- 1 N. Pickard,introduction to The Hidden Staircase. At present eleven facsimile editions of the origin (...)
1Nancy Pickard, the award-winning author of the Jenny Cain mysteries, said in the 1991 preface she wrote to the new edition of the second Nancy Drew mystery, The Hidden Staircase: “I Owe It All to Nancy Drew”. “All” here means “(her) career, (her) amateur sleuth heroine, most of whatever finer qualities (she) may possess”1. She isn’t the only woman writer of detective fiction in the United States today to feel she owes Nancy Drew a debt of gratitude. The Nancy Drew mysteries’ influence on contemporary American women detective writers is undeniable. Nancy Pickard acknowledges that her desire to write murder mysteries as an adult dates back to her reading Nancy Drew as a girl. She also says that her own detective, Jenny Cain,
has a name that matche(s) Nancy’s syllable for syllable, and that she’s slim, blond, and blue eyed too. My Jenny is as good as motherless, like Nancy, and she’s smarter, braver, and more resourceful than her own father, like Nancy.2
2She adds: “more than one reviewer has referred to her as “Nancy Drew all grown up”, which I take as a compliment”. For her part Sara Paretsky, the famous creator of private eye Victoria Warshawski, makes numerous explicit references to Nancy Drew within her own novels: “You better let me take you home, Nancy Drew” Sergeant Conrad Rawlings says for example to Vic (Guardian Angel, 273), and in Tunnel Vision journalist Murray Ryerson also greets Vic’s arrival in his office with a mocking “Nancy Drew in the flesh” (184). There are also a number of implicit references to Nancy Drew in her stories, such as Murrays’ ironical headline “Girl Detective Can’t Sleep for Love” (Toxic Shock, 151). Moreover in the same novel Vic says of herself: “I knew who I was this time. VI Warshawski. Girl Detective. Idiot extraordinaire.” (173). There are even allusions to other characters in the Nancy Drew stories, such as Nancy’s boyfriend Ned: “When did Nancy ever ask Ned to watch her back?” (Tunnel Vision, 412), or even to her distinctive car: “You thought Jasper had successfully booted me out of the Home Free and I’d taken off in my sporty roadster” (Tunnel Vision, 181). These allusions imply as a matter of fact the reader’s familiarity with the Nancy Drew stories, and act as a sort of subtext within the main text.
- 3 James Jones, Journal of Popular Culture 6,4 (1973): p.707-17?
- 4 Ms. Sept. 1986: p.29.
- 5 Rediscovering Nancy Drew, edition de C.S. Dyer and N. Tillman Romalov.
- 6 E. Goudge Zuckerman, “Nancy Drew vs. Serious Fiction”, Publisher’s Weekly, p.74.
- 7 C. Heilburn, “Nancy Drew: A Moment in Feminist History”, Rediscovering Nancy Drew, p.11-21.
- 8 D. Siegel, “Nancy Drew as New Girl Wonder”, Nancy Drew and Company. Culture, Gender and Girls’ Ser (...)
- 9 Ibid., p.162.
3It is not only female detective writers who take Nancy Drew seriously: contemporary criticism does as well, and a conference at the University of Iowa was even entirely devoted to the “girl detective” in April 1993. Whereas a few critics still see Nancy Drew negatively as, for example the “WASP Supergirl of the 1930s”3, or even the “Yuppie Detective”4, others, much more numerous, are not afraid of Rediscovering Nancy Drew5 or even claiming her as “a feminist role model”6. Thus Carolyn Heilburn, also known as Amanda Cross, a scholar and literary mystery writer, wrote an article called “Nancy Drew: A Moment in Feminist History”7 and a number of women critics have commented on “what the experience of reading Nancy Drew has meant for constructions of American girlhood across the decades”8. Deborah Siegel sees in her admirers “girls who grew up to be feminist scholars/ women mystery writers, intent upon reconstructing a lineage of headstrong, rebellious heroines who venture beyond the domestic spheres and challenge existing power structures”9. Nancy Pickard concurs:
Nancy Drew was (almost) everything I wanted to be when I grew up: intelligent, self-confident, energetic, successful, and independent. I confess that I also wished I was well-to-do and beautiful, just like Nancy [...]. I think it is not overstating the case to maintain that the original Nancy Drew is a mythic character in the psyches of the American women who followed her adventures as they were growing up. She may have been Superman, Batman, and Green Hornet, all wrapped up in a pretty girl in a blue convertible10.
- 11 Book description of The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, by M.Heiferman and C.Kism (...)
- 12 K. Plunkett-Powell, The Nancy Drew Scrapbook: Sixty Years of America’s Favorite Teenage sleuth.
- 13 “Nancy Through the Decades”, NancyDrew.com -- Knowing Nancy, p.2.
4And apparently, to this day Nancy Drew “continues to be a role model for new generations of girls, showing them the thrill of taking risks and taking charge”11. As Karen Plunkett-Powell points out, the series is both the best known and longest-running girls’ detective series in American publishing history12. New Nancy Drew stories are still being published today under the title of “the Nancy Drew Files”, with a more up-to-date heroine, and there has also been since 1995 a “more sophisticated and more romantic” - according to the promotional description – 25-book series called “Nancy Drew On Campus”13 . And over the past sixty years, the Nancy Drew stories have been translated into many languages (thirteen to be more precise, including Malaysian) and her popularity has become international. The stories were adapted to a certain extent for local markets: thus for example in the French version Nancy Drew mysteriously became Alice Roy, her father Carson Drew turned into James Roy, and River Heights, her native town, into River City. As for the “author” she was totally Frenchified: Carolyn Keene, the collective name for the whole syndicate of the different writers of the series, was changed into “Caroline Quine”. I, for one, first read the stories in their French version and it took me a while to realise that my “Alice” was in fact “Nancy”. However, as far as I can tell, it is only in the United Sates that her stories have triggered so many vocations among her young readers for writing detective novels once they were grown up: there must be something essentially American about her and her enduring appeal. Is Nancy Drew really the “undeniable progenitor” of “the new breed of adult fictional women sleuths” as Nancy Pickard forcefully asserts? Why do so many contemporary American female detective writers still somehow, consciously or not, take Nancy Drew as a model for their own fictional private eyes? These are some of the mysteries I am going to try and solve here.
5But first, a little bit of background on Nancy Drew herself: who is she? To start with, she is a character important enough in American literary consciousness to deserve an entry in the Grolier Encyclopedia as:
- 14 1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, article “Drew, Nancy”.
the heroine of a series of juvenile detective novels created in 1930... Popular with generations of American schoolgirls, the series has sold many millions of copies. In the stories, Nancy, the daughter of district attorney Carson Drew, solves crimes by her resourcefulness and knowledge of human character.14
- 15 “Nancy Drew: A Brief History”,www.stratemeyer.net/stratemeyer/drew/nancydrew.html, p.1.
6She is a blue-eyed, blonde-haired ideal girl (hence the WASP image) who “borrows a little bit from all of America’s favorite images of womanhood: she’s part Southern Belle, part bluestocking, part Daddy’s little girl, part Women’s Libber, part Betty Crocker”15.
- 16 D. L. Siegel, art. cit., p.162.
7The readership of the Nancy Drew series was of course composed essentially of teenage girls, who could identify easily with her as far as the age group went at least. To an older readership older heroines are necessary, as well as different sorts of crime, as we shall see. So are present day fictional female private investigators simply “the adult version of the female sleuth”16 for grown ups? And what does the “girl detective” have in common with modern day female fictional private investigators?
- 17 Encyclopedia Universalis, corpus 8, Paris: 1990, article “États-Unis”.
- 18 S.S. Van Dine, “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”, American Magazine.
- 19 N. Pickard, art. cit..
8Not very much at first sight. Female private eyes in contemporary fiction indeed tend to be older than Nancy Drew, who is forever 18 years-old: they are between thirty and forty and grow older, more experienced and more disillusioned with each new book: Vic Warshawski for example turns forty at the end of Tunnel Vision, a traumatic experience made bearable by the presence of their friends.But age is by no means the only difference between Nancy Drew and her latter-day counterparts. Their life-styles have nothing in common either: contrary to Nancy, who doesn’t work nor go to school or college (there is only one reference to her going to school in the whole series, in The Haunted Bridge, and she only goes to college with the “On Campus” series) and who has a financially secure existence – her father, Carson Drew, is a famous and successful attorney – they are generally speaking not amateurs (the notable exception being Nancy Pickard’s Jenny Cain) but professional private investigators. Detection is their livelihood, they do not solve crimes as a hobby but because they are paid for it – when they are lucky – and money is an all-important concern of theirs: they regularly worry about paying their rents, their taxes, their bills, something the fair Nancy never even thinks about. Before they became private detectives, they served for a number of years in the Police Departments of their respective cities, where they still have a few friends, lovers and/or rivals. Furthermore, whereas Nancy lives in a big colonial house in a small imaginary town, River Heights, in an unnamed mid-western state, with her father and her faithful servant, fictional female private eyes of today live by themselves, usually in real big cities. California is especially popular, with Santa Teresa (an imaginary town based on Santa Barbara, “ninety-five miles north of Los Angeles” as the narrator explains for example in E is for Evidence, 1) for Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, San Francisco for Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone and Boston is Linda Barnes’ Carlotta Carlyle’s hometown and Chicago Sara Paretsky’s Victoria Warshawski’s, to name but a few. They are thus typical of “hard-boiled” detectives of the Philip Marlowe type: the big American city, its excitement and its dangers, looms large in modern detective fiction, and is seen as the essential backdrop to the novels. They are also more in tune with the general migration of the American population in the 1920s away from Midwestern suburban communities (like River Heights) into the big cities: by 1930, when Nancy Drew first appeared, almost a quarter (24.9%) of the American population lived in cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants17. The move from small town to big city is also a change from small crooks (thieves, kidnappers, blackmailers and the like) and small crime for a young readership – stolen goods, lost wills etc, the recovery of which is Nancy Drew’s staple adventures – to big crime and organized gangs (mobsters, drug barons, killers). Murder is the name of the game for private eyes in today’s detective fiction, as S.S. Van Dine, who codified the genre in 1928 (so roughly at the same time as the first Nancy Drew appeared) with his “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” stated in rule n°7: “There simply must be a corpse in a Detective Novel, and the deader the corpse the better; no lesser crime than murder will suffice”18. Contemporary women detectives are thus definitely city girls; contrary to Nancy, who is “a true daughter of the Middle West” (The Secret of the Old Clock, 26) they know and love their cities well and tend to be uneasy when they have to leave them. As a corollary, they also are much more of a product of the American melting-pot than Nancy Drew ever was. Victoria Warshawski is half Polish, half Italian, Carlotta Carlyle is part Jewish, part Irish, and Sharon McCone has a touch of Indian blood somewhere along her Scotch-Irish ancestry. They are often proud of their mixed heritage even if they are occasionally annoyed with the narrow-mindedness and bigotry of their ethnic communities: when she investigates the death of her cousin in Deadlock (1984) Vic Warshawski is highly critical of Chicago’s Poles and Carlotta Carlyle’s involvement with the Boston-Irish politics in A Trouble of Fools (1987) is particularly painful to her. Nancy’s “waspishness” on the other hand has already been noted: her name as well as her looks clearly denotes her white Anglo-Saxon background, and the fact she regularly attends the Sunday service with her father (another characteristic that is definitely not shared by contemporary private eyes, not one of whom is a church-goer) undoubtedly makes her a Protestant. Nancy Pickard, herself a staunch defender of Nancy Drew, admits that “it cannot be denied that in her language and attitudes (Nancy Drew) reflected the white, middle-class, Christian prejudices of her day” and adds that on re-reading the mysteries she finds that “the faults are still there, the racism, the antisemitism – and they make painful reading now, just as they did for their victims back then”. However before we condemn Nancy Drew in the name of our late 1990s political correctness, we should heed Nancy Pickard’s warning: “I hope (these faults) will inspire us to examine our own ‘historical context’ for the prejudices we don’t know we have”19.
- 20 “Nancy Drew: A Brief History”,www.stratemeyer.net.stratemeyer/drew/nancydrew.html, p.3.
9Another sign of the times: our contemporary private eyes are usually divorced. They are lonely women, with an uneasy relationship with men: having been emotionally hurt by the failure of their marriages, they are wary of all men but have occasional lovers. Vic Warshawski’s sexual involvement with Conrad Rawlings, a black sergeant, is further complicated by the race issue and typically in the post civil rights era it is Conrad’s family who is bitterly opposed to the match. All these lovers are a far cry from Nancy’s permanent boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, who is as much a WASP as she is, and hardly even kisses her. He was an afterthought in the series and only appeared in the seventh volume of the Nancy Drew adventures, apparently to provide her with “a little bit of chaste sex-appeal” as well as a taste of humanity 20. But in fact Nancy’s Heart Belongs to Daddy. Her mother conveniently died when she was very young. According to Lisa Schulman, far from being a traumatic element, this circumstance
- 21 L. Schulman, “Beloved Heroine”, NancyDrew.com -- Knowing Nancy, p.1.
provides her with an essential element of her appeal to young readers – her freedom from parental supervision [...].With the permission of her indulgent father, Nancy hops into the blue roadster or Mustang convertible and drives right into the shadowy underworld of crime”21.
- 22 See for example B. Caprio’s The Mystery of Nancy Drew: Girl Sleuth on the Couch, 1992.
10Mrs Drew is hardly ever mentioned by Nancy or her father, who don’t seem to miss her very much, contrary to some women detectives in contemporary fiction, somewhat paradoxically: Victoria Warshawski as well as Kinsey Millhone, who are both grown up women, still feel the loss of their parents, and frequently comment upon it. In the Nancy Drew series, it is up to the narrator to explain the situation briefly at the beginning of each story: “Mrs. Gruen had lived with the Drews since Nancy was three years old. At that time Mrs. Drew had passed away and Hannah had become like a second mother to Nancy” (The Hidden Staircase, 2). Nancy’s father, rich, tall, handsome, elegant, never married again and thus Nancy has no rival. Carson Drew is one of his daughter’s most fervent admirers: “Mr. Drew looked at his daughter admiringly” (The Secret of the Old Clock, 150) “Nancy’s father praised his daughter proudly” (The Hidden Staircase, 181), “Mr. Drew was very proud of the many baffling mysteries Nancy had solved” (The Clue of the Velvet Mask, 2) etc., and this admiration is totally reciprocated by Nancy. No doubt Freudian or other psychoanalytical criticism would have much to say – and has probably said it all22 – about the father/daughter relationship in the series. The same holds true with Nancy’s two girlfriends and “sidekicks”, the cousins George Fayne and Bess Marvin, who have been recently seen as a homosexual couple. They are total opposites: Bess is gracious and sweet and George who, as her masculine name implies (interestingly enough, she is called Marion in the French version), is outspoken and rather clumsy, has been identified by some contemporary critics as the “butch” of the duo. This is of course an interpretation: nothing in the text explicitly refers to homosexuality, be it male or female, even if some of the comments repeatedly made by the narrator could make the modern-day, post-Freudian adult reader suspicious, as for example in The Clue of the Velvet Mask:
Presently Ned and Nancy were recognized by two of their closest friends. Bess Marvin, a plump, jolly girl, was dressed as a Southern Belle. Another girl, George Fayne, who was her cousin, rushed over to greet them. With her short hair-cut and slim figure, George could fool anyone in her disguise as a boy. (6)
11If heterosexuality was clearly the norm in the Nancy Drew series, as in all children’s literature to this day, homosexuality is overtly mentioned in contemporary adult detective fiction: it is for example at the heart of the mystery in Marcia Muller’s The Cheshire Cat’s Eye and lesbian writers have overtly lesbian detectives, for example Helen Keremos in Eve Zaremba’s crime stories (Beyond Hope, for example, takes place in a community called Women’s Acres). Sexual attitudes have changed considerably over the past sixty years and modern private eyes are definitely the children of the 1960s.
12From a narrative point of view, there is also a big difference in the way the stories are told. True to their independent selves, Kinsey Millhone, Vic Warshawski, Sharon McCone, Carlotta Carlyle all tell their own stories themselves: they don’t need an outside narrator to relate their adventures. They have a specific voice. The heroine doubles as first person narrator, sometimes aggressively so. For example, all the early Kinsey Millhone start more or less in the same way:
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a licensed private investigator, doing business in Santa Teresa, California, which is ninety-five miles north of Los Angeles. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced. I like being alone and I suspect my independence suits me better than it should. (C is for Corpse, 1)
13Whereas the Nancy Drew stories are all told in the third person narrative by an omniscient narrator, who knows what every character in the story thinks, including Nancy. The beginning of the first episode of the series is typical:
Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark blue convertible. She had just delivered some legal papers for her father.
“It was sweet of Dad to give me this car for my birthday”, she thought. “And it’s fun to help him in his work”. (The Secret of the Old Clock, 1)
- 23 Nancy Drew: A Brief History” www.stratemeyer.net/stratemeyer/drew/nancydrew.html, p.1.
- 24 L. Schulman, “Beloved Heroine”, NancyDrew/com -- Knowing Nancy, p.1.
14However, in spite of all these differences, there are nonetheless essential similarities between Nancy Drew the “girl detective” of the 1930s and American women private eyes in contemporary detective fiction. They share the same basic qualities. First and foremost, Nancy Drew’s name “is now a common term in American popular culture: movies, plays, television shows and books for adults use ‘Nancy Drew’ as a short-hand reference for any woman who is determined, inquisitive and unafraid of risks”23. Nancy may be Daddy’s little girl, she may do all the things upper-middle class girls were supposed to do in the 1930s – she drives her car, rides horses, goes to dances, is involved in charities, spends a lot of her father’s money on clothes, etc. – yet, she is tough. At the University of Iowa conference I mentioned earlier on, her physical courage was cited as one particularly positive trait, making her a true role model for young girls. She is definitely not a Barbie doll. Lisa Schulman notes that Nancy’s favorite color is not pink, but blue, the traditional color for boys, and goes on to say that “this is entirely appropriate, given that the daring girl sleuth has from the very beginning posed as much of a challenge to gender stereotypes as she has to criminals”24. And indeed she is full of unexpected skills: for example, in The Secret of the Old Clock, she fixes the motor of her boat:
Nancy examined the motor. For over an hour she worked on it, trying every adjustment she could think of. But her efforts were useless. There was not a sound of response from the motor (...) To occupy her mind, Nancy concentrated once more on the motor. Determinedly she bent over the engine. It was not until the sun sank low in the sky that she sat up and drew a long breath.
“There!” she declared. “I’ve done everything. If it doesn’t start now, it never will.”
To her relief and astonishment, it responded with a steady roar as if nothing had ever gone wrong! (98-9)
15Deborah Siegel reminds us that Nancy Drew “first captured the American imagination [...] ten years after women had secured the right to vote”. She goes on:
- 25 D. Siegel, art. cit., p.160.
she arrived on the heels of the era that witnessed the rise of the revolutionary demographic and political phenomeneon known as the New Woman (...) With the rise of the New Woman, Victorian constructions of feminity underwent drastic reconfiguration. In 1930 and beyond, the nation was still in the process of assimilating women’s new sociopolitical status, as well as reorienting to the ever-shifting ideological construct of “the feminine”. Images of “womanhood” – and with it “girlhood” – figured varyingly in the nation’s popular imagination.25
16Nancy Drew is in fact depicted as having the positive traits of both traditional gender roles: she can change the tyre on her car as well as bake a cake, and as Lisa Schulman points out, “she is brave, confident and daring but also polite, caring, sensitive and kind”26. Her appeal to today’s feminists is understandable. She does not just wait for Mr. Right to help her solve her problems and she is very self-reliant. Her attitude to Ned Nickerson, her boy friend, is also totally atypical for the period but in tune with her character. The reader sometimes feels Nancy could do very well without him – and does so in the first six episodes in the series. He is useful to provide an acceptable social background for Nancy as he escorts her to dances and so on. Interestingly enough, it is in the new series – “The Nancy Drew Files” and “On Campus” – that Ned is given more importance, whereas in the original series their personal relationship took a back seat to the solving of mysteries. On Her Own, the second book in the Nancy Drew “On Campus” series, focuses on whether she should or should not stay with Ned. As one reader in the “Nancy Drew Newsgroup” on the Internet says: “I like Ned and wish Nancy would stop worrying about guys and get back to what she does best – solve mysteries”27! Is Nancy Drew going to reflect once more a new twist in the history of feminism? It is as yet to early to tell.
17To conclude, one might say that even though female private eyes in contemporary American fiction are undoubtedly the daughters of their time, the children of the civil rights movements and the sexual revolutions, they nevertheless share many qualities with Nancy Drew, herself a child of the 1930s. The image of girlhood and womanhood which is reflected both in the Nancy Drew stories and in fictional modern female detective novels (toughness and independence) could also perhaps be traced back to the ideal of the Frontier women. The Frontier experience being a typical American experience, this could explain – at least partly – why it is in the United States that so many female detective writers using female private investigators are to be found.