It's been nearly 90 years since Nancy Drew found her first hidden staircase, cracked her first code, caught her first crook, and got knocked out by her first chloroform-soaked towel.
While countless movies and television shows have been made about our favorite girl detective, nothing comes close to the original books, with their action-packed (and occasionally outlandish) plots and fantastic cover art, which hint at the title's contents — sometimes spooky, other times perplexing, but always entertaining.
Never afraid to take charge, Nancy was a pioneer of the girl power movement, taking down thieves, racketeers, and other bad guys while making it look easy. Her ingenuity, resourcefulness, and instincts were her secret weapons, making Nancy a character readers could admire. I certainly did — growing up, if my nose wasn't in the latest Baby-Sitters Club book, I was probably reading The Ghost of Blackwood Hall for the 245th time.
In honor of the latest Nancy Drew revival, here's a look back at her classic adventures — all 56 of them, as published by Grosset & Dunlap. Join me as I rank them, taking into consideration this criteria: Was the plot exciting and the core mystery well-developed? Did the resolution make sense? Finally, does it still hold up (as best it can) today?
Here we go:
56: The Clue in the Old Album (Book #24)
The Clue in the Old Album focuses on Nancy trying to find a missing violinist. Unfortunately, it hasn't aged well, as it involves Romani fortune tellers, and the word "gypsy," now considered a slur, is used throughout. Many of the racially-insensitive parts of the earliest books from the 1930s and '40s were removed during later revisions, but this one hasn't been changed.
55: The Mystery of the Ivory Charm (Book #13)
Nancy stands up to a child abuser in this title, an admirable feat, and is able to rescue a boy from a traveling circus. Because of this, though, it's one of the darker books, and has an air of sadness throughout.
54: The Mystery at the Ski Jump (Book #29)
This one revolves around stolen furs and people being conned into purchasing stock in a fake fur company. While they get no sympathy from me, since that's what you get for buying fur, a major issue with this book is the title is deceiving — most of the action takes place away from a ski jump. There is also the recycled plotline of a villain taking on Nancy's identity, which is done a bit better in other books.
53: The Ringmaster's Secret (Book #31)
The secret is ... this is not one of Nancy's best adventures. She is tasked with solving the mystery of a gold bracelet with a missing charm, which is sent from her aunt in New York and just so happens to arrive as Nancy is taking trick riding lessons (of course, she's a pro and can already jump onto a moving horse). She winds up looking for the bracelet's owner at a nearby circus, but everything happens at a slow pace, and there doesn't seem to be a real urgency to move things forward.
52: The Strange Message in the Parchment (Book #54)
This one is kind of a snoozefest, unless you're a huge fan of sheep farms, in which case, have I got a book for you.
51: The Secret of the Forgotten City (Book #52)
Nancy decides that looking for gold sounds like a fabulous idea and heads out to Nevada for a dig, accompanied by her best friends, cousins George Fayne and Bess Marvin. Early in the book, there is a disturbing scene involving a stranger threatening to shoot Togo, Nancy's dog. A shot is heard and Togo disappears, and while everyone is sad not knowing what happened to him, they still go inside and eat dessert. This felt really off-brand.
50: The Clue in the Crossword Cipher (Book #44)
This one takes place in Peru, which is cool, but Bess gets fat-shamed by the guy offering alpaca rides, which is terrible, so this one is a wash.
49: The Clue of the Broken Locket (Book #11)
This one is fine, but kind of dull, despite the fact that there is so much going on. While trying to use the clue of the broken locket to find a hidden treasure, Nancy, Bess, and George encounter a ghost ship, try to help a man being screwed out of his royalties by a record company, and visit a place called Pudding Stone Lodge (which is, admittedly, a great name). It just doesn't feel like there is much of a connection to the characters introduced in this title.
48: The Mystery of the 99 Steps (Book #43)
Nancy goes to France to find these 99 steps, which are linked to two separate mysteries. The real mystery, however, is how you can count 99 steps without your eyes crossing and you losing count.
47: The Spider Sapphire Mystery (Book #45)
While on an African safari, Nancy and company meet a mean girl whose blonde wig gets snatched by a baboon. This is rather silly and slightly off-tone for a Nancy Drew book, especially one that otherwise is about the theft of an ancient gem.
46: The Phantom of Pine Hill (Book #42)
Somehow, this book manages to blend a phantom haunting a mansion's library with a mystery involving drowned wedding gifts. It's fine.
45: The Clue of the Black Keys (Book #28)
This isn't about piano keys, car keys, or those Black Keys. Instead, Nancy meets the world's youngest archeology professor and travels to the Florida Keys, where there's buried treasure and bad guys who want her out of the picture. The action ultimately moves from the United States to Mexico, which keeps the reader's attention, but this book doesn't have the same oomph as the ones focusing on truly nefarious villains and sinister happenings.
44: The Mystery of the Brass-Bound Trunk (Book #17)
Nancy, Bess, and George embark on a cruise to South America, and the highlight is when Nancy's trunk gets mixed up with another woman's with the same initials — except this N.D. is Nestrelda Darlington, owner of what must be the most unfortunate name in the entire series.
43: The Thirteenth Pearl (Book #56)
If Nancy got a diamond for every time she tracked down someone's stolen jewelry, she'd have enough bling to open her own store with an alarm system and an armed guard, which apparently is nonexistent in River Heights. This time around, she's been tasked with finding a missing pearl, and she goes to Japan where she discovers a fake pearl cult, which is as weird as it sounds.
42: The Mysterious Mannequin (Book #47)
Nancy receives an odd package in the mail, containing an elaborate rug with a hidden message. This is just the start of the action, which culminates in another international trip, this time to Turkey. How full is Nancy Drew's passport?
41: The Secret of Mirror Bay (Book #49)
This is yet another book featuring a Nancy Drew lookalike. Do you think her doppelgängers all get together and have a support group?
40: The Clue of the Dancing Puppet (Book #39)
If you don't want your dreams haunted by puppets, especially human-sized ones that dance around on their own, skip this one. Otherwise, this is a perfectly fine book that proves if Nancy ever wants to give up that detective life, she can become an actress.
39: The Scarlet Slipper Mystery (Book #32)
Lots of Nancy Drew books revolve around dancing and missing jewels, and this one is no exception. What makes it different is the introduction of a fictional country named Centrovia, but that's not enough to push this one higher on the list.
38: The Clue of the Leaning Chimney (Book #26)
Luckily no one called a mason to fix this leaning chimney, because it's the clue Nancy needs to find a missing Chinese vase. This is your average, middle-of-the-road mystery.
37: Mystery of Crocodile Island (Book #55)
Nancy, George, and Bess travel to Crocodile Island in order to find a bunch of poachers. Since this is in Florida, you know things get weird (like, submarines spying on Nancy weird), but what stands out the most is the fact that this is a really educational book — readers learn all about the differences between crocodiles and alligators, how crocodiles survive in the wild, how fast they are, what they like to eat, and so on.
36: The Double Jinx Mystery (Book #50)
This one is all about birds, including a bizarre-looking stuffed one left on Nancy's front yard, a bird farm that is at risk of being torn down, and bird flu. If you don't like winged creatures, don't read this book.
35: The Secret at Shadow Ranch (Book #5)
What makes this book special? It introduces readers to Bess and George. The peanut butter and jelly to Nancy's toasted wheat, these two changed the series forever.
34: The Clue of the Tapping Heels (Book #16)
This isn't about a murderous tap dancer who shuffles people to death, but rather an old actress who hears tapping noises inside her house and rightfully wonders, "WTF?" There's also Morse code and Persian cats, because of course there are.
33: Mystery of the Glowing Eye (Book #51)
A ton of action takes place, starting with a pilotless helicopter delivering a creepy note to Nancy telling her to beware the Cyclops. There's also another kidnapping, this time of Nancy's "special friend" Ned Nickerson, and a surprise marriage proposal. All together, it's an odd story, and you have to wonder what psychedelics were used in the writing of this book.
32: The Whispering Statue (Book #14)
It's in this book (the original version, not the rewrite) that Nancy gets her adorable dog Togo, who is actually really bad when they first meet. In the rewrite, she winds up going undercover to find a stolen statue, with a wig and sunglasses as her disguise. Not the best mystery, but not the worst.
31: The Mystery of the Fire Dragon (Book #38)
Firecrackers! A trip to Hong Kong! A missing girl that looks like George! An international rendezvous with Ned Nickerson! While not a nail-biter, it still has its moments that will put you on edge.
30: The Witch Tree Symbol (Book #33)
Nancy goes to Amish country to hunt for missing furniture, but before you can say "rumspringa," she finds herself in the middle of another mystery, this one involving strange symbols. The Amish soon turn on her and think she's a witch, and honestly, if she'd been burned at the stake, this title would have made it higher on the list.
29: The Clue in the Crumbling Wall (Book #22)
Nancy is once again trying to help someone find their inheritance, but this time, she's doing it from the mysterious Heath Castle. The Clue in the Crumbling Wall definitely has some parts you won't find recycled in any of the other books, like multiple juvenile delinquents roaming the streets, stealing purses.
28: The Message in the Hollow Oak (Book #12)
Because Nancy excels at everything she does, including things she knows absolutely nothing about, it comes as no surprise that she was called in by actual detectives to help find a hidden fortune, and was able to join an archeological dig. Imagine what you could do if you had just 1 percent of Nancy's talent. This is another one that gets off to a slow start, before picking up the pace.
27: The Sky Phantom (Book #53)
We know Nancy can solve mysteries on the ground, and this book proves she can be a super sleuth up in the air, too. There's a lot going on — Nancy has to try to find a hijacked plane, its missing pilot, and a horse thief — and a creepy magnetic cloud and Bess' romance with a cowboy add to the drama. It's fun to see Nancy try something that wasn't really done by young women.
26: The Mystery of the Tolling Bell (Book #23)
Nancy finally goes on a much-needed vacation to the sea, but there's no way she can relax when there are mysteries to solve. First, her dad is nowhere to be found, and second, there's some ghost clanging a bell in a cave. It's a typical Tuesday for Nancy Drew.
25: The Haunted Bridge (Book #15)
Ghosts + infrastructure + jewel thieves + a golf tournament that you know Nancy is going to win = a pretty good book. The action starts quickly in this one, with a ghost being mentioned on the first page, but it's also a little heavy on the golf. This isn't an autobiography of Arnold Palmer — give us more phantoms!
24: Nancy's Mysterious Letter (Book #8)
In this edition of How Many Nancy Drews Are There in the World?, our detective receives a letter intended for an English heiress named Nancy Drew. It turns out this woman is missing, and Nancy is determined to find her and catch the cad who wants to steal her inheritance. This is the first of a few Nancy Drew books to feature a bumbling mailman, which is a trope you don't often see.
23: The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes (Book #41)
I must admit, I'm slightly jealous of a fictional character. Nancy gets to go everywhere, and in The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes, she heads to Scotland in order to meet her great-grandmother and find a missing family heirloom. This one is different due to the fact that it's Nancy's family being targeted, not random people we never hear from again, but the book is slightly hindered by Nancy not getting to Scotland until later in the story.
22: The Clue in the Diary (Book #7)
If Nancy wasn't so nosy, she might never have stumbled upon this mystery, but you'll be glad she did — while investigating a mansion fire, Nancy comes across a diary, and she has to figure out who wrote it, if they survived the blaze, and how a man spotted running away from the scene fits into the puzzle. This one has several villains (including one dubbed "Foxy Felix"), and a lot of moving parts that make it a tad overwhelming.
21: The Secret of the Old Clock (Book #1)
In the one that started it all, Nancy goes on a hunt for a hidden will in order to ensure that a man's inheritance goes to its rightful heirs. This is a solid introduction to the world of Nancy Drew, cluing us in from the very beginning that she's someone who will fight for what's right. Plus, she gets locked in a closet, which is very amusing and foreshadowing.
20: The Moonstone Castle Mystery (Book #40)
Castles are fascinating places, made even more so when they are believed to be haunted but are really just home base for a bunch of crooks who get their kicks stealing from old people (this is truly a pattern in the Nancy Drew books). The Moonstone Castle Mystery starts off with a bang, with Nancy receiving a moonstone in the mail from a secret sender, who also passes along an ominous note. She's then followed by a scowling stranger as she attempts to find out who sent her this stone, and it's only up from there.
19: The Clue in the Old Stagecoach (Book #37)
Nancy, Bess, and George spend their vacation searching for an old stagecoach filled with a hidden treasure, which could fund a local school. Some elements make it feel like the girls went back in time to the Old West (it doesn't help that Bess nearly met her demise thanks to a water wheel), and there is a distinct Americana vibe.
18: The Hidden Window Mystery (Book #49)
This one's for all the Architectural Digest readers out there. Nancy travels to Charlottesville, Virginia, in order to try to find a long-lost medieval stained glass window taken from England. She explores colonial mansions, inspects (possibly haunted) attics, and wonders what's behind a high brick wall. This one's different, thanks to its focus on buildings and decor, and the journey to finding the window, adorned with a peacock, is rewarding.
17: The Mystery at Lilac Inn (Book #4)
This is a rough one for Nancy — there's a girl impersonating her all around town, a bomb goes off at her cabin, and she almost meets her maker aboard a sinking ship. The non-stop drama makes this an easy read.
16: The Crooked Banister (Book #48)
This has one of the best covers, as it features Nancy and a robot that looks like it will finally be the one to do her in. The book also has a pretty good plot, as it involves a bizarre house with strange features (like crooked banisters) and Nancy's attempt to find the person who owns it.
15: The Haunted Showboat (Book #35)
Having never been on a showboat before, let alone a haunted one, the title alone is intriguing to me. There's a lot going on in this one, with a trip to New Orleans, bridezillas, and a hunt for treasure, but when you find out who the actual ghosts are, it'll melt your heart.
14: The Secret of the Wooden Lady (Book #27)
The wooden lady in question is the missing figurehead of the Bonny Scot, a clipper ship based in Boston Harbor. A captain wants to buy the Bonny Scot, but without the figurehead, he can't buy it cleanly. This is a solid story, with some dangerous twists and turns.
13: The Secret of the Golden Pavilion (Book #36)
I am obsessed with the fact that this book immediately starts out with Nancy Drew on an airplane, asking the pilot to fly lower so she can look at her house. Since that's an insane request, he tells her no. She is handed a pair of binoculars instead and sees that there is an intruder climbing out of a window, carrying a briefcase. This could only happen to Nancy, which is why I love it so much. Nancy later will jet off to Hawaii to stop imposters from wrongfully claiming an inheritance. Pour yourself a Mai Tai and give this one a read.
12: The Mystery at the Moss-Covered Mansion (Book #18)
When it comes to Nancy Drew mysteries, if there's a spooky mansion involved, it's usually a good book. There are lots of differences between the 1941 original and the 1971 revision, but Nancy's lawyer-father's friend getting arrested for having explosive oranges on his truck (say what?!) gives the newer edition the edge.
11: The Bungalow Mystery (Book #3)
There is a character in this book named Stumpy Dowd. That alone is a good enough reason to rank this book toward the top.
10: The Invisible Intruder (Book #46)
Nancy's old pal Helen and her husband invite a bunch of people to go ghost-hunting with them, making them exactly the kind of friends we should all have. Together, the group encounters a phantom horse, explores a haunted guesthouse, and watches as an empty canoe just rows itself across a lake. This one is awesome.
9: The Hidden Staircase (Book #2)
Nancy, always willing to help a friend in need, checks out her chum's grandmother's house, after the family becomes convinced it's haunted. While Nancy's trying to crack that case, she's warned by a stranger that she and her father are in danger, due to a project he's working on, so she tries to get to the bottom of that, too. Double the mystery, double the fun.
8: The Clue in the Jewel Box (Book #20)
Nancy Drew may be River Heights royalty, but Madame Alexandra is actual royalty. A queen who is now living in exile under an assumed name, Madame Alexandra is one of the series' more fascinating protagonists, with a back story reminiscent of the Romanovs. Nancy must help her find her missing grandson, and get rid of the bad imposter with zero manners who is pretending to be him. This book has solid pacing and a side plot about pickpockets, because everyone in this town is either a thief or the victim of a thief.
7: The Sign of the Twisted Candles (Book #9)
This is another Nancy Drew story focusing on an old person getting scammed, but this time, the victim is Bess and George's great-uncle, Asa Sidney. There's also the added bonus of a perfectly mysterious title (The Sign of the Twisted Candles? What does that mean?) and a family feud involving George and Bess. This one had some unexpected drama, as Nancy's friendship with Bess and George was put to the test over her involvement in their familial strife. It also has some of the best descriptions in all of the Nancy Drew books — they are so vivid, with details about everything, down to the arched doorways and wall sconces of the inn where Asa is imprisoned in a tower.
6: The Quest of the Missing Map (Book #19)
In this entertaining romp, Nancy sets out to find the missing man who has possession of the titular missing map. She winds up meeting a whole gaggle of sailors, many of them extremely bad. There are also multiple kidnappings, because sometimes Carolyn Keene (whoever it might be that day) just doesn't know when to quit.
5: The Clue of the Velvet Mask (Book #30)
Disguises, burglaries, mistaken identities, velvet — what more do you need?
4: The Secret in the Old Attic (Book #21)
Everyone knows that the attic is the spookiest part of the house (basements are just terrifying). In this case, Nancy must help a very old, very sad man find missing sheet music that could make him rich, all while dealing with some romantic drama with Ned Nickerson. With spiders, skeletons, and a villain named Bushy Trott, this is one of the most suspenseful books in the series.
3: The Secret of Red Gate Farm (Book #6)
Any book that features a cult instantly shoots up to the top of my list. In The Secret of Red Gate Farm, the cult in question wears white hooded robes (yikes) and calls itself the Black Snake Colony. There's also a peculiar perfume that attracts criminals and a sad sack girl and her grandmother who could lose their farm if Nancy can't help them — believe it or not, this randomness somehow all makes sense in the end.
2: The Password to Larkspur Lane (Book #10)
A strange carrier pigeon delivering an even stranger message ("Blue Bells now Singing Horses") kicks off The Password to Larkspur Lane, one of the all-time Nancy Drew greats. After a series of mysterious events, Nancy eventually figures out that a bunch of elderly people are being held against their will at a fancy estate, so crooks can take their money. Teenage Nancy then goes undercover as an old lady to rescue everyone — ingenious!
1: The Ghost of Blackwood Hall (Book #25)
The Ghost of Blackwood Hall has everything — séances, hoaxes, an abandoned mansion occupied by an organ-playing ghoul, scam artists, hypnotized girls who give their hard-earned money to a fake orphanage, a trip to New Orleans, abductions, quicksand! There's so much going on, which is exactly why this is the greatest Nancy Drew ever written. Every spooky, eerie, and supernatural thing that could possibly happen does in this book. It's delightful from beginning to end.
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