Pam, Bess, and Bess’ younger sister, Sue, visit a museum after hours for a celebration of the “publication of the first of the Nancy Drew mystery books” in this picture book based on a story originally published in 1980 in the New Yorker.
Although The Mystery of the Old Clock was originally published in 1930, Cortés does not set the story during the Depression: The girls—all three are black—wear modern casual clothing, and one appears to be holding a smartphone. When Pam climbs the stairs for a better vantage point from which to peer at the guests, she points out something shocking. Pam and Bess are aghast at whatever it is, but little sister Sue (and readers) remains clueless. Frustratingly, the pictures depict only their changing expressions over pages and pages and not what they actually see—though the last page might offer a visual hint. The stilted vocabulary seems to date back to Carolyn Keene’s characters of that era: “querulous,” “milling about,” “bilious,” and “hypers” (an exclamation), all incongruous with the characters’ ages. Worse, one textual descriptor of Bess clashes with her depiction as a girl with dark brown skin: “her face turning first a ghostly white, then a vivid red.” For white Bess Marvin, friend of Nancy Drew, this is possible, but blushing would not result in such a color change in a character with skin this dark. The color palette of the illustrations seems as dated as the museum—another reason this book will likely fail to appeal to young readers.
Nostalgic Nancy Drew fans will likely deem this experimental picture book a failed homage, and it will certainly disappoint young sleuths in search of a real mystery. (Picture book. 5-8)