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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Wednesday
Oct172012

« In Which Nancy Drew Is The Sleuth Of Our Dreams »

Who Kidnapped Nancy?

by HILARY REID

In 2001, when I was ten years old and perched tenuously between the adventures of Nate the Great, his dog Sludge, and their weird proto-hipster friend Rosamond with the blunt-cut bangs, and the voyeuristic thrill of the 365-calorie burning sex, endlessly flowing gin and tonics, and headband-adorned low-grade drama of Gossip Girl, The A-List, and The Clique, my parents dragged me along on their intense weekend-consuming antiquing trips.

They would hunt for vintage radios, Edison phonographs, and those Kit-Cat clocks with the eyes and tails that move like a pendulum. At this point, before antique stores became a source of “unique” clothing and accessories, the shops bored me — vintage earrings and bags and coats looked like what they actually are: old.

So I started my own search. The search led to baskets full of tarnished ice skates and faded stamps in the corner of dealers’ booths, and to German steins and shining cigarette cases behind glass. It led me to musty bookcases filled with abandoned copies of John Cheever stories and failed diet guidebooks. Sorting through the old books and memorabilia was worth it though. All of this hunting was for another sleuth, the greatest girl-sleuth of all — Nancy Drew.

At the time, Nancy Drew was cool because she was eighteen and drove a convertible. She had two best friends, Bess Marvin and George Fayne, who could solve mysteries with her anywhere and at any time; a father, Carson Drew, an attorney who allowed her free reign over her adventures, and would even send her out on investigations; and a boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, a tall, athletic Emerson student, who, in a few cases, saved Nancy, but not at a higher frequency than Nancy saved Ned.

Nancy would stumble upon mysteries herself, or her father would be working on a legal case, need Nancy to run a small errand, delivering papers for instance, and she would notice something out of place. Always there was something gone awry, a small detail that needed solving. Something that only an intelligent detective would notice. That was the thing above all else about Nancy Drew — she was smart. She never flirted for a tip, but relied on her intelligence to get the information, instead. For someone who was ten-years-old and alienated from the seemingly cool, so grown-up, girl teens on television who could seamlessly flirt with any guy with a smooth early millennium bowl-cut, Nancy Drew was a relief — a girl who did exciting things because of her intelligence, not because of her ability to woo a guy.

Considering that the first Nancy Drew book, The Secret Of The Old Clock, was published in 1930, it is surprising that a character like Nancy even existed. The writers under the Carolyn Keene pseudonym invented an independent woman for whom yes, some things are scary, but never terrifying enough to deter their girl hero from solving a crime.

Her world is equally dangerous for any detective, regardless of gender or age, offering an answer — at least a fantasy answer — to the “I am a woman and should be able to walk down any alley alone at night and not be afraid, but as a smart woman, I have to be careful” predicament. In this imaginary world, Nancy never changes her plans for fear of violence. Is this viable for women today? Realistically, and unfortunately, no. But is the ideal of a life unconstrained by this predicament any more fantastical and outrageous than a mainstream media that suggests that every time a woman walks somewhere alone at night she will be raped? Not really.

For all its innovation, the Nancy Drew series does not completely escape stereotypes. In addition to Nancy’s investigative skills, the authors make a point of distinguishing her as a great seamstress, cook, bridge player, and first-aid nurse. Her two best friends, George and Bess, both have boyfriends who go to the same college as Nancy’s boyfriend Ned, making for neat ready-to-go double dates on the occasional Saturday night off from searching for thieves and kidnappers.

Even given these typical roles, Nancy and her friends stray far from the traditional expectations of women during the thirties, forties, and fifties — they are definitely not housewives in training. Even if Nancy wears a dress on all the books’ covers, she’s still shown in action, be it seconds before she climbs into a dark attic, or as she looks at some ghost-like figure (who is that guy on the cover of The Sign of the Twisted Candles, anyway?)

When I look at the covers of my old Nancy Drew books, I wish I could tell my shy middle school self, embarrassed by her red hair and freckles, to look harder at the redheaded gumshoe on the covers of the books she was reading. I was enthralled by the stories inside those great covers, yet still pined to look like the girls on the Gossip Girl jackets — long straight hair, brace-less-teeth, lips perfectly glossed and limbs expertly thin. It never crossed my mind that the tops of these girls’ heads (the part which presumably contains a brain) were always absent.

I realize that in all her peter-pan collared, calf-length wool-skirted, redhead-bobbed glory, Nancy Drew is pretty stylish — especially in the high-waisted jeans, patent loafers, and chartreuse jumper on the cover of The Secret of Shadow Ranch. Nancy’s style is classic, but always second to her “smarts,” making her timeless in a way that the tanned, glossed girls on the Gossip Girl covers could never be.

+

I first saw the new Nancy Drew while working at Barnes and Noble last winter. A well-meaning dad approached my register and handed the book over. I started to tell him how much I loved Nancy as a kid, but then I looked at the cover. There wasn’t my sleuth hero, but instead a stick-thin girl with long blond hair and short-shorts. The hardcover and yellow-spine were gone, traded for a flimsy paperback with “Nancy Drew” printed in a font and colors that resembled every Justin Bieber fan-mania magazine. No retro dress, no auburn bob, just a model who resembled a young Reese Witherspoon. She was an imposter.

The imposter wore big sunglasses, a low-cut baby-tee style shirt, and tiny plaid shorts, with one hand on her hip, behind slightly poked out. Perhaps her posture is meant to be viewed as “assertive,” but at first glance it looks more like a stale prom picture pose. The book was titled Nancy Drew, Girl Detective: California Schemin’. This couldn’t have been Nancy, it must’ve been some fraud who kidnapped her. The real Nancy was just off solving the crime of her stolen identity, right?

From the first page, the new Nancy (and Carolyn Keene) makes it very clear that the old Nancy, my old Nancy, is long gone. She’s left her hometown, River Heights, and is on to bigger, ritzier things. Here is the opening scene of California Schemin’, with Nancy as narrator: 

"Girls," I said, smiling between smoothie sips. ‘I don’t think we’re in River Heights anymore.’

"For sure,” George said. She raised her own raspberry smoothie glass and toasted, “To Malachite Beach!’

"Playground of the rich and famous," Bess piped up. "And now…us."

Leaning forward, I clinked glasses with my BFFs, Bess Marvin and George Fayne. The three of us were lounging on a deck overlooking the most awesome moonlit beach we had ever seen in our lives.

They go on to talk about George’s mother's connection to an event-planner-to-the-stars who made their beach trip possible, and the sweet sixteen of a pair of “celebrity twins” aboard an “actual refurbished pirate ship,” with goodie bags full of “MP3 players, diamond charm bracelets, and cameras.”

The new Nancy, Bess and George are, to say the least, expensive. Their vocab is sprinkled with abbreviations — “BFFs,” “vacay” — and the only recognizable similarity between the new and old series is Bess’s “piping in” (Bess is always “piping” in). The preoccupation with fame, money, and connections aligns the new Nancy with the fledgling socialites of The A-List, The Clique, and Gossip Girl — the focus has shifted from the mysteries themselves to the stuff that Nancy and her pals bring on the trip. There has always been an escapist quality in the Nancy Drew series, but here the new Carolyn Keene swaps the escapism of a group of fearless mystery-solving girls for a different kind of teen-girl escapism, the kind that depends on money rather than wits: total access to luxury goods and celebrity. 

Of course, the Carolyn Keenes of 2012 know what they’re doing: it is no grand revelation that Young Adult books saturated with references to designer bags, cellphones, and swanky vacations sell. I did, after all, eventually graduate from Nancy’s world of mysteries into the drama of Gossip Girl, and, as far as I can tell, the switch from crime solving to cattiness didn’t permanently damage my soul. The lust for designer goods (as the goods are always brand-named in Gossip Girl) caught on, too, although I can’t definitively say if this had to do with the books, or simply wanting to fit in with other teen girls — either way, a fourteen-year-old in pursuit of a Coach bag or Tiffany necklace is an unpleasant thought. But, like any adolescent phase, all this passed.

If there’s anything I am in pursuit of now it’s “smarts.” Smarts like Nancy’s — useful intelligence and fearlessness, gameness, prowess, whatever you want to call it — the smarts that allow her to storm into any attic, basement, or abandoned house to solve her case. Whether or not I recognized it when I was ten, Nancy Drew reassured me that cleverness and wit mattered. I can only hope that, even if it is buried under abbreviations and status symbols, this message is still present somewhere in the new Nancy Drew books. If not, there are still a few of those old hardback copies with their yellow spines and Nancy’s redhead bob lurking in the corners of antique shops, waiting to be found by the next snooping girl sleuth.

Hilary Reid is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in Saratoga Springs. She tumbls here and twitters here. 

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Reader Comments (1)

Wow, I had no idea there was a new very un-Nancy Drew series out. To be honest, I don't like any of these upgrades that my childhood favourites are going through (Enid Blyton books for example). I enjoyed (and still do) books with language, references and plot points that may seem a little dated but do nothing to take away from the story itself. Why not try fresh marketing strategies to get more kids hooked instead of changing the tone/content of the original book itself? I'm going to go hug my childhood books now and fervently hope no new cringe-worthy versions make an appearance.
November 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterParinita

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