There's No Mystery Here
The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys is a misnomer. In the formulaic detective stories, the reader knows where everything is going—a gilded, heroic, happy ending—but doesn’t know how the young sleuths will arrive there. But in this illustrated book by Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman (authors of Growing Up with Dick and Jane), the reader is never surprised. There are no twists or turns. The ending, however, is far from assured, simply because it feels like the authors themselves don’t know where they are going.
I can only imagine this book came about because Kismaric, a photography editor, and Heiferman, a curator and writer, were in love with the illustrations that grace the pages of the mysteries of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. The book seems at times like a curated exhibit of these illustrations. Some fans of the series will be happy simply to page through the book, looking at the pictures and reliving their own experiences under the covers with a flashlight and a new mystery. Those readers who expect anything from the text, however, will be sorely disappointed.
The authors want to undertake a study of the girl sleuth and boy detectives as they reflected and shaped popular American culture over the years. The idea, at least, has potential. Examine two of the most popular children’s book characters for what they can show us about growing up in the United States. However, the execution quickly goes awry with countless sidebar photos with inappropriate captions, such as the one below a photo of the ice skater Peggy Fleming that reads, “Like the athletic Nancy Drew, she was no slouch when it came to winning honors.” Inane moments like these may cause the reader to toss the book across the room.
Even worse, however, are the full-page historical digressions that serve as shockingly simplistic synopses of the Civil Rights Movement, the fears of juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, and the struggle for women’s equality. These passages seem to be written for people who are unfamiliar with the events they attempt to summarize. One continually wonders, reading these dumbed-down versions of history, whether the authors’ intended audience was adults or children.
The point, if there is one, of providing the extraneous and baldly reductive “historical” context of the books is to contrast the young crime fighters with the boys and girls who were reading about them. Here’s a typically infuriating sentence that combines grand, unsupported assertions, pop psychology, sloppy writing, and atrocious similes: “The Hardy Boys’ bravery and Nancy Drew’s self-assurance are pure inspiration for kids whose lives are defined by changes and confusion, whose growing bodies often feel like haunted houses.” And it’s all so simplistic, too. Here’s the lesson, if you’re interested: The Hardy Boys presented American boys a model of rough-and-ready manliness combined with a dedication to fair play, while Nancy Drew existed in an almost-otherworldly state of intelligence, confidence, and chastity.
Some other lessons learned: The idea of adolescence changed over the years from 1927, when the first Hardy Boys mystery, The Tower Treasure, was published, through today, when both series have been revamped for the 21st century. Children read books to escape the “troubles” of their daily lives—troubles like “braces and pimples, homework, and nagging parents.” This is what passes for cultural analysis within the covers of The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew & the Hardy Boys.
Kismaric and Heiferman continually insult both the intelligence and the taste of their readers, offering sentence after poorly written sentence, making the same stale points over and over (Nancy Drew was a model for nonconformist young girls? Oh, really?), and going nowhere. Entire sections are taken up with lengthy quotations from multiple books, all of which illustrate the same obvious point. For example, did you know that the Hardy Boys were constantly in danger? If you didn’t, you surely will after reading nearly 600 words and three long quotations that make the point again and again.
For what it’s worth, there are a few interesting tidbits strewn among the dross and dreck of the prose. The authors relate the history of Edward Stratemeyer, the creator of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, and dozens of other children’s book series. Stratemeyer ran his “Syndicate,” as it came to be called, with a firm but generous hand, expecting much from his ghost writers, but doling out liberal bonuses and praise for jobs well done. When he died in 1930 his daughter, Harriet Adams, became the driving editorial force behind the Syndicate, exercising ever-tighter control over her authors as the years rolled on.
One fascinating piece of information conveyed with remarkable brevity is the story of how Adams revamped all the books for the modern reader, beginning in the late ‘50s. She directed authors to update the classic tales of Frank and Joe Hardy and Nancy Drew, earning her abuse from traditionalists, but record profits from young readers who had never read the originals. Her main focus in revising the books was shortening them by 20 percent, while at the same time narrowing the scope of vocabulary used. Sentences were made increasingly “peppy,” one of Adams’ favorite words. Kismaric and Heiferman see this drive toward revision as an example of changing the books “for kids whose attention spans were growing shorter,” without a word about the possibility of the converse proposition.
In short, the book is a mess—awkwardly written, shoddily constructed, and poorly argued. While devotees may appreciate the copious illustrations, and historians may find one or two interesting pieces in the story of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, fans of the young detectives would be better served by returning to the classic tales, preferably late at night with a flashlight under the covers.