Mystery-wise, The Secret of Shadow Ranch is ridiculously similar to Book Four. Someone wants to scare away the inhabitants of Shadow Ranch, so the baddies commit minor acts of vandalism and rig up a phantom horse. But wait, there’s more! Nancy also promises to look into a six-month old missing persons case AND a bank robbery to solve AND a generations-old treasure to find.
Similarities aside, there are quite a few firsts in this book. The major one being that this is the first time we meet Bess Marvin and George Fayne, Nancy’s "best friends" with whom she's "shared many exciting adventures" with... even though we've never heard of them.
This says all you really need to know about the trio’s dynamics:
George insisted on collecting Nancy’s suitcases at the baggage-claim section. "But save the mystery until I come back!" George said and hastened off. Bess led Nancy toward an attractive sandwich shop in the air terminal.
George is always 'hastening off' to do something, whether it be fetching luggage, bringing the car around, or lugging pails of water. You know. The man-stuff. Because tomboys love to do chores.
She also looooves the boys. Nancy tells Bess about the sweater she's knitting for her father and Bess responds:
"He'll love it. Not to change the subject, but there are some handsome cowboys at the ranch."
This is also the first mystery away from the River Heights area. In it, we learn that Nancy can knit, that she's an excellent equestrian and that she knows how to deal with scary dogs. She also knows a whole lot about life on an Old West ranch and is able to reconstruct events from 1880 to find the treasure. She knows how to react in a sandstorm, can identify a snake's rattler (not attached) at a glance, what to do when a car overheats, has strong orienteering skills and puts knowledge learned in chemistry class to good use. She also courageously stops a robbery in progress, deduces that the sabotage must be an inside job because the guard dogs don't bark, leads Bess (on horseback) through a raging flood and finds a secret passageway.
The Car in the Desert Incident revealed an interesting fact – when the Stratemeyer Syndicate has to choose between Nancy’s Know-How and High Drama, they went with the drama. Nancy knew enough to check the radiator when the car overheated, but not enough to wait for it to cool off a bit before unscrewing the cap. Luckily, when the boiling water fountained out, George was there to take the hit for her. (That isn't to say that our heroine doesn't take knocks, too -- later, Nancy is romantically thrown from a horse and briefly blacks out.)
For the most part, the baddies in Book Five were the same as usual.
If you want a job as a bad guy in a Nancy Drew book, crabbiness and a bad attitude are a must. It also helps if you're a braggart, have bad penmanship and have a short temper. It's also a plus if you spill everything the moment you have the Good Guys tied up.
Being completely illogical helps, too:
On page SIX, before the girls have even LEFT the AIRPORT, a man very obviously eavesdrops on them, then swipes Nancy's purse and leaves a threatening message in their car. Considering that the baddies are trying to convince the people at the ranch that the ranch is HAUNTED, it's kind of a bad move to pull such a non-paranormal stunt. Nancy's fame must be great indeed if the crooks in Arizona are concerned that she's on the case.
Another First: There is a crabby cowboy who was ALSO smart and handsome! What to think there? Can Dave Gregory possibly a Good Guy, despite his bad manners? Or is he a Bad Guy despite his good looks??
The last major First is the introduction of Ned Nickerson as Nancy’s boyfriend. He doesn’t make an actual appearance, as he’s in (shocker) Europe, but you'd think that his existence would put Nancy in a bit of a romantic quandary, considering she goes a bit flirtastic with Dave Gregory, the mysterious-maybe-bad-but-handsome cowboy. Nope.:
When he was out of earshot, Alice said, "As for you, Nancy, he's really flipped!"
"And what'll poor Ned do?" George teased.
Nancy grinned. "We'll be home by the time he gets back from Europe."
Next Up: The Secret of Red Gate Farm
PS. This is unrelated to the story itself, but check out the inscription that I found when I opened the book (which I bought from the library booksale):
Easter Sunday 1970
With the hope this book is but one of the many pleasures reading will bring you