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The Curious Case of the Girl Detective
Whether finding lost wills or hidden staircases, teen sleuth Nancy Drew rides a wave of nostalgia / BY Nathalie Atkinson / September 24th, 2020
Back in January, Dynamite comics announced a new five-part limited series to mark the teen sleuth’s 90th anniversary. The controversy that erupted around Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys: The Death of Nancy Drew is a testament to just how protective we are of the fictional character nearly a century after her creation.
From the comic’s title and scant plot synopsis (Frank and Joe investigate her death), the outrage machine presumed that Nancy was being “fridged,” a tired trope in which a female character is harmed to further the story arc of male characters. Original release dates were pushed back, and there were further distributor delays due to the coronavirus. Having now read most of the mini-series (issue No. 4 landed last week), I can assure you this is just another scrape the girl detective has handily escaped.
Turns out (spoiler alert!), it was all part of a plan to foil a local crime syndicate and for the publisher, Dynamite Entertainment, to get series creator Edward Stratemeyer’s gang back together. (Yes, the Dana girls and Bobbsey twins are all grown up and in on the action, too.)
We should have known: whether finding lost wills or hidden staircases, Nancy’s fictional universe is one where corruption is obvious and justice is always served.
Nancy Drew Redux
Like other throwbacks Riverdale, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Katy Keene, Nancy is back on the case on the small screen, revived in a reboot on The CW that likewise puts an eerie and noirish adult gloss on the nostalgic juvenilia of previous generations.
Nancy Drew was the final creation of Stratemeyer, who dreamed up the girl detective for his empire of young-adult mysteries in 1929, a year before his death. His highly successful publishing syndicate had already created the popular Tom Swift, Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys and had even previously ventured into mass-market girls adventure fiction with The Motor Girls in 1910. The Secret of the Old Clock and three more in the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories debuted April 28, 1930, and have resonated with fans ever since.
It’s now a matter of record that Haileybury, Ont.’s own Leslie McFarlane (an Oscar-nominated documentary maker and the father of sportscaster Brian McFarlane) authored 19 of the early Hardy Boys books as Franklin W. Dixon.
With Nancy, it was Iowa journalist Mildred Wirt Benson who wrote 23 of the original 30 books during a 58-year career as a newspaper reporter; Benson was still working as a columnist until her death at age 96. As the original ghostwriter under the house pseudonym Carolyn Keene, she was celebrated late in life because the writing mill’s early contracts stipulated confidentiality, and public acknowledgement of her work only came about in the late 1970s when she testified in a copyright court case.
Since 1980, there have been other iterations like The Nancy Drew Files, The Nancy Drew Diaries for older readers, with other variations aimed at young children and middle schoolers, not to mention graphic novels and even interactive games. According to publisher Penguin Random House, the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories have sold more than 70 million copies and been translated into 26 languages. (In France, for example, she’s known as Alice Roy and, on those vintage editions, dresses with stylish élan.)
Reading Nancy Drew today, the declarative and adjective-heavy writing style seems chirpy and stilted. Nancy is often imperious. The setup also reeks of privilege: she has a housekeeper, and the first book’s opening lines extol the blue convertible Nancy’s father, an eminent lawyer, has presented to her on her 18th birthday.
It’s a decidedly suburban, upper-middle class and extremely white milieu of aspirational glamour. Yet that roadster is also what prolific feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun, in her keynote at the 1993 Nancy Drew Conference, claimed was part of why Nancy became a role model for early second-wave feminists. “She can not only back it out of tight places, she can get into it and go anytime she wants. She has freedom and the means to exercise independence and autonomy.”
Here was a young woman who didn’t have to hide the fact that she was smart and whose cases took readers across the U.S. and to far-flung locales like London, Hong Kong, Istanbul and Paris. Although her lens on other cultures often reduced them to stereotypes, she took young girls – who were being raised to be future wives and mothers – on adventures and became a generational role model.
In 1980, for example, fan Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended the splashy 50th birthday party Simon & Schuster threw for Nancy (the party favour was a flashlight, naturally). At the time, the Supreme Court justice was Columbia Law School’s first female tenured faculty member. She told the New York Post she liked the sleuth because “she was adventuresome, daring, and her boyfriend was a much more passive type than she was.” Many women, from Oprah Winfrey to Barbara Walters, were encouraged by Nancy Drew’s confident example and have cited her as an enduring influence: Gayle King has singled out her bravery; even Jane Fonda, during the promotion of her new book on activism, cited Nancy as a formative reading memory.
What’s between the covers now is almost beside the point. Nancy exists as such a powerful idea that there’s comfort even in just seeing the book covers, which are a nostalgia grenade all on their own, specifically, the vintage editions of the 1960s and 1970s in the distinctive livery published by Grosset & Dunlap.
You know the ones: printed on hardcover board, with a silhouette of the sleuth peering through a magnifying glass on its butter-yellow numbered spine. They are well-thumbed by previous generations, left behind at cottages by aunts and cousins and now found most reliably among the hand-knit curling sweaters and Pyrex mixing bowls at flea markets across North America. I sometimes think the distinctive look is a big reason why this particular clever and brave teen sleuth has endured in the popular imagination more than her similar (and often more relatable) peers Trixie Belden, Donna Parker or Cherry Ames.
In these dystopian times, recently compounded by the pandemic and made even more acute by the waning of summer and its (relative) insouciance, the signature covers easily trigger what David Berry might call restorative powers, where we retreat into our memory of ourselves for comfort. With his new book On Nostalgia, Berry, a Canadian culture writer, posits that nostalgia is a more prominent and more powerful force now than it has ever been. A medical researcher coined the term in 1688 to describe a malady in Swiss youth who had been sent abroad (it literally means “pain associated with home”).
Acting on a hunch, over the summer I tested the theory. I posted a photograph of an incomplete vintage set on Instagram with the caption “The Mystery of the Elusive Number Sixteen” and was soon flooded with messages from friends and strangers alike. Their reminiscences ranged from the smell of the pages to their favourite titles to regret at having parted with their childhood collections. Not to read them, of course, but to escape reality for a few minutes and remember that brief time when staying up late to finish a book while hiding a light under the covers was our most pressing concern.