There’s one obvious candidate for inclusion in my seminar on women and detective fiction that I hadn’t thought seriously about before today. But if exemplarity and influence matter, surely Nancy Drew is right up there with Miss Marple–more important, perhaps, if you consider the number of high profile contemporary women, now role models themselves, who say they took some of their own inspiration from her. Students have asked about her before, but I hadn’t really followed up, mostly on the grounds that the books are ‘young adult’ fiction and thus unlikely to be of much literary interest. But once you’ve made the move into genre fiction in the first place, you’ve acknowledged the significance of other factors, alongside or, sometimes, instead of, more strictly literary ones–and these days it’s not obvious how you define the ‘literary’ anyway. So I thought I’d poke around a bit, and though I haven’t had time to read any of it yet, I quickly became aware that there’s quite a bit of critical work on the girl sleuth, including by feminist writers like Carolyn Heilbrun, and by other mystery writers, including Sara Paretsky. She’s looked at as a feminist exemplar, a break-out figure in the genre of detection fiction, a “WASP” super-girl, and a “ballbuster.” There’s discussion of the novels in the context of other series fiction for young readers, and in a range of historical and political contexts. The series has a complex history (the current editions of the “original” mysteries, for instance, are in fact revisions of the 1930s versions which were revised starting in the 1950s because of their racist attitudes) and of course the figure of Nancy herself has a cultural currency that is probably about equivalent to that of Sherlock Holmes. I started thinking that maybe I should make room for Nancy on the syllabus! It seems as if we would have plenty to talk about.
So I borrowed my daughter’s copy of The Secret of the Old Clock and gave it a quick read–after all, it has been more than 30 years, probably, since I myself was an avid reader, not just of the Nancy Drew books, but the Trixie Belden series as well as the Hardy Boys. I was right about the language not being particularly sophisticated or subtle, but Nancy herself is certainly a dynamo. In this book alone she saves a young girl from drowning, fixes a flat tire and an outboard motor, chases down a gang of unscrupulous thieves, stares down the town snobs, and recovers a lost will, with the result that both money and justice are effectively redistributed. Her independence at the wheel of her car anticipates V. I. Warshawsky’s confident navigation of the streets of Chicago (down these mean streets a woman can go, untarnished and unafraid, provided she has a reliable set of wheels)–and now that I think of it, like V. I. she’s also always well turned out (“looking very atttractive in a blue summer sweater suit,” “dressed in a simple green linen sports dress with a matching sweater,” “becomingly dressed in a tan cotton suit”–I suspect these details were added in the 1950s revisions). Motherless, she enjoys the apparently unqualified support of her father, who never discourages her risk-taking, though he’s touchingly pleased when her exploits end safely. (She drives him around, which I thought was an interesting detail.) She doesn’t meet any opposition or skepticism from the police, either. There is something sort of inspiring about the freedom and rectitude with which she rushes through the story. I’m not sure yet if I’ll put her on the syllabus–I do think it would be a case in which the apparatus we’d put around the book would be more interesting, in many ways, than the book itself. But at the moment, I’m tempted.