One final note, and this about the cover.  The scene depicted by Erin McGuire (who has remained the cover artists for all 15 books so far) comes straight out of the book, from page 125.  Since there are no internal illustrations (which I really miss from the Nancy Drew books!!!), it's nice to see a cover image that is a specific scene right out of the book.

The title and cover for the next book, The Haunting of Heliotrope Lane, gives high hopes that perhaps S&S is taking the series back in the direction of its original books.  One can only hope!

RATING:  5 African gray parrots out of 10 for at least providing a unique setting and supporting cast for the mystery.

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