Author’s note: this started out to be a completely different post, but a giant tangent led me to this subject instead.
When I was a kid, I was an insatiable reader. I read all the kiddie classics, animal stories, and my favorite, mysteries. The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys, The Dana Girls—and Nancy Drew. I didn’t have a ton of patience for The Hardy Boys, and I liked the Dana Girls well enough (a lot of people are unfamiliar with this series, which was written by the same syndicate as Nancy Drew, but if you like YA mysteries and school stories, The Dana Girls manage to combine both), and the Bobbsey Twins irked me, but I loved Nancy Drew and eagerly devoured the books.
Aside from the fact that they were mysteries, there was just something about these books that resonated with me, although at the time, I really couldn’t have told you what it was and I doubt I was even aware that they were resonating—honestly, I was not the most self-aware child. I just read, and read, and read them, over and over and over. I saved my pocket money to buy my own copies, asked for them as gifts, and eventually managed to collect the whole series, plus extras.
Extras? I was so into them that even as an adult I was still rummaging for them in yard sales and antique stores, not to mention library book sales and used bookstores. At that point I was looking for original prints of the first 24 books in the series, which are significantly different from their reprinted counterparts, and in at least one case, The Message in the Hollow Oak, the entire plot is different (plus Carson Drew has a gun! I found that somewhat thrilling when I first read it because it seemed very much like something he wouldn’t have—and apparently I was right because it never appears again). I’ve picked up a few first editions along the way (joking that I could always sell them to put my daughter through college, a step I’m happy to report was not necessary—I confess I’d miss them) and generally enjoyed collecting them, even as an adult.
It wasn’t until 15 years ago or so that I ever stopped to wonder just why I was so into these books. I mean, on the face of it, as an adult, they’re obviously too juvenile for someone my age, and as a mystery reader, they’re too simplistic plot-wise and frequently rely on coincidence and lucky hunches, two traits that the average mystery reader deplores and which I, as a reviewer, would consider to be a big fat negative when critiquing a book. Even my daughter didn’t like them when she was the right age to read them for those reasons.
So obviously, not the mystery elements. The books are written to a formula as well and make use of so many hackneyed tropes—threatening phone calls, mysterious notes warning Nancy off the case, disguises, inept Scooby-Doo villains—and those tropes are repeated constantly. You’ll be reading along and think “It’s about time for someone to send Nancy a threatening letter” or “Time for Bess or George to twist an ankle” so they can’t continue pursuing a suspect. So not the plotting, not the narrative.
Yeah, it’s the characters. Specifically, Nancy herself. When I was 8 or 9, I wanted to BE Nancy Drew. Not so much so I’d get threatened and conked on the head, but because I wanted her life.
I could not, at that age, imagine anything cooler than being an amateur detective, solving puzzling cases to the general acclaim of the population. I mean, I love puzzles. Not jigsaw puzzles (my spatial skills are crap) and not even crossword puzzles, which I’m ironically not very good at, but puzzles. I’m talking about things that need to be analyzed. Situations, people, footprints leading to a mysterious bungalow…I’m not exactly nosey, but I am curious. I like to know why things are the way they are and what makes people tick. Can’t help it. If I were a cat, I’d be the kind that always has to know what’s on the other side of the door.
But as far as Nancy was concerned, it was more than the puzzles for me because I think I realized even at age 10 that Nancy relied entirely on too many coincidences and hunches to be a real detective. Facts are pretty scarce in the Nancy Drew books, frankly. Except where Nancy’s life is concerned—then you get facts aplenty (except for what mysterious illness killed the late Mrs. Drew. I used to imagine her wasting gradually away on a chaise lounge for some gruesome reason. Self-aware I was not. Imagination I had in spades…). But once I started thinking about it, I realized that all that mystery stuff was just window-dressing to 10 year old me. To 10 year old me, Nancy had it MADE.
When I say I wanted to be Nancy Drew, what I really mean is that I wanted what she had. Her own room. Freedom to come and go as she pleased. No siblings to babysit, no chores to do because they had a housekeeper. A CAR. Nancy’s roadster convertible was the symbol of everything about her: it was not just a status symbol, but a symbol of her independence—she could go anywhere she wanted—to a summer holiday camp, to a dude ranch, on a coastal drive, to Amish country. And not just because she had that awesome car, but because there was no shortage of money—for joining country clubs, buying sailboats, taking flying lessons, having a generous wardrobe allowance, taking trips.
Nancy went everywhere: she went to NYC, she went to Hawaii, she went to Canada, she went to China for pete’s sake and on safari and to South America. At the drop of a hat. “Oh Dad, this case is at such a dead end. I’m afraid I might never solve it unless I can somehow go to Hong Kong.” “Well Nancy, as it so happens, I have business in Hong Kong so get your passport and pack your bag! And of course Bess and George can go if they have their parents’ permission!”
I also wanted Nancy’s father. Not in THAT way, but because he was the source of all the awesomeness. I knew my dad wasn’t ever buying me a brand new sporty convertible, or even an unsporty one (And I was right! He did not!) or handing over some massive amount of money for a clothing allowance, or announcing “Hey, how’d you like to go to Hawaii?” anytime soon. I don’t mean to sound unfair to my dad, but it’s true. Among other things, there were four of us and to feed and clothe on an income that was probably 1/100th of Carson Drew’s. That’s what made these books like fantasyland to me. The kindly, wealthy, uber-generous father. The opportunity to go anywhere and be anything. And the devoted housekeeper who did all the cooking and cleaning so that Nancy could go out and be all spunky and accomplished. The devoted chums and the dishy boyfriend and the loving aunt and all those grateful people she helped. Everyone loved Nancy Drew. Except the bad guys, and half the time even they’d grudgingly admit that they admired her. Who wouldn’t want that?
Plus, you know, she could do anything. Model a dress? Sure. Fly a plane? Absolutely. Tap dance, sail, swim, play golf and tennis like a pro, act in plays, and do charity work on the side in her spare time. George got to be good at judo. Poor Bess got to eat. But Nancy? Could eat like a horse and never gain an ounce, then rescue a drowning child from a stream, dust herself off, and keep on going like a boss, chasing pickpockets and jewel thieves and having another lucky hunch if the going got tough, then finish off her day with a date with Ned Nickerson (who is, of course, the star quarterback at his college) where they’ll maybe find a clue or get stuck at the top of a ferris wheel or go to a fancy pants dinner dance.
As an adult, that all sounds exhausting, but 10 year old me ate it up. I really hoped life would be like that when I got to be 18, and of course it was not. There was no convertible, no housekeeper, no wealthy dad, and no college quarterback. I’ve never been to China or Africa or even Hawaii. But by then I’d accepted that no one gets a life like that, and you know, my life turned out just fine without all that. In fact, I’ve got it pretty good.
But I gotta tell you, even 40+ years later, I still want that car.