Love her or hate her, if you’re female you’ve probably read at least one of her books. If you’re like me, you’ve read her books, played her computer games, and watched her movies or tv shows. First published in 1930 and still being published today (though under the Girl Detective series name), Nancy Drew is one of the most widely-read female characters of all time. Solving mysteries in her hometown of River Heights or in glamorous places abroad, eighteen year-old Nancy’s escapades have been avidly consumed by readers across the globe. I was first introduced to her by my mother, and in turn I passed her books on to my little sister.
I’m not going to focus on one particular book; as is generally the case with a formulaic series that has 175+ books, they’re pretty indistinguishable on a general plot level. Nancy Drew is an amateur sleuth living with her father, Carson, an affluent lawyer who often provides her with cases. She is helped by her best friends George and Bess, and occasionally by her “special friend” (that’s seriously what he’s called) Ned. Nancy herself is extremely capable at pretty much everything – driving, shooting, riding, running, swimming, cooking, and of course… sleuthing.
Nancy Drew represents the ultimate heroine for young girls. While she’s not exactly realistic, she the ideal to be sought after. Rich enough to never have to work an after-school job that might cut into her sleuthing time, she never accepts monetary reward for solved cases. Though she is aided by her friends, family, and occasionally the authorities, Nancy solves her cases pretty much single-handedly. She is pretty and intelligent, but still goes haring off through dangerous woods and grimy cellars to catch her criminals. In her various crossovers with the Hardy Boys, she holds her own against the two brothers.
There have been a lot of upheavals in the world of women in the last eighty years – through the war years, the conservative fifties, Betty Friedan and the advent of feminism, flower children, and soccer moms, Nancy has remained a symbol of irrepressibly independent girls. Clearly smarter than anyone around her be he lawyer, police chief, or criminal, Nancy doesn’t waste time on boys (her relationship with Ned is always conducted outside of the narrative) or petty concerns about hair or popularity or gossip. She is good and kind, while still modeling strength and individuality, and equally as good at rowing and other sports as she is at cooking. She is every girl’s dream, and a good role model to aspire to.
Though the majority of the classic books are formulaic and clunkily written, this doesn’t mean you should dismiss them. There is a reason Nancy is a classic, and younger readers will enjoy the easy-to-read-yet-still-interesting-125-books-in plots. Published by several ghost writers under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene (a fact which blew my mind while I was researching for this post), there have been lots of upheavals for Nancy in popular culture. Her published books were re-edited in 1956 to take out racist aspects, and if you look at the progression of cover art over the years, it’s clear where the values begin to change. But while there are many other female detectives who might be more realistic or relatable (Trixie Belden and Veronica Mars will be making their own appearances later in blog future), there are none as long-lived or as prolific. And that’s why she’s Nancy Drew.