Nancy Drew has starred in movies, TV shows, computer games, and comics—but it all started with Nancy Drew books. Fifty-six books, to be exact, published from 1930 to 1979 by Grosset & Dunlap and written by many authors under the pen name Carolyn Keene. New Nancy Drew books were published after 1979, including multiple spin-off series, but they had different publishers, creating a dividing line between the first 56 and all the rest.
I must confess: the PC games were a bigger part of my childhood than the Nancy Drew books. I owned them all, but I don’t remember how many I actually read. Recently, while cleaning out the attic, I spotted 56 bright yellow spines, still in good condition, glowing on a dusty shelf. And since I’ve had Nancy Drew books on the brain lately, I decided that I would read my way through the entire collection and tell you nice readers all about them.
And so, without further ado (a-Drew?), I present to you the complete and indisputable ranking of all 56 original Nancy Drew adventures, from worst to best.
The Best Nancy Drew Books (and the Worst)
56. The Clue in the Old Album (#24)
Wow. This one has rampant racism AND an unforgettably ludicrous villain plot. I didn’t think a Nancy Drew book would make me want to hurl a cactus at someone, but here we are.
55. The Haunted Showboat (#35)
In addition to stealing all their black characters from Gone with the Wind, this book has astoundingly bad pacing.
54. The Mystery of the Ivory Charm (#13)
What kind of racist Dickensian nonsense is this.
53. The Spider Sapphire Mystery (#45)
File this under Most Disappointing. An exciting start gives way to padding and so, so much racism.
52. The Secret of the Forgotten City (#52)
This book deserves to be forgotten too. Sloppy sleuthing and sloppy editing combine into one mess of a mystery.
51. Nancy’s Mysterious Letter (#8)
This one’s dull enough that it gets distracted by Ned’s football game three quarters of the way through.
50. The Strange Message in the Parchment (#54)
Nancy, stop kidnapping children and go get the cops already.
49. The Secret of the Golden Pavilion (#36)
How do you make a tour of the Hawaiian islands this boring? By using it as padding in your weak, weak mystery.
48. Mystery at the Ski Jump (#29)
If you want tips on how to ski or start a mink farm, this is the book for you.
47. The Mysterious Mannequin (#47)
Mysteries aren’t supposed to put you to sleep.
46. The Witch Tree Symbol (#33)
I think they spent too much time faffing about in Amish country and not enough time building up the mystery. A lot got crammed into the last five or so chapters.
45. The Haunted Bridge (#15)
If they had dropped the bridge on the dude creeping on Nancy, I’d rank this higher.
44. The Thirteenth Pearl (#56)
Not the weakest note for Nancy to go out on, but certainly not the strongest. Also Nancy pretends to be Japanese for zero reason.
43. The Invisible Intruder (#46)
This is not a mystery, it’s five mysteries in a trench coat, and I think they forgot to solve one of them…
42. Mystery of the Glowing Eye (#51)
I struggled with where to place this one. Such a promising story, but it could have been solved so easily if Ned wasn’t a nitwit.
41. The Ringmaster’s Secret (#31)
Ivory Charm: The Redux, this time without the racism and mystical weirdness.
40. The Sky Phantom (#53)
Why would you ever fly through a magnetized cloud on purpose. WHY, NANCY.
39. The Double Jinx Mystery (#50)
For the most part solid, but oh, that last chapter comes RIGHT out of nowhere and slaps you with the stupid stick.
38. The Clue of the Black Keys (#28)
Some of the plot points come out of thin air and the ending felt rushed. Nancy yodels, though.
37. The Secret in the Old Attic (#21)
Some good creepy moments, but the plot relies on everyone being a complete dink.
36. The Clue in the Diary (#7)
This one feels like the writer wanted to try a different sort of plot but got hamstrung by the Checklist of Things That Must Appear in a Nancy Drew Book (which was chucked soon afterward, thankfully).
35. The Clue in the Old Stagecoach (#36)
In which we discover that Nancy and Ned have an open relationship. Either that or she cheated on him.
34. The Secret of Mirror Bay (#49)
They blinded Nancy with science, kinda.
33. The Clue in the Crumbling Wall (#22)
Yet another “save an inheritance for this nice lady and her cutesy kid” story, now with more ableism!
32. Mystery of the Brass-Bound Trunk (#17)
Both Nancy and the editor were a little sloppy today.
31. The Whispering Statue (#14)
The climax was neat, but the plot and the villain felt pretty weak.
30. The Bungalow Mystery (#3)
The themes are very similar to The Secret of the Old Clock, but for some reason I just wasn’t feeling this one.
29. The Clue of the Velvet Mask (#30)
It’s fine, I guess? Aside from George being traumatized, nothing about this one really stood out to me.
28. The Clue in the Jewel Box (#20)
As far as Anastasia knockoffs go, this one is solid, but a bit slapdash towards the end.
27. The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes (#41)
I feel like this could have been put together better somehow? Like they pick up a Scottish girl as a guide, and you can pretty much tell the exact moment she becomes superfluous but they don’t know how to get rid of her.
26. The Clue of the Broken Locket (#11)
Needs more ghost boat.
25. The Message in the Hollow Oak (#12)
Love the plot idea, but it depends on padding to provide extra excitement and for crying out loud, Nancy, STOP desecrating Native American burial sites, GEEZ.
24. The Mystery of the 99 Steps (#43)
Please…stop with the racism…I beg you…
23. The Secret of the Old Clock (#1)
A bit slow compared to some future stories, but good first impression.
22. The Scarlet Slipper Mystery (#32)
Lots of twists and turns in this one, so it keeps you guessing.
21. Mystery of Crocodile Island (#55)
*blares “Crocodile Rock” really loudly*
20. The Mystery of the Fire Dragon (#38)
I want to love this one, but was the yellowface necessary?
19. The Sign of the Twisted Candles (#9)
Any story where someone pulls a sword out of the wall is a good story.
18. The Secret of the Wooden Lady (#27)
Not bad at all, though Nancy makes some weird conclusion hops in this one. Also loses points for wanton lizard murder.
17. The Phantom of Pine Hill (#42)
I thought the villain was really clever and I loved Bess’s role in the climax. Now if only Ned would stop making fun of Native Americans.
16. The Ghost of Blackwood Hall (#25)
Stories with hypnosis as a plot point aren’t really my thing, but if you’re into it, this is a good’un.
15. The Hidden Window Mystery (#34)
Starts like a ripoff of Nancy’s Mysterious Letter, but then it just does its own thing, thankfully.
14. The Clue of the Tapping Heels (#16)
SAVE THOSE KITTIES.
13. The Clue of the Dancing Puppet (#39)
A delightfully daffy adventure about a theater troupe being haunted by a ballerina animatronic.
12. The Clue of the Leaning Chimney (#26)
This one is intriguing and not as racist as I thought it was going to be!
11. The Secret of Red Gate Farm (#6)
Combines plot elements from The Hidden Staircase with all the fun of cults and old-timey racism.
10. The Crooked Banister (#48)
I’m rating this one so high based on the strength of the shenanigans. There’s a murder bot AND a fire moat.
9. The Moonstone Castle Mystery (#40)
This is a waaay darker version of the prototypical “save the inheritance” mysteries.
8. Mystery of the Moss-Covered Mansion (#17)
Florida Man Tries to Blow Up Rocket with Exploding Oranges, Is Stopped by Vacationing Teenager
7. The Secret of Shadow Ranch (#5)
Good plot, and it introduces Bess and George, but loses points for racism.
6. The Clue in the Crossword Cipher (#44)
Kinda racist, yes, but if you can get past that, this one is more intense than your average ND mystery and makes good use of its location.
5. The Hidden Staircase (#2)
Good old-fashioned haunted house fun with some kidnapping and crossdressing thrown in.
4. Mystery of the Tolling Bell (#23)
I loooove the set-up for this one. So much excitement and suspense to be had!
3. The Mystery at Lilac Inn (#4)
Bombs! Sharks! A Nancy Drew impersonator! What more could you want?
2. The Quest of the Missing Map (#19)
Haunted houses, hidden treasure, and twisty family histories make this one a real treat.
1. Password to Larkspur Lane (#9)
Arthur Conan Doyle’s fingerprints are all over this one, but it’s still got that distinctive flair of the best Nancy Drew books! With so much suspense and an ending worthy of an action film, this is truly Nancy at her finest.