Nancy Drew – Immortal Female Detective

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Credit: www.nancydrewsleuth.com

Nancy Drew was the original Super Girl—independent, confident, smart. She was competent to handle any challenge, fearless in the face of danger, and resourceful at solving problems decades before MacGyver came along. She drove motorboats, rode horses, and played tennis better than her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson. The girl sleuth never backed down from threats and brought villains to justice.

She is credited as an early influence on many girls who grew up to be accomplished, notable women, including Sandra Day O’Connor, Oprah Winfrey, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Laura Bush.

Credit: www.nancydrewsleuth.com

 

Nancy’s heroic adventures kept my friends and me up long past bedtime, reading with flashlights under the covers. I remember saving for weeks to buy the latest release when it hit the neighborhood toy store that carried her books. If I recall correctly, the hardbacks in the late 1950s cost around a dollar, a serious investment for a kid earning a dime a week allowance.

Credit: www.nancydrewsleuth.com

 

Additionally, I devoured the local library’s collection of Nancy’s earlier books published in the 1930s and ’40s, with dark blue boards and cool pen-and-ink illustrations.

The dust jackets on older editions had long since disappeared and, after thousands of check-outs, bindings were often held together by heavy tape.

 

I didn’t really know what a “roadster” was but I sure wanted a blue roadster convertible just like Nancy’s.

Credit: www.nancydrewsleuth.com

 

 

In the 1950s, the books featured lighter blue, tweed-pattern boards with dust jackets.

 

 

 

 

 

Credit: www.nancydrewsleuth.com

By the 1960s, the dust jackets disappeared and the spine became bright yellow with illustrations incorporated into the front hardcover.

The last one I remember reading was The Secret of the Golden Pavilion (1959) which took place in the then-exotic locale of Hawaii around the time it became the 50th state.

Throughout the 30 or so books I read, Nancy remained eternally 18-years-old (16 in earlier versions) but never attended school or college. Her successful attorney father, Carson Drew, encouraged her to pursue all kinds of dangerous adventures but no one ever got murdered.

Nancy’s only job was solving mysteries and she didn’t get paid for her efforts.

Realistic? Not very.

Fun and exciting? Yes!

Nancy solved her first mystery in 1930 (The Secret of the Old Clock) and kept unraveling puzzles in 56 classic hardcovers originally published by Grosset & Dunlap. Simon & Schuster added eight additional books in paperback. A complete set of 64 classics in hardcover sells for over $400. The classic series ended in 2003 with 175 books. Spinoffs continue to the present day, totaling more than 600 books, TV series, video games, and films.

Here’s a trailer for The Hidden Staircase, the Nancy Drew movie released in this past March.

Nancy Drew was the brainchild of publishing magnate Edward Stratemeyer. His syndicate had launched popular series with male heroes like Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys and he decided to try a strong female heroine to appeal to girl readers.

Carolyn Keene was the pseudonym for numerous ghostwriters who were paid flat fees to write books based on outlines Stratemeyer generated. The ghosts gave up all rights, received no royalties, and were sworn to secrecy. Reportedly, the flat fee had started at $125 but was lowered to $75 because of the Depression.

Credit: www.nancydrewsleuth.com

The first ghostwriter was Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson, who brought the smart, feisty, courageous Nancy to life. The series was an immediate success. For Christmas, 1933, Macy’s ordered 6,000 books that sold out in days, even in the midst of the Great Depression.

Mildred wrote 23 Nancy books, in addition to other series like the Dana Girls and Penny Parker.

As a teenager, Mildred had been determined to become a great writer. Her stories won contests and were published in high-end children’s magazines alongside authors like Louisa May Alcott. Mildred earned the first-ever master’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa.

After her Nancy stint, Mildred wrote many more books under other pen names as well as her own. For more than a half century, she covered the crime and court beat in Toledo, Ohio and later wrote popular newspaper columns. The day she died at age 96, she was at work on an article.

Ironically, despite Nancy Drew’s profound influence on many generations of young women, Mildred wasn’t publicly acknowledged as Carolyn Keene until 1993, nine years before her death. Her archives are kept at the University of Iowa.

Nancy Drew fan conventions kicked off in 2001 and are scheduled as far ahead as 2030, Nancy’s 100th anniversary. For 2019, events will be in Toronto and Savannah.

Nancy Drew expert Jennifer Fisher has compiled vast amounts of history into a fun website that’s sure to bring back memories: http://www.nancydrewsleuth.com/   Thank you, Jenn, for your gracious assistance with this post.

Plenty of authors, including TKZ’s Kathryn Lilley, P.J. Parrish, and myself, credit Nancy with igniting their interest in writing mystery fiction. Kathryn was an ardent fan as a child and later wrote four Nancy books under the enduring Carolyn Keene pseudonym. In 2015, Kris wrote a great post on sidekicks, citing the example of Nancy’s friend, George.

Early editions, especially dust jackets, are collectors’ items. The asking price for a first edition of The Secret of the Old Clock is $2,000. Click on the bottom listing from bookbid2  to browse photos of the vintage cover and interior.

Can children’s books shape lives and careers?

Nancy Drew seduced me into a life of crime [writing]. How about you?

Credit: www.nancydrewsleuth.com

 

TKZers, please share your favorite memories of childhood books. What books influenced your reading preferences as an adult? Did Nancy, or another character, inspire you to become a writer?

 

 

 

Debbie Burke’s thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale for only 99 cents during April at this link.

 

 

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37 thoughts on “Nancy Drew – Immortal Female Detective

  1. We had a copy of The Secret of the Old Clock.

    I was often given Nancy Drew books for my birthday. A friend was always given The Hardy Boys. Our birthdays were a couple of days apart. He preferred Nancy. I preferred The Hardy Boys, so we’d swap.

    Trixie Belden was my favorite.

    • One year, my godmother gave me THREE Nancy books for my birthday–what a bounty!

      Somehow I missed Trixie. Thanks, Cynthia, for adding another series to the discussion.

  2. My brother got the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, Jr. books. Those are the ones I read after graduating from The Bobbsey Twins. Never got much into Nancy Drew. For “my” books, it was always horses, mostly Marguerite Henry but I’d read anything with a horse in it.

    • Terry, little girls and horses certainly share a magical connection. But I couldn’t get into horse books after reading Black Beauty with the mistreatment of animals. But I never missed an episode of National Velvet on TV.

  3. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for clearing up the authorship. I was so disappointed when someone suggested—maybe 30 years ago—that the writer was a man.

    What I remember most was the constant use of the great hero phrase, “Nancy was determined…”

    • Nancy, you have hit on one big reason for the enduring popularity. Nancy represented the heroic ideal for millions of little girls. Thanks for sharing your insight.

    • Jim, don’t forget Cherry Ames, Army nurse, flight nurse, jungle nurse, etc.

      True confession time: I secretly borrowed Mad magazines from my brother’s friends.

    • How’s about Superman and Superboy? You must’ve read a little bit of those two. Who could forget such classic lines as, “Poor devil.” (Spoken by Superman – without lifting a finger to help – in response to some guy accidentally driving over a cliff while Supe is on some tangential mission to stop aliens from taking over the planet.)

  4. I began reading Nancy Drew books when in junior high (now middle school). I got them from a nearby library. I loved mysteries from then on. 🙂 — Suzanne

    • Suzanne, I also gobbled my way through the mystery section at the library. Perry Mason, Dorothy Sayers, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler….The list could go on all day! Thanks for stopping by.

  5. I also grew up reading Nancy. Some of the books were my sister’s. The majority were given to my mother in the ’30s. I still have most of them. Stupid me sold The Secret of the Old Clock on eBay several years ago. (Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.) I’ve never read them but I also have my mom’s Judy Bolton, Beverly Gray, and The Adventure Girls books, along with a bunch of Honey Bunches. I liked reading Nancy but if truth be told, I was more of a Sky King girl. (Boy, does that tell my age.)

    • Wow, Laurie, what a treasure to have your mom’s books!

      BTW, Mildred Benson wrote five books in the Honey Bunch series. She was a busy writer.

      Watched Sky King every Saturday morning. Another fun memory!

  6. Thanks for the memories, Debbie.

    Nancy’s adventures encouraged me to be and do something other than a sales clerk, or secretary (although I have worked in those professions). I could choose to do something unique, exciting, maybe a bit dangerous, because she did those things in the books I read.

    Decades later, I don’t know if I’ve lived up to Nancy’s standard of thrilling choices. But I’ve explored other countries, enjoyed two careers entered into by few women (at that time), sailed on tall ships, and dived into the exilarating and terrifying world of writing. I’d say Nancy’s inspiration served me well.

    • Suzanne, Mildred Benson should be proud that her character inspired your many accomplishments. As far as living up to Nancy’s adventures, maybe Jack Reacher could give her a run for her money.

  7. I’m trying to collect the original dust-jacketed Nancys. Almost impossible to find now. I have a big set of the blue ones from the 50s. Thanks for the memories!

  8. The CW (home of the ARROWVERSE, SUPERGIRL, CHARMED, and RIVERDALE) has announced a Nancy Drew series with the paranormal. Yeah?

    https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/nancy-drew-supernatural-twist-the-beast-director-doctor-dolittle

    Like Terry, my primary passion was horse stories with dog stories second, but I read a bunch of the Hardy Boys books. They resonated more with me than Nancy Drew. I grew up with late Fifties and early Sixties TV crime shows, I still remember PETER GUN, so the slight violence of the Hardy Boys drew me more. I enjoyed any mystery I could get my hands on, though.

  9. My favorites growing up were Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. I also loved the We Were There series, which always put boys in the middle of major historic events. Then I discovered Alistair MacLean, Frederick Forsythe and Michael Crichton, and I landed on the kinds of books I wanted to write.

  10. I loved reading Nancy Drew, but soon moved onto to Agatha Christy, John Creasey, Sir Author Conan Doyle, and the list goes on. I love reading and now have a wide range of genres I enjoy, but thinking about those early books takes me right back to summers out in the woods camping with my family, sitting under a large pine tree beside a creek with a book, disappearing into the pages….

  11. Pingback: Did You Love to Read Nancy Drew? – Debbie Burke

  12. Nancy Drew brings back fond memories. My friend, Alyson and I used to sit on the sides of her mother on her recliner and we each took turns reading aloud from one of Nancy’s adventures. When I got older, I graduated to Agatha Christie. Nancy Drew was responsible for my love of mysteries and Agatha for wanting to write them.

  13. Enjoyed your blog post – Nancy is a great nostalgia character and the memories and inspiration live on! Thanks for highlighting our Nancy Drew Conventions too, those are a fun way to bring the books alive and follow in Nancy Drew’s footsteps.

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