I read everything, but I’m always drawn to mysteries. My first detective hero was Nancy Drew.
How could one not look up to her after reading her bio? Says writer Bobbie Ann Mason, “At sixteen she [Nancy] ‘had studied psychology in school, and was familiar with the power of suggestion and association.’ Nancy was a fine painter, spoke French, and had frequently run motor boats. She was a driver who at sixteen ‘flashed into the garage with a skill born of long practice.’ The prodigy was a sure shot, an excellent swimmer, skillful oarsman, expert seamstress, gourmet cook, and a fine bridge player.”
Details I remember: she owned a roadster (an open-top car with two seats), was very independent, and never seemed to lack money. Sometimes her lawyer father asked for her help on his cases. The latter does suggest I was quite gullible as a child, but then most of her readers probably were.
Nancy didn’t stay too long in my pantheon of heroes. By the time I was her age, I’d replaced her with American Bandstand stars. But she reigned for at least four years.
According to Wikipedia, Nancy had many devotees including Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former First Lady Barbara Bush.
I don’t know how many Nancy Drew novels I read. The first one was published in 1930. I started reading them in the 1950’s and by the end of that decade there were thirty-six. At the time, I admired the books’ author, Carolyn Keene, but found out much later that Carolyn Keene didn’t exist. The Hardy Boys series publisher Edward Stratemeyer wrote the outlines of the books and hired writers who all wrote under the name of Carolyn Keene. There were seven different ghost writers, sometimes co-ghost writers, and at least two were men. With such a stable of writers, the Nancy Drew books just kept coming. By 2001, the total was one hundred seventy-five.
This week, I checked out Nancy Drew book number two, The Hidden Staircase, from the library. Its first copyright date was 1930. I expected it to be poorly written and a dreadful read. It wasn’t, just a slow one. And that was probably why Nancy’s investigations didn’t cause nightmares in her young readers.
Carolyn Keene loved her, I mean his, no, their adverbs. This is not about gender fluidity, only the mix of folks who wrote the books. (This passion for adverbs is not a love most writing teachers share. In fact, an instructor I had for two years forbade them. She had the same distaste for exclamation marks.) In Nancy’s life many events happen suddenly. Characters are extremely frightened. In half a page Nancy speaks of waking up instantly, crawling into bed noiselessly, and immediately asking someone for details. Characters speak sleepily, sometimes laughingly and watch hopefully.
The moments of tension also are very short. A truck without a driver flies toward her and her father, lands in a lake and in three short paragraphs they dive into the water and “come back to the shore,” where Nancy begins an immediate search for footprints. No trauma at nearly losing their lives, only disappointment over the damage to Nancy’s pump shoes.
Compared to contemporary sleuths, Nancy is rarely in a hurry. Someone is in danger but she’ll think about the situation over dinner, maybe overnight. These rest periods help stretch out the thrills to just under two hundred pages.
In a more modern age and with new writers Nancy changes. She becomes less of a daredevil. “Nancy said sweetly,” and “Nancy said kindly” did not appear in earlier books but become more common later. Over time, she kowtows more to men, and enjoys shopping and romance more than sleuthing. “Nancy also becomes more vulnerable, being often chloroformed into unconsciousness, or defenseless against chokeholds.”
From these descriptions, I’m glad I grew up with the slower acting, yet bolder Nancy Drew and happy I’ve never lost my love for mysteries.