Nancy DrewTeenage Supersleuth

I think it is not overstating the case to maintain that the original Nancy Drew is a mythic character in the psyches of American women who followed her adventures as they were growing up. She may have been Superman, Batman and Green Hornet, all wrapped up in a pretty girl in a blue convertible.
—Nancy Pickard, author of the Jenny Cain mystery series

The stylish sleuth on Applewood Books’ 1991 reissue of The Secret of the Old Clock.Nancy Drew, fictional superstar of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, routinely chases bad guys over snowy fields, down Scottish cliffs and through the dead of night. Wildcats attack her, ceilings collapse on her and she is tied up aboard a sinking ship. Does Nancy panic? Nope, the pretty teenager takes endless assaults, but her fashionable clothing and sporty car are always intact by the end of the book. Her persistence is only matched by her intelligence as she uncovers clues and unearths treasures adults have missed.

 The Case of the Supersleuth

Assertive, smart, fearless, flawless, Nancy Drew burst onto the scene at the dawn of the Great Depression and became a role model for girls entering adolescence in a society radically different from their mothers’. This was the first generation of American women born with the right to vote, the first where a majority would go to high school, the first to have role models like Amelia Earhart making front-page news. These girls embraced the independent Nancy. The famous orange-silhouette endpapers appeared in the early books.For the first time, a girls’ series outshone the boys’: By 1938, sales of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories were almost twice those of her publisher’s series for boys, The Hardy Boys.

What was the secret of Nancy’s success? Part modern woman, part fantasy, she was wealthy, attractive and accomplished, but above all, ambitious. She broke from the mold not by defying societal conventions, but by ignoring them altogether. It never occurs to Nancy that dangerous detective work might be an odd hobby for a young woman. Instead, she captures a variety of criminals and villains between luncheons, teas and conversations with her handsome father, Carson Drew.

The quick pace of the prose mirrors Nancy’s extraordinary level of activity. There’s no time to waste as Nancy pursues suspects, explores hidden passages, picks locks and pilots planes. Even when she drives, she speeds. Nancy travels around the world, her investigations offering readers insights into history and sociology. Action, mystery and a dose of education; those are the hallmarks of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories.

 The Secret of the Scribe

Author Mildred A. Wirt Benson holds up one of her books at a 2001 event.Executed by several different writers under the pseudonym of Carolyn Keene, the authorship of the original books was a mystery for decades. (Even today, the books continue to be credited to Carolyn Keene, who has a 75-year publishing career under her mythical belt.) The concept for the series first came from Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the juvenile-publishing juggernaut Stratemeyer Syndicate. He sketched outlines for the first several stories and then made his most important decision: hiring Mildred A. Wirt Benson to write the three “breeder” books that launched the series in 1930.

Benson created a heroine who believed she could do anything and never gave up. Someone, in fact, much like Benson herself. An award-winning newspaper reporter, Benson wrote more than 130 books (23 of which were Nancy Drew mysteries) and lived as many adventures as her heroines. She earned the University of Iowa’s first master’s degree in journalism, flew planes and traveled the globe.

Benson often went head-to-head with Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, the boss’s daughter, over Nancy’s characterization. Adams wanted a more conventional heroine and gradually took over most of the writing. Finally, starting in 1959, she substantially revised or rewrote all of Benson’s novels.

 The Hidden Agenda

The rewriting of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories was designed to “modernize” the sleuth-and combat slipping sales. The revisions excised the casual racism and xenophobia that marred early novels, as well as other details that dated the series. But it also reshaped Nancy: She became more respectful of authority, less bold and a lot less sassy. She also became more conventional in terms of gender roles; her male friend Ned, and not Nancy, handled repairs of her roadster in the rewrites.

Time continues to alter Nancy. She has always reflected, if not the actual girls of her day, at least publishers’ notions of what girls want to be. And there’s no arguing with success: In her first 75 years, she’s sold more than 200 million books. Although marriage still isn’t on Nancy’s radar, she spends more time thinking about both her clothes and Ned, who has moved up to full-on boyfriend status. Mysteries have become more fast-paced; always action-packed, the newer, shorter novels have the same danger and intrigue, but less-intricate plotting.

However much Nancy’s older readers may miss the original Nancy, she has never been more popular. In the last 15 years, half a dozen spin-off series have explored everything from a grade-school Nancy to a college-bound one, from solve-it-yourself mysteries to pairings with The Hardy Boys. The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories has even entered the computer age: Thanks to the company Her Interactive, gamers can now search for clues through their heroine’s eyes. There’s no mystery: Nancy Drew is still the girl detective we all want to be.

:: staff

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