You know how a movie or book can be so horrendous that it actually becomes more entertaining than a moderately good offering? To the pantheon of Showgirls and Joanie Loves Chachi, add the audiobook for Nancy’s Mysterious Letter.
The first seven Nancy Drew books were penned by Mildred Wit. Not literature by any means, but solid, classic kid material. And those first seven audio versions were all narrated by the incomparable Laura Linney, who could read a Microsoft user agreement with understated grace. They have been family car trip favorites.
Then book eight, Nancy’s Mysterious Letter.
Back in 1932, the publisher apparently decided, “Why re-hire our writer gal Mildred? Let’s hire Cpt. Walter Karig, who has, up to that point, only written books on World War II naval operations. What could possibly go wrong with letting him take a stab at getting inside the psyche of the teen girl sleuth world?”
It goes without saying that the plot and characterizations are unbelievably bad, but the most bizarre portion is an extended non-sequitur depiction of a meaningless football game, which chews up valuable space that could have been devoted to, say, flushing out a wooden story. But that is only the one example of consistently dreadful writing, several rungs down the ladder. And I didn’t think there was that far to drop in the first place.
What makes this a perfect storm is that in 2004, probably having blown their audio narrator budget for the entire series on retaining Laura Linney, the publishers apparently cast the next narrator from an Open Mic Night, or perhaps a “bring your child to work—and then actually put the child to work—day.” That’s not hyperbole; I listen to a ton of audiobooks—80 last year alone—and this is the absolute worst narration I ever endured.
Mrs. Hannah Gruen, the Drew’s stalwart housekeeper develops a Southern lilt. Even though her last name hints at German, she instead winds up with an, “Oh, my stars, I do declare”-Southern belle accent. You know, like northern Midwestern housekeepers are so famous for. This was my first clue that the book had lost more than just Laura Linney.
Then we meet the old postman, who sounds not like an actual old man, but like Rachel Dratch playing an old man on SNL. The book takes on a skit-like quality at this point. But like the bad skits SNL, shoves to the end of show.
Neighborhood rapscallion Tommy is brought to life as a pre-pubescent James Cagney. It's possible young Tommy even said “a couple a wise guys, ay?”
Cagney was a favorite character for the narrator, as Cousin George also sounded like the actor, if he were female, and chewing on the ham sandwich. Or maybe chipped beef with spring peas, as the past books were so dutiful in informing us.
Next, the stock “pushy broad” comes to the door. The narrator starts with a decent Brooklyn accent, but at points this magically morphs into something akin to Fran Drescher channeling Bostonian Ted Kennedy. The train has by now fully left the rails and is careening, unchecked, down a gulch.
The broad’s husband, aptly named “Sailor Joe,” is portrayed one eye patch and parrot-on-the-shoulder short of full pirate. It’s like the narrator wanted to train for International Talk Like a Pirate Day. But at times Sailor Joe forgets he’s a sailor, like Kevin Costner forgetting to have an English accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
The postal inspector has a hint of a Southern—Southerners apparently are just drawn to River Heights—but of a lower caste than the housekeeper, and with a head cold. Also, Pee Wee Herman seems to have found work voicing Nancy’s boyfriend’s pal, Dave Evans.
Nancy meets Marianne Wilson, an American with that faux British-y, “Transatlantic” accent 1940s actors thought made them sound like serious thespians. Apparently having tapped out her British accent on Wilson, when the Drews call a London solicitor, the narrator has him sounding less British and more Long Island Lockjaw.
Finally, there are the landladies. Nancy visits one who talks like she is breathlessly clutching her pearls and on the verge of tears. Nancy visits another who is Norwegian for a few lines, then American, then a little “da Bears” Chicago. I kept hoping more characters would appear, just so we could see what else the narrator could concoct.