Updated: Dec 22, 2022
The Nancy Drew mysteries will be celebrating their centennial in 2030. The first entry in the series, The Secret of the Old Clock, was published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate as a sort of female answer to the Hardy Boys mysteries, which first appeared in 1927. (Naturally, in the publishing world, as in all American culture, the girls had to follow the boys – boys never "follow" girls!).
Since their inception, the Nancy Drew books have been penned by various writers under one nom de plume, Carolyn Keene. Stratemeyer author Mildred A. Wert Benson, however, wrote the first 23 books in the series, creating both the character and her modus operandi. The 1930 Nancy was a fashionable 16-year-old blonde, a junior flapper racing around the countryside in a roadster. With high spirits and determination, she would solve perplexing crimes, often before the police even knew a crime had been committed.
In the late 1950s, aspects of Wert Benson's depictions were reworked for new editions. Instead of 16, Nancy became a slightly more credible 18, and the commonplace racism that had marred the originals, was excised. Not only were the plots reworked, but the 1950s re-writers dialed down Nancy's signature feistiness. Just as the original Nancy had reflected the exuberance of the 1920s, the 1950s Nancy was remodeled to embody the era's conservatism, especially in regards to women. Despite these changes, the essence of Wert Benson's girl detective shone through, attracting a new generation of young mystery readers.
Like many other mystery writers and some Supreme Court justices, I first began reading and collecting Nancy Drew books when I was a young girl (10 to 11 being the age of the average devotee). The series was already deep into reprints and rewrites by then, but I still recall the anticipation I felt every time I got my hands on the "next book in the series." Sometimes I could deduce who the culprit was before Nancy did, but that never diminished my reading pleasure. That a teenager, and a girl at that, used her smarts to outwit adults in ways both inventive and nervy, was a life choice I took to heart. I didn't know it then, but Wert Benson and the other Nancy Drew authors had planted the
seeds of my mystery-writing dreams.
I stopped reading Nancy Drew when I was 12, but rediscovered the series when my daughter was 10 or so. Both of us continue to indulge in the Nancy Drew universe by playing Her Interactive's addictive video games featuring characters from the Keene books as well as occasional appearances by the Hardy Boys. In the games, as well as the more recent books and screen adaptations, Nancy is once again headstrong, unafraid and witty (but always polite).
Unlike the well-received video games, recent screen adaptations of the series have been critical flops. The video stories are told from Nancy's point of view, with the game player controlling most of her movements. She is heard but never seen, and I suspect the absence of her physical presence has been crucial to the games' decades-long success. Perhaps, when all is said and done, Nancy Drew works best as an idea, a vessel for the reader's – or the player's – own aspirations and curiosities.
When compared to the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew – the books and the character – had the last laugh. While the Hardy Boys remain popular in America, they never reached the cultural heights or sales achieved by Nancy Drew. Despite their head start in the publication world, their long-term legacy pales next to Nancy Drew's, and I suspect that it is Nancy Drew readers who, like their favorite loyal literary heroine, have kept the boyish duo afloat all these years.
As for me, I still cherish Nancy's wise innocence, her dry sense of humor, her pluckiness, and her tenacity. She still haunts my unconscious like a hidden staircase in a creaky old mansion.