What would Nancy do?

The sleuth of my mother's youth reveals life's mysteries.


Amy Benfer
October 7, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

As soon as I learned to read, I learned to sleuth. My cousins and I would lie in bed, eating sunflower seeds and reading our mothers' Nancy Drew novels from their girlhoods in the '40s and '50s. This was the late '70s and early '80s -- both Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys (in whom we had no interest) had television series, and new episodes of their adventures were still being written. We paid no attention to the modern versions of the books and turned our backs on the made-for-TV Nancy, who was often cast as a bit player in the Hardy Boys dramas and was brunette, not "titian-haired" like our heroine. (We were right to suspect that Pamela Sue Martin was no Nancy Drew; she later showed up on the cover of Playboy, much to the horror of Nancy's creators.)

Not that we liked Nancy. In fact, we loathed her. It is true that she was the closest thing we had to an action hero when serial novels for girls were dominated by romances. But her saccharine perfection made me want to put a tack on the seat of her roadster. She was capable and level-headed to the point of pathology: She could drive cars and boats, ride horses, pilot planes, fix her own car, break out of a closet using a closet rod as a handmade lever, skin dive and tap dance in Morse code. She was always "attractive," never "beautiful." Of course, we knew she was beautiful, but Nancy was far too modest and sensible to be described with such a florid word. In "The Secret of Red Gate Farm" we are told: "Nancy did not like to be told that she was pretty. She preferred to be called interesting."

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Nancy was definitely not conventionally sexy -- although she does tear her clothes or get trussed-up in nearly every caper. Ned Nickerson, her beau, had the sexual potency of a Ken doll and is just as peripheral. He first appeared in volume 7, more a romantic prophylactic than a romantic hero. Presumably, readers would have found it odd if their attractive heroine had no romantic interest whatsoever, yet it would not have been appropriate for a young girl from a good family to fall for a new male lead in each of her hundreds of adventures. "For the present," Nancy tells a roomful of girlfriends who are giggling about their fiancis, "my steady partner is going to be a mystery."

Quite simply, we were jealous.

What we loved about our books were the yellowed paper, the neat pen marks where our mothers had checked off each title they owned, the painted dust jackets with dresses and hairstyles we had only seen in black-and-white photographs of our dead grandmother. And we loved the fabulously outdated expressions. We loved the "chums" and we recognized the "shady characters," because it was an expression that our mothers still used in jest. While we wore flared jeans and baseball shirts, we read: "Titian-haired Nancy was a trim figure in olive green knit with matching shoes. Beige accessories and a knitting bag completed her costume." "Why is she carrying a knitting bag?" we asked ourselves. And where does one find olive shoes? We weren't sleuthing out the villains; we were gumshoes on the trail of a much more sinister mystery -- our mothers' childhoods.

Through Nancy, we solved the riddle of why our mothers disliked white shoes -- even sneakers -- after Labor Day; why the proper response to a compliment was a crimson blush; why taste was more important than a trust fund (though Nancy herself had both); why the use of the double negative was evidence of a predilection for criminal behavior and why it was important to stay on your own side of the tracks.

Unfortunately, the Stratemeyer Syndicate -- whose very name sounds like a villain who would have been brought down by the attractive girl detective -- never quite figured out that their books morphed from popularity into pop art. Nancy appeared in 1930, the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, whose novel factory (with its stable of ghostwriters) had been cranking out children's serial fiction since 1905. But in 1959, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, who inherited Nancy after the death of her father in 1932, decided that if Nancy was going to continue to appeal to the daughters of her original readers, she needed some freshening up.

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The roadster became a convertible, the chums became friends. Nancy made her first and last jump into maturity, aging from 16 to 18. Most dramatic of all, her "curly golden bob" became a grandiose titian color -- the only revision that I consented to graft upon my inner Nancy. Titian! Who else has ever had such hair? To this day, all I know about the color titian is that it rhymes with "patrician" and has something to do with the 16th century painter of the same name.

Gone too were historical artifacts of a less pleasant variety: the more egregious examples of Nancy's racism and general social snottiness. (The new, improved Nancy is hardly a Marxist paragon: She continues
to be a lawyer's daughter who specializes in cases of misdirected
inheiritance; she is always ready to take money and jewels out of the hands
of liars, thieves and "flashy"characters and put it back where it belongs,
into the hands of those with good social standing. )

Although each original novel is riddled with racial and social slurs, one of the worst offenders is the early version of "The Mystery at Lilac Inn," a sustained allegory about how one cannot get good household help. Nancy, in need of a temporary housekeeper while faithful servant Hannah Gruen (the good German housewife) tends to a sick sister, must go to an employment agency. She interviews and dismisses by turn, a "colored woman" who is "dirty and disheveled," an Irish woman who is most "unreasonable" and a "Scotch lassie" who doesn't know a thing about cooking. The villain in this novel is an "impudent," "dark-complexioned" girl who also fails to find employment at Drew manor. How does Nancy solve this volume's mystery? The maid in question shows up at the best dress shop in the city, where Nancy herself is looking at dresses. Says Nancy: "Surely a girl in her circumstances cannot afford to buy dresses at such a place as this."

It's worth asking why it took Harriet Adams nearly 30 years to realize that a villain pool that included "coloreds," "Orientals," "misers" with "hooked noses," household help and transients might cause some people to look askance at her darling cash cow. But times change. It probably took some readers just as long to figure it out.

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Today, both versions -- the "originals" and the revised versions, which 40 years later are now antiques themselves -- are available in facsimile first editions. In late September, Grossett and Dunlap came out with a boxed set of the yellow-spined '50s versions, with artwork by Rudy Nappi, Nancy's illustrator from 1953 to 1979. And since 1991, Applewood Books, a small press that specializes in republishing books from American history and popular culture, has printed exact replicas of the earlier versions, with artwork by Russell Tandy, the fashion illustrator who created the slim clotheshorse Nancy in 1930 and continued through 1949. Each Applewood replica comes with an introductory essay by a female mystery writer, such as Amanda Cross, P.M. Carlson, Nancy Pickard, Sarah Paretsky and Mildred Wirt Benson, the original Nancy ghostwriter, who wrote novels under the pen name Carolyn Keene for more than 20 years. Today, Benson has traded roadsters for "oldsters" -- she writes a column for the Toledo Blade under the name Millie Benson.

The Applewood editions are by far the more beautiful. Printed on smooth, heavy, vanilla-colored paper, with glossy inserts for the illustrations, they have blue cloth covers stamped in orange; the sleek dust jackets feature Nancy as the ultimate bluestocking in her crisp blue suits and clipped bob. They are conscious of their status as historical artifact for those with a retro fetish: At $14.95, they are nearly twice the price of the Simon and Schuster editions and can be purchased at that well-appointed emporium of Boomer nostalgia, Restoration Hardware. In contrast, the laminated covers and grainy paper of the Simon and Schuster editions look like they are trying to make history by making books that will reduce themselves to the condition of 40-year-old dime store pulp novels within two years.

The revised editions read like porn: Stratemeyer held her finger on the fast-forward button to cut straight to the action, slowing down just long enough to add exclamation points and physical descriptions of people, rooms and food, with character, scene and dialogue pared to such a minimum that the books barely make sense. Like porn, one eventually gets bored and wonders: Why the hell do I care if this chick's trussed-up in the cabin of a sinking ship? All I know about her is that she's a rich bitch in an olive suit.

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Harriet Adams had spent years agitating to make Nancy "less bold," writes Mildred Wirt Benson in her introduction to "The Mystery of Lilac Inn." While Adams served as editor, Benson says, "A simple 'Nancy said,' became 'Nancy said sweetly,' 'Nancy said kindly' and the like, all designed to produce a less abrasive, more caring type of character." When Adams finally got her chance to play writer, Nancy went from bold to downright syrupy, as demonstrated in this passage from the revised version of "The Secret of the Old Clock:"

Nancy rode along, glancing occasionally at the neatly planted fields on either side.

"Pretty, " she commented to herself. "Oh why can't all people be nice like this scenery and not make trouble?"

It's a wonder that the revised Nancy could decipher any clues whatsoever with her vision so hampered by those rose-colored glasses.

Phillip Zuckerman, the publisher of Applewood books, subjected booksellers to a "blind taste test" inspired by Coke and Pepsi, presenting them with pages from an original and a revised Nancy Drew side by side. "Seventy-three percent of booksellers," he says, "preferred the originals."

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It's true that the original editions have smoother prose, a spunkier heroine and much greater production quality. But who is reading them -- or the revised '50s versions, for that matter? If anything, the reissues seem to be a response to the high prices garnered by adult collectors -- who will pay $300 or more for a first edition in good condition. These are the same nostalgia addicts who will buy almost any article of cultural detritus from their childhood, be it baseball cards, comic books, cowboy guns or mystery novels. Companies do not make money when their products are resold by collectors; Mattel began reissuing vintage Barbies and creating new collectors editions at about the same time that the adult collector market became highly visible and highly lucrative. But as much as I loved my childhood Nancy Drew books, I can't imagine giving them to my own daughter in any context other than a history lesson.

Not that companies haven't tried to market old Nancys to new children. "Did you know," exclaims the banner on top of the Web site for Secrets Can Kill, the new Nancy-inspired girl detective game, "that Nancy is the product of 'Girl Power'? It's true!" Of course, it's absolutely not true. If anything, "girl power" is a product of Nancy Drew. Nancy may have been something of a bluestocking, but she was hardly radical -- and certainly not a '90s grrl.

What Nancy Drew mysteries lack in literary merit, they make up for in cultural history. Unlike serious fiction, which aspires to be timeless, popular fiction aspires to be as current as the latest Young Miss -- or Fashion Focus, the magazine read by Bess Marvin, Nancy's "pleasantly plump chum," whom my mother would call "feminine," I would call "femme" and my daughter would call a "girly girl." The butch to Bess' femme, devoted readers know, is her cousin, George Fayne, described in the series as "an attractive, short-haired tomboy." Modern readers have other ideas. "Is it true," asks a recent post to the Nancy Drew message board by a reader who identifies herself as Sappho, "that Nancy always tells George that her breath smells like fish?"

It's tempting to recycle Nancy as a feminist heroine of sorts -- she was smart, athletic, indifferent to boys and devoted to her career. But she simply does not stand up to this kind of analysis. Nancy shimmies under the feminist bar by default: It only works so long as she stays 18 forever. Nancy was a daddy's girl, free to remain an amateur in the absence of a mother, financial obligations or the larger world of college, marriage and motherhood. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams once said that if Nancy were allowed to go to college, she would go to "Wellesley, of course."

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I prefer my sleuths unrevised, just the way my mother and I loved her back when I was an 8-year-old serial novelist in training, writing mysteries in secret notebooks. "Maybe when you grow up," my mother would say, "you can write mysteries. Just like Carolyn Keene." Of course, I knew I could grow up to be Carolyn Keene, but in my house the word "ghostwriter" was as absent as the explanation behind Santa.

Last week, I called my mother -- who claims that Nancy is the reason she majored in police science -- to laugh over a recent post to the Nancy Drew bulletin board: "I need info on Carolyn Keene. I need to know the month and date of her birth and if she had any children."

"Did you find out?" my mother asked.

"Mom," I said, "there is no Carolyn Keene."

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"Keene," she said. "A mystery writer with a keen mind. I should have known."


Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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