The Mystery of the Tolling Bell (Nancy Drew Mysteries #23) by Carolyn Keene

“Nancy becomes involved in another mystery when she accepts an invitation from Mrs. Chantrey, a client of Mr. Drew, to vacation at her cottage in a picturesque seaside town. Carson Drew has promised to join his daughter, but fails to arrive. The alarming disappearance of Mr. Drew and the odd circumstances surrounding his rescue are only the start of a series of highly dangerous adventures for Nancy and her friends Bess and George. Mrs. Chantrey’s story about a nearby Cliffside cave reputedly inhabited by a ghost intrigues Nancy and she decides to investigate. Several frightened townspeople claim to have seen an apparition and heard the weird sounds of a tolling bell just before water rushes from the cave. Will Nancy discover the true cause of these mysterious occurences?”

“While vacationing in a seaside town, Nancy learns her father has been kidnapped. She and Ned rescue Carson Drew and help him investigate a cosmetic company and its inferior merchandise. Meanwhile, the girl sleuth is captivated by another mystery. Stories about the eerie moans from a cave carved in the jagged wall of the bluff compel her to explore. Several frightened townspeople claim to have seen a ghost, accompanied by the mournful sound of a tolling bell just before water rushes from the cave. During her searches, Nancy discovers the true cause and reasons behind these mysterious occurrences.”

The Mystery of the Tolling Bell was written in 1946 and revised in 1973. We refer to these as Original Text (OT) (AbeBooks) and Revised Text (RT) (Amazon) (Abebooks). The OTs occasionally offer up some cringe-worthy racism and stereotypes, and this volume is no different. A woman, “obviously of foreign birth” is changed to “appeared to be foreign” in the revised text which is no better. Little people are called dwarves and elves interchangeably. In the OT, the bad guy, Grumper, is described as a hunchback with a distorted face, ala Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Luckily that was taken out of the RT. At least I think it was; to be honest, I just read the beginning couple of chapters and the last few chapters to see if there were any major revisions. The illustration of Grumper in the RT shows a perfectly normal bad guy. That being said, if you can get past those issues, The Mystery of the Tolling Bell is a good mystery.

If Nancy, Bess and George had to drive a long way to get to the seaside resort, how is it that Ned just happens to be in the area? In the early OTs, Emerson College is some distance from River Heights, so that might make sense. In the RT, Ned happens to be in the same seaside town selling insurance to some of his parents’ friends. (selling insurance is one of several summer jobs Ned has in the series). But Carson Drew is going to fly to this town from New York. In the OTs, River Heights is supposedly in Iowa, then later Ohio because that’s where ghostwriter Mildred Wirt Benson lived. In the RTs, River Heights seems to be in New Jersey or upstate New York, because that’s where publisher and ghostwriter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams lived. In either case, Ned’s appearance is odd but ultimately needed, because he needs to save George and Nancy and help rescue Carson.

I laughed a little when Nancy, Bess, and George think it would be “fun” to wait on tables at the Salsandee restaurant. I’m not sure where Nancy and the girls got the necessary skills to wait on tables in their privileged lives. Waiting tables is not as easy as it looks, and many waiters and waitresses would not necessarily call it fun. It’s a job. But it’s no surprise Nancy is good at it, because she seems to be good at everything, and picks up a mystery of a missing bell through her waiting on an elderly man. Which reminds me, there’s quite an info dump on the history of bells and bell-making in the story. I always appreciate when children’s fiction authors weave some factual information into a story so kids learn as well as be entertained.

Most Nancy Drew fans seem to prefer the OTs to the RTs, but the RTs are what I grew up with. This is my first time reading the OT and I have to say, while the writing overall is better, there’s so much extraneous “stuff” jammed into the story that this former journalist wants the writer to get to the point. For instance, in the OT, Bess bitches and moans about how they’re going to a seaside resort town and how much she hates seafood. For a couple of pages, Bess just can’t seem to express enough how much she’d prefer a burger over yucky fish (I have to agree; hate seafood. I’m always starving on Fridays during Lent because of it). However, in the RT, that whole scene is taken out, and the girls just dine at an Inn where they served puffed shrimp and other seafood delicacies. Some say that the writing of the RTs is “choppy” because all the extraneous stuff is taken out, but I seem to prefer the more succinct RTs because of it. When I read adult fiction, my eyes glaze over at long descriptions of settings.

What on earth is the mysterious sweet smelling liquid or fumes that makes people pass out and hallucinate? Nancy is drugged with it, Carson is drugged with it when a lady sharing a cab spills some onto his lapel (I’m trying to picture how this could actually happen), Nancy is almost drugged with it again, George is partially drugged with it but she realizes what it is and gets out of the room before she succumbs. That’s some smart villains, who seem to be immune to the poison themselves.

Let’s not forget that George, ever the clutz while constantly being described as athletic, twists her ankle at one point. And she and Nancy are nearly drowned when water comes rushing through the cave they are in. George hurts her arm and finds it hard to swim, so the ever-timid Bess has to save her.

There’s plenty of sleuthing going on in The Mystery of the Tolling Bell, not the least of which is rescuing Carson Drew from some shady kidnappers who have him holed up at a seedy hotel. There’s also the exploration of the cave where the mysterious tolling bell is, and the abandoned cabin on top of the cliff above the cave. Nancy and Ned end up finding the Tolling Bell in the cave, and somehow, without tools, Nancy is able to just grab the bell and take it out of it’s spot amongst the rocks.

This is one of the better Nancy Drew books I’ve read. Even though I pick things apart sometimes, it’s only because as an adult I notice things I never picked up on as a child. Nancy Drew is still a fictional hero, along with her family and friends.

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