Once I’d worked my way through all the British children’s books in our sleepy little library, there wasn’t much left to read. Kid lit wasn’t a booming business in those days and the Brits had a lock on the market–until I discovered Nancy Drew. I was hooked at once–a girl with her own cool car and a father who admired her audacity, no particular work to do (she must have been finished with high school) and unlimited funds to pursue her whims. Which were mostly about solving crimes. The girl dug up a lot of crimes.
I knew nothing about teams of writers and syndicated series with composite pen names. I thought Carolyn Keene must be some wise and fabulous author-creature just spinning out these heartstopping adventures with the redoubtable Nancy and her eventual girlfriends George and Bess (not in the first book) and her faithful if mostly absent boyfriend Ned Nickerson. And that blue roadster–was a brilliant sleuth ever so blond, so clever, so free?
Re-reading a classic Nancy Drew mystery may not have been an inspired idea. The Secret of the Old Clock is the first book in the series and it was daring and thrilling–and antiquated and a bit yellowed around the edges. Everyone thinks Nancy is the bee’s knees and she gets into and out of Mortal Danger as easily as you might change your socks. There is a mysteriously missing will that may or may not actually exist–although Nancy is sure it does. There are poor but deserving relations and horrible, greedy beneficiaries of a coerced will. There are frightening storms and bad guys who Harm Our Heroine (by locking her in a closet) and barely a clue–but Nancy misses nothing. No clue is safe from her relentless prying. She’s a bit too prissily honorable but that just made her an unambiguous White Hat in a gray world–kids love that stuff.
Serviceable writing–would not make it out of the slushpile today. Nancy tells every thought in her mind in an extremely awkward attempt at exposition. I devoured those books and never knew–ah, well. Reflections of the times: caretakers were “colored” and spoke in a pronounced southern dialect that could have been lifted from a minstrel show. Crooks are very crooked, and unlettered and crude–and kind of stupid, too. Coincidence is practically all caps–a clue is dropped and the foreshadowed disaster happens within a page or two; Nancy wants to find something and she suddenly needs to look in a place she has been invited to just that moment.
But, for a little kid in a boring life who had been expressly forbidden to check out any Francoise Sagan novels after demolishing the juvenile section, Nancy Drew was salvation. The books were first introduced in the 1930s (hence the dated cultural references, later cleaned up) and the series continued so I had to wait for Christmas and birthdays for each new one. Vivid memory of small child wedged behind the Christmas tree, head buried in a brand new book. I should thank Carolyn Keene, whomever they were. (There were a number of royalty-free ghostwriters over the years, since identified but probably not cut in on the loot.) I’ve never stopped reading since. And I still love a good detective mystery, even without the snappy blue roadster.
Nancy Drew was good at everything, pretty, smart, popular, confident, wealthy and successful. Guess who I wanted to be when I grew up? So that’s how you hook girls. Give ’em an old clock hiding a secret, an intrepid heroine with an expensive car, and a crisis to manage. A modest dash of personal danger spices things up nicely. And, if a perfect, pampered girl with not much at stake who speaks several languages and always wins her cases doesn’t do it for you, give the girl a makeover, a bow and arrow, national TV exposure and a fight to the death and…oh, wait. Vintage Nancy Drew lived in a utopia. Maybe her world wouldn’t make any sense to a little girl today.
NANCY DREW THE SECRET OF THE OLD CLOCK #1 Carolyn Keene | Grosset & Dunlap, Simon & Schuster, Applewood Books 1991