‘Not many girls would have used their wits the way you did’: Nancy Drew

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.

8 thoughts on “‘Not many girls would have used their wits the way you did’: Nancy Drew

  1. Colleen May 7, 2010 / 9:27 am

    Some customers in my shop, who collect Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, have told me that the original books in each series were re-written at some point to tone down some pretty unpalatable racist passages and characters. I suppose you’d have to factor that sort of history in somehow?

  2. Rohan May 7, 2010 / 12:36 pm

    I do mention that above, actually: “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.” In some ways that kind of textual history adds interest–on the one hand, it seems a good move, but on the other, why revise these books and not others that equally reflect prejudices we now find abhorrent?

  3. Colleen May 7, 2010 / 4:49 pm

    Oops, I can’t believe I missed that! More evidence that reading books on a computer or other similar device would not be a good idea for me.

    That’s a good question about which books get revised and which don’t. It can’t be that children’s books were the focus, for I recently read Kipling’s Just So Stories and they are flamboyantly racist. Perhaps it’s about perceived quality – the difference between “literature” and something else less respected. Which is problematic in itself.

  4. Rohan May 7, 2010 / 9:13 pm

    Interesting question. I’ve put it up at The Valve to see if anyone knows more about when or why ‘classics’ do (or don’t) get revised. Maybe it’s the desire to keep the series seeming fresh and contemporary–nobody would expect Kipling to fit in today, would they?

  5. litlove May 8, 2010 / 6:48 am

    I wish I could recall its title, but a couple of years back I reviewed an edited collection of academic essays on crime fiction. I’m wondering whether you wouldn’t be better off leafing through one of those in the library and seeing which texts have provoked interesting critical reactions in the recent wave of crime fiction criticism? I mean, I loved Nancy Drew when I was 10, but I wouldn’t want to return to her critically, unless it was in a comparative form with several other role-model-for-girls type books. I’d be worried that she wouldn’t stand up to sustained scrutiny all on her own.

  6. Rohan May 8, 2010 / 1:30 pm

    I am looking at recent criticism too, but the field of potential material is just so vast (and the pace of academic publishing is so slow) that it seemes worth trawling for other ideas out here too! And I haven’t noticed any new names attracting much attention in the criticism for a while–though I couldn’t swear I’ve kept completely up with all of it. Nancy Drew has herself attracted quite a bit of critical attention, so by that standard she’s a competitive candidate for our attention in the class. I definitely share your skepticism about the text itself standing up to scrutiny (I can’t see it as yielding much through close reading), but in pop culture / genre studies / cultural studies, that’s not necessarily relevant, right?

  7. maddie May 9, 2010 / 9:05 am

    Just wanted to say everyone must wish their mothers a happy mother’s day! Don’t forget!

  8. perrin kaplan May 9, 2010 / 3:17 pm

    wanted to make sure to share this announcement:
    Anniversary Tribute Mystery Game “Secrets Can Kill – Remastered” Slated to Launch

    BELLEVUE, WA, May 6, 2010 – A murder. A killer on the loose. A secret forever hidden. And who better to put the pieces together than Nancy Drew, the world’s uber-successful girl detective? For 80 years, Nancy has been on the case, from the popular book series to interactive gaming. In tribute to Nancy Drew’s 80th anniversary, the mystery makers at Her Interactive, a leading global game developer, are remastering the first game they ever launched – the award-winning adventure, “Nancy Drew: Secrets Can Kill.”
    Launching late summer, “Secrets Can Kill- Remastered” for the PC will feature completely redesigned 3D animated characters, enhanced graphics, and new puzzles, all designed to appeal to fans old and new. In addition, Her Interactive is incorporating vintage Nancy Drew references, from original book titles to artwork, to celebrate Nancy’s 80 years of solving mysteries. The game will carry a suggested retail price of $19.99 MSRP.
    “Nancy Drew is as inspiring and relevant today as she was 80 years ago,” says Megan Gaiser, president, Her Interactive. “She embodies the characteristics all women admire – guts, resourcefulness, confidence, intelligence, and optimism. What better way to celebrate a role model, than to bring the original interactive experience to life for a new generation of fans!”

    Gaiser notes that amongst the fastest growing demographics for gaming – girls and women – they are seeing thousands of examples of moms who grew up with Nancy Drew are now playing the games with their daughters. Together they are both excited and inspired by the games. “Women can be young again and girls can see what it feels like to be a fearless detective. Our games bring moms and daughters together, which is very much needed in today’s society.”

    About Her Interactive:
    Her Interactive is the pioneer of fun and inspiring interactive mystery adventures played by females, young and old. The company, with 23 awards to its name, designs, develops and publishes high-quality, mystery adventure games and is the world leader in the mystery gaming category.
    More information about the company and the Nancy Drew games can be found at www dot HerInteractive dot com.
    About Nancy Drew
    Nancy Drew debuted in 1930 and is still going strong in 2010. She is a smart, independent, gutsy and resourceful teen detective who can crack even the toughest case. Publishing in 22 languages and with more than 100 million copies in print worldwide, Nancy Drew has engaged readers and served as a role model globally for generations. Nancy Drew is a registered trademark of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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