Nancy Drew knows all. She knows, at the age of 18, more than anyone else who has ever or will ever live. She can scuba dive, perform advanced mechanical repairs on her blue convertible, and knit charming sweaters for her father. She speaks at least four languages fluently, including, of course, both rare French and Spanish dialects. She grows prize-winning flowers, can diagnose and treat most injuries and illnesses, and is an expert on pigeon homing techniques. She can tap dance (sometimes, she can even tap dance in Morse code), square dance, ballroom dance, and is so good at ballet dancing that she is offered a spot in a professional company. Of course, she has to turn down the ballet gig; she’s too busy with her entirely volunteer sleuthing career.
She has also been quite busy preparing for her seventh big screen appearance. On March 15th, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase will hit theaters, exposing a whole new generation of young women to Nancy’s charmingly overwhelming competence. I will, of course, be seeing the film on opening night, even though I am always underwhelmed by Nancy’s on-screen depictions. They tend to make her younger (Nancy will be demoted to high school student in The Hidden Staircase), and more modern (in the 2010s version of the Nancy Drew books, Nancy drives a hybrid and uses a cell phone). But the best thing about Nancy is her quaintness, the window she opens into the lives of our mothers and grandmothers. Nancy may be a master mechanic, but she performs her repairs in impeccable pleated skirts. She knows how to do everything, and she knows how to do it while remaining unimpeachably ladylike. I do not want a Nancy Drew I can relate to. I want a Nancy Drew I can aspire to.
I am nearly twice Nancy’s age, and I can’t do any of the things she can. Sometimes I struggle to pump my own gas, and I have never so much as changed my own oil. I speak about 20 words of Yiddish, 10 of Spanish, and three of French (c’est la vie). I kill flowers, hate birds, and once sprained my back trying to dance. On one thing, though, I do relate; the next time I am offered a professional ballet gig, I too will have to decline. I am too busy spending time with Nancy.
Nancy knows about everything, and I know everything about her. I was an early and voracious reader, and the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories filled a large part of my elementary school home library. I loved the look of all of the yellow spines lined up next to another on my bookshelf. Unlike Nancy, who’s mother died when she was three, I had a mom, and my mom had read Nancy Drew when she was my age. She was delighted to help me build my collection.
Eventually, I had all 56 of the original, yellow hardback Nancy Drew books. From The Secret of the Old Clock to The Thirteenth Pearl, I went with Nancy everywhere she went: her vaguely located hometown of River Heights (it’s near a river, and somehow only a three hour drive from Chicago, Upstate New York, and Dutch Country Pennsylvania), New York City (where she regularly visited her spinster Aunt Eloise), Emerson College (where her sort-of boyfriend Ned Nickerson was the star quarterback, and evidently triple majored in archaeology, engineering, and chemistry), and more exotic locales like Turkey (that’s where the mysterious mannequin in The Case of the Mysterious Mannequin ended up), Japan (Nancy had to dress up like a Japanese girl to crack the case of The Thirteenth Pearl), and Scotland (Nancy is, by the way, descended from Scottish royalty, which comes in handy during The Case of the Whistling Bagpipes). Years passed in my own life — I started reading Nancy Drew when I was seven, and I am still reading the books now, 25 years later — but time did not pass at all for Nancy, who remained and remains eternally 18 years old.
Time did, of course, pass over the course of the books’ publications. The Secret of the Old Clock, volume one in The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, was first published in 1930; The Thirteenth Pearl, the final of the original 56 volumes, was published in 1979. Starting in 1959, the earlier volumes were revised, and it is those revised copies that I fell in love with. I don’t recommend the originals, which is a bit of a rogue opinion amongst us serious Drew fans — many feel that the unrevised, original Nancy is a bit more cheeky and unapologetic, but the original Nancy also occasionally asks Ned if he’s seen any “darkies” around who might be up to no good.
The revised books solve the series’s casual racism by making the villains all white. We know they’re villains because they’re dressed garishly, or look “shifty.” We also know they’re villains because they’re poor; Nancy is a volunteer detective because she’s so well-to-do that it would be inappropriate for her to work. No, there will be none of that career-girl nonsense for Nancy; her internationally famous attorney father, Carson Drew, is all for her sleuthing, but it’s understood that it’s a way for her to pass the time until she marries and moves from his stately brick home to one she will share with her archaeologist-engineer-chemist husband and their lovely children, a fate she staves off by cleverly remaining 18. Nancy uses her unmatched intelligence and skill to help other equally well-to-do and well-behaved white people: she tracks down lost family fortunes, or helps business owners prove their properties aren’t haunted, or saves unsuspecting sweet young women from “pay-for-husband” mail schemes.
Seven-year-old me didn’t spend that much time analyzing the socio-political world of Nancy Drew. What hooked me then, and what continues to drive me back to Nancy, was how indestructible she was, how easily she moved in the world. Nancy Drew seemed to be a guide book to life. I understood, more or less, that I likely wouldn’t often be tasked with finding secret passageways in my day to day life, though that didn’t stop me from searching my own house for them using Nancy’s techniques, tapping every square inch of wall space listening for “hollow sounds” and running my hands along the floors hoping to feel a “well-concealed trap-door.” But I knew, even then, that there were a lot of rules about how a girl was supposed to exist in the world, and I knew that Nancy knew those rules, had made them her own, was winning the game.
Nancy Drew was conceived of by a man — Edward Stratemeyer, who also conceived of and published, through his company The Stratemeyer Syndicate, The Hardy Boys, The Bobsey Twins, and Tom Swift. He had a knack for serialization, and employed an army of ghostwriters, enabling him to turn out new volumes in his series quickly. Nancy Drew’s ghostwriters were women, and, eventually, his daughter, Harriet Adams Stratemeyer, took over much of the writing of the series herself. While it would be wrong to call the original Nancy Drew a feminist — she would have been helping her father convict bra-burners of arson, not marching in the streets for equal employment protections she’d never use — she would certainly have approved of the writing credit given to her original ghostwriter, Mildred Wirt Benson, in the upcoming film. Mildred gave us Nancy, but much like Nancy’s fictional mother, she was killed off; each Nancy Drew volume was published under the name “Carolyn Keene,” a sort of presiding ghost over the collection of sort of ghost stories.
Sort of, because the mysteries aren’t really the point. At least, they aren’t for me, and they don’t seem to be for Nancy’s many other fans, among them some pretty all-knowing women: Hillary Clinton and Sonia Sotomayor both cite Nancy as a role model. I am never going to need to know how to use my tap dance performance in the charity talent show as a means to communicate a secret Morse code SOS message, and presumably Hillary hasn’t needed that particular skill either, but I think the former Secretary of Stare would agree with me when I say that it certainly can’t hurt to be prepared. Like many women, I often do wonder what the appropriate clothing choice is for a summer picnic. Thanks to Nancy, I know that the answer, in her day, was always a fetching silk skirt and blouse set in a color carefully chosen to set off her titian blonde hair.
Of course, I haven’t been to a picnic in a while, or, for that matter, left my house very much at all, but when I do, I wear something fetching. Or matching. Or not terribly stained. Or if stained, stained a color that sets off my hazel eyes. If only someone would give me an interesting mystery to solve, I’m sure I would be as active as Nancy. It’s hard to work up motivation to solve The Case of the Unanswered Emails or The Mystery of the Unfulfilled Potential. Nancy, in the course of her mysteries, was always dashing off to visit crocodile farms or interview the postmaster general. Dragging myself out of bed and over to my desk to open my inbox doesn’t sound nearly as exciting.
Thanks to Nancy, I have solved one rather pressing mystery: the case of the single woman. It was after a recent breakup that I really started hitting my Nancy Drew collection hard again, and to fully delve into what that says about my psyche would require both a PhD in psychology and more vodka than I have on hand right now. Thanks to Nancy, I know that both higher education and drinking are not appropriate for true ladies, so I will refrain, except to say that Nancy Drew doesn’t have time to deal with romance. Sure, there’s Ned, but Ned is never her “boyfriend,” only her “regular date” or “special friend.” They do not even kiss until somewhere around volume 32, and even then, I can tell you that they only kiss seven times throughout the series. On more than one occasion, Ned reminds Nancy that he intends to marry her when he is finally done with his studies. On every occasion, Nancy deftly changes the subject back to the topic at hand, like the wagon-making practices of the Amish. Ned often attempts to help Nancy with her sleuthing, but more often than not, he just gets into trouble and she has to rush to save the day. Ned is harmless, and boring, and easily forgotten: three qualities I will certainly be looking for in my next paramour.
Nancy doesn’t care much for Ned, but she does care about her best gal pals, Bess and George. The three girls have been chums their whole lives, and Bess and George are Nancy’s faithful and tireless sidekicks. They ride along with her in her blue convertible, help her find secret passages, and often end up bound and gagged in some criminal’s hideout as a thank you for their services. They take it in stride: the three of them have never met a shady character they can’t outsmart together. Sure, they have their differences. George is kind of a bitch and likes to tell Bess she’s fat every single time the poor girl asks for a luncheon break, Bess, in addition to being pleasantly plump, is very chatty and can sometimes inadvertently give too much information to their frenemies. Of course, nothing ill can be said towards Nancy, who is, on top of everything else, a perfect friend.
I am not a perfect friend, and my friends and I do not often find ourselves bound and gagged in a criminal’s hideout, but we do support one another, and I’d take them over the Ned Nickersons of the world any day. Nancy’s world is one run by women, the women behind the scenes who created her creating a world full of, if not incredibly interesting, at least incredibly competent women. Nancy’s father and Ned make their appearances in each volume, but they are mercifully brief. When other men appear, they appear either as villains, or the local police officers who inevitably applaud and admire Nancy, always telling her they couldn’t have done a better job themselves. Talk about wish fulfillment: did any man in the 1900s ever really tell a woman she did it better than he could? If a man has said it to me in my lifetime, I am not recalling it.
Sure, there are more productive things I could do with my time than binge-read mid-century children’s serial fiction, even if the books are educational: just today, I learned that lilacs were once known as blue pipes, due to the use of lilac bark in traditional pipe making, which turned out to be a great clue in The Mystery of Lilac Inn. The next time someone passes out from fright in my vicinity, I will quickly revive them by waving a small perfume bottle under their nose. I’ll have the small perfume bottle in my purse, as soon as I remember to put it there, along with a pocket flashlight and a bobby pin, which you can use to fix your up-do and to pick almost any lock.
I only wish I had taken Nancy’s lessons earlier. When my mother and I found ourselves at odds in my teen years, I should have just killed her: Nancy seems better off for her lack of a mother. When my last boyfriend suggested I go on a diet, I should have just turned him into the police: he was poor, and he had a shifty look about him, and I think I saw him litter once. But the past is the past, and now it’s time to think about the future. I’m going to get to The Case of the Unanswered Emails soon, but first I’ve got to learn how to fix my car and do all the dances and keep things alive and paint fine watercolor landscapes and find secret fortunes and know the right way to be a woman. Once I buy it, I’ll cruise around town in my new blue convertible, my two best chums beside me, my harmless beau in the backseat.