Nancy Drew Mysteries: Revisiting Her Books as an Adult
Believe it or not, but last month marked the 85th anniversary since the first Nancy Drew book was published. Can it be that this series came alive in 1930?
I read the books back in the ‘70s when I was a girl, yet I don’t remember them feeling as if they were 40 years old back then. How cutting-edge Nancy must have been to her early readers as she zoomed around in her sporty convertible, changing out lacerated tires by herself like a boss.
Before I wax rhapsodic, let me first apologize in advance to those of you who have never read a single Nancy Drew book.
I’m sorry that this post may not speak to you.
I’m also sorry that you never had the joy of reading one of these books as a child.
We were big readers in my family. At any given moment, you could most likely find at least one of us with our nose buried in a book.
Books were an escape. They were a means of experiencing distant lands and cultures, hearing about alternative ideas, and learning new, intriguing words. They were a source of happiness.
Despite our room being short on space, my sister and I had a whole section of our bookshelf dedicated to our yellow-spined Nancy Drew favorites. I remember spending entire blissful weekend days lying on my bed reading this series until my eyes crossed. I’d snuggle in with a new hardbound caper, crack the spine, and immerse myself in another world filled with what I thought at the time was sophisticated intrigue.
Still, after all of these years, author Carolyn Keene’s characters live in my memory. They’ll always have a home there.
Truth be told, Carolyn Keene is really just a pseudonym for every author who has written a Nancy Drew book. The idea for the series actually came from a man who was an author and publisher, Edward Stratemeyer. Edward then hired an aspiring author, a young grad. student named Mildred Wirt Benson, to write the first Nancy Drew book, “The Secret of the Old Clock.” Benson would eventually pen 23 of the first 30 books in the series, while the remaining stories were written by various other authors. It seems that there were 56 books in the original series, which was published between 1930 and 1979, with “The Secret of Shadow Ranch” being the most popular, in part, because it’s the book where we first meet Nancy’s favorite sidekicks, Bess and George. Since that time, over 500 books have been published under the Nancy Drew name, and the series is still going strong.
Take a gander at how the covers looked when they were first published. Nancy and her friends are rocking those perms and head-to-toe dresses like much more dapper, 1930’s versions of those Duggar women in the news today.
Photo courtesy of: tabletmag.com
I recall Bess, the pudgy one, always looking for a snack, hesitant to get involved in the espionage scene lest she twist an ankle or break a nail; George, the athletic tomboy, ready to go at it with anyone who merely looked at her the wrong way; and Nancy, the wise, calm, perfect child, a born leader yet often not the most intuitive when it came to knowing who to trust: somewhat of an inconvenient trait if you’re a “girl detective” by trade.
These chicks regularly ate things like club sandwiches and bowls of tomato soup for their frequent “luncheons.” As a 10-year-old reader, I remember being completely put out that we never once had “luncheon,” nor did we ever play a “round of tennis at the club”, nor have our nonexistent housekeeper, Hannah, pack a picnic for an afternoon ride on a boat that we also didn’t own.
When it comes down to it, I guess we just weren’t nearly as posh as Nancy and her buddies. Not by a long shot.
The mysteries that still stand out in my fading memory are: The “Clue of the Broken Locket”, “The Password to Larkspur Lane” and “The Secret of the Old Clock”.
Since there’s been a lot of hype surrounding this 85th anniversary lately, I had a real hankering to read one of her many adventures once more, this time as a seasoned adult. I was curious to see if the fascination I used to feel as a girl when reading a Nancy Drew mystery could be revisited.
Thus, I went to Barnes and Noble and scanned the options, feeling like a kid in a candy store. How could I possibly select only one out of the array of yellow-bound gems displayed in front of me?
I pulled out a few favorites, remembering the cover photos like I had first seen them just yesterday. There was Nancy squatting down in her pencil skirt, naturally, and long-sleeved blouse buttoned up to her chin, wielding her flashlight to highlight whatever evil lurked ahead.
Eventually I settled on a “two-fer”, that is, a two for one deal including the first book of the series, “The Secret of the Old Clock”, and “The Hidden Staircase,” and brought it home to savor with a cup of coffee, my old lady progressive glasses, and a promise of heart-warming familiarity that, as juvenile as it sounds, had me more excited about beginning a book than any I’ve begun in the last decade.
I opened the hardcover and the memories came flooding back, but this time, as seen through very different eyes.
There she was, my childhood hero at my fingertips once again. She sleuthed a little, shopped a little, lunched a little, ran a few errands for her father, attorney Carson Drew, and did a good deed or two for good measure. She hopped in her car, and I, her giddy passenger, was jazzed to go along for the ride.
However, despite my best efforts to quiet her, the pragmatic adult in me kept butting in.
“Uh huh. Interesting. Nancy has graduated from high school, maybe even college, but she doesn’t seem to work either inside or outside of the home. Does she merely sit around waiting for a new mystery to solve? Is her dad cool with that? Is that all young women were expected to do? What if you weren’t into solving mysteries? What did you do then? Regardless, at least she’s a girl of action – never purposely playing the damsel in distress card. Anyway, let’s continue.”
Okay, here we go. Nancy has run into her first folks in peril. Certainly this is where the fun will begin!
“Seriously? She saves a little girl from certain death, meets the girl’s soon-to-be-destitute spinster aunts for the first time, and then goes in their house with them to eat “refreshments” for the better part of an hour, during which time she vows to right all of the wrongs that they have suffered throughout their lives?! Dude should be wearing a super hero cape. People today would merely call 911, take photos of the girl on their iPhones, and then drive on to grab a mango smoothie at Jamba Juice.”
Time and again my jaded adult self called BS on the story line and characters. It was just too difficult to reconcile the obsolete passages with today’s world.
“Right. So it starts to rain while she’s driving with the top down, meaning she, naturally, would drive straight into someone else’s open barn to take cover, not giving a thought as to how many cows she’ll mangle and the ground beef she’ll create in the process. Then she meets the farm residents, two lone teenage girls of course, changes into one of their robes, and eats celebratory birthday cake with virtual strangers. Sounds plausible.”
“Everybody and their brother wants to feed the poor girl. For the love of god, put the fork down, and find the damn clock already.”
Frankly, Nancy was hopelessly dated. Instead of picking up her cell phone to call the police, she hopped in her car and headed to the station. Instead of GPS or even an address, she remembered that the entrance to the “homestead” was just “beyond the gnarled, old oak tree.” And instead of paved roads, hers were made of mud: excellent for tracking the progress of would-be crooks. Perhaps not so much, though, after a downpour, for any vehicle other than a monster truck SUV.
On top of which, everything was so darn proper: flu was influenza, people talking smack about others were said to have made “a great deal of unfavorable comments”, queer meant odd, gay meant happy, and a nice guy was “a gentleman who had a kindly manner.” What’s more, the version I was reading had already been “modernized”!
I hate to say it, but it was all a bit too much to take.
I had craved that same sense of childhood elation, excitement, and engagement where I couldn’t wait to turn the next page. Instead, every few minutes I found myself checking and rechecking how much more I had to go until the end of the chapter, and the end of the book. Reading the stilted words had become much more of a chore than a delight.
At long last I completed the book and shut it with a sigh as well as commingled feelings of longing, and gratitude.
That familiar sense of elation I had felt so many years ago was irretrievably gone.
But, you know what? This is what I’m going to focus on:
I’ll be forever grateful for the joy the series afforded me as a child and hope that more children are positively impacted by it still in the future.
I’ll be forever grateful that Nancy Drew taught me that girls can take the lead just as effectively as boys.
And I’ll be forever grateful that I didn’t guilt myself into reading the second book in this back-to-back “two-fer.”
Anybody want my copy?
Leave me a clue if you do.
Were you a Nancy Drew fan? What are your most cherished memories? Have you read any of her books as an adult?