Times change, but Nancy Drew has lost none of her appeal

[15 June 2007]

By Jackie Burrell

Contra Costa Times (MCT)

WALNUT CREEK, Calif.—River Heights, fancy frocks and a gleaming blue roadster—the very words conjure up images of days gone by, when Nancy Drew zipped around town catching crooks and thrilling young readers with her adventures.

More than 75 years later, Nancy’s still at it, solving fictitious crimes and winning fans from college campuses to the Senate floor. Now, one can buy Nancy Drew pajamas, video games and manga comic books, too. The titian-haired sleuth drives a hybrid and chats by cell phone in the newest mysteries—and she hits the silver screen this Friday in “Nancy Drew” the movie.

But Nancy Drew is more than a fictional character, says Drew expert Jennifer Worick, who wrote the pint-sized “Nancy Drew’s Guide to Life.” She’s an icon whose appeal crosses generations and builds connections.

“Women feel connected to each other and the story,” says Worick. “I can talk to my mom about things because she read those books as well. It’s a common currency among women of certain ages. (Nancy Drew) kind of transcends trends, in the same way that `Little House on the Prairie’ does.”

Artist Susan Leibovitz Steinman was just 8 when she caught her first glimpse of Nancy Drew, a girl who could do anything and go anywhere.

“I was completely addicted to them,” she says. “I got them out of the library, and I read every single one. I wished that I was Nancy Drew.”

Private eye Francie Koehler was 9, and smitten by the teen who flew planes, rode horses and solved crimes. “I lived her adventures vicariously,” she says. “I was her.”

The intrepid sleuth first captured hearts in 1930, when the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s ghostwriters penned Nancy’s first foray, “The Secret of the Old Clock.” But as recently as the 1980s, librarians and scholars still turned up their noses at the character’s pop appeal.

Now, she provides fodder for scholarly books, conferences—there’s one this weekend in Pasadena, Calif.—and even college courses.

St. Mary’s College professor Janice Doane, for example, taught an English lit course last year that traced the literary roots of modern-day female detectives from Nancy Drew back through the pre-Sherlock Holmes era.

“For a long time, detective fiction was considered beneath the dignity of any serious scholar,” Doane says. “The story goes that Carolyn Heilbrun, aka Amanda Cross, wrote her detective fiction under a pseudonym until she got tenure at Columbia University, fearful that if the word got out that she wrote detective fiction, she wouldn’t be considered a serious scholar. All of that has changed over the last two decades.”

Scholars seem to have forgiven Nancy Drew for being popular and started delving into both her literary antecedents and her legacy.

Doane herself has been a Drew-ophile since childhood. “I think what everyone else found appealing about Nancy worked for me, too,” she says. “She is an independent, smart young person who had the perfect life—a caring, generous father who gave her a lot of freedom, a housekeeper who didn’t demand much of Nancy except that she show up for the `yummy’ meals that were cooked for her, good friends and lots of adventures.”

Like everyone else, Doane stayed up late, reading by flashlight. “There was just enough scary adventure to keep one turning the pages far into the night when you were supposed to be asleep,” she says. “I am sure that on some level, Nancy’s reliance on her intelligence, her determination and fighting spirit were sources of inspiration for all of us. Forty years ago, there just weren’t enough of those kind of young girls in fiction.”

But what surprised Doane now was the reaction of her students, teens and young twentysomethings who loved Nancy Drew every bit as much as she had.

“I was sure that students would roll their eyes at Nancy Drew,” she says, “the dated language, the quaint characters, the hint of racism and condescension about poor people, the hokey villains.”

The students saw all that, of course, but they loved the detective’s combination of femininity, intelligence and spunk.

“Part of the continuing appeal for women is that Nancy doesn’t resort to cold, logical, detached thinking or aggressive violence,” says Doane. “Rather, she seems to vindicate intelligence that is often reliant upon intuition, and she has strong, admirable social skills.”

Those qualities have endeared the character to such high-profile politicos as U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and first lady Laura Bush, who hung a Nancy Drew ornament on the White House Christmas Tree one year.

But they also resound with a significantly younger crowd.

There are 76 Nancy Drew fan groups on the college-centric social networking site Facebook.com, and it’s not restricted by age or gender. One group includes 219 fans who want “to be Nancy Drew with her pumps and all.”

Male students from Ohio State University discuss Nancy Drew’s hotness on one discussion thread. Teens and young twentysomethings share their sleuthing obsessions on others.

“I have every hardcover Nancy Drew book,” writes one student, “and have searched my whole house for secret passageways.”

And many view the upcoming movie with a certain level of anxiety. Fans fret that 16-year-old star Emma Roberts looks too young and her hair’s too brown; that Max Thieriot, the actor playing boyfriend Ned Nickerson, doesn’t look like the cover of volume No. 46; and that virtually every other film and television adaptation has disappointed.

It doesn’t help that TV’s Pamela Sue Martin followed up her run as Nancy Drew with a Playboy modeling gig, wearing naught but a trench coat—although perhaps the Ohio State contingent would have approved.

But film consultant Jenn Fisher—her Web site NancyDrewSleuth.com is the sine qua non for Drew fans—says she can’t wait. Don’t worry about Roberts’ hair, she says. It has reddish highlights. And director Andy Fleming is a big Nancy Drew fan, although she filled in gaps for him about the famous roadster, Carson Drew’s law practice and Nancy’s mother.

So, did Fisher save the movie from any truly egregious errors?

“George had been called Georgie in the script and I said no,” she says. “George is just George.”


Sidekicks Bess and George are as important to the Nancy Drew chemistry as, well, Ned, housekeeper Hannah Gruen, dad Carson and all the assorted villains put together.

“We lived through (Nancy)—and you had these wonderful sidekicks,” says mystery author Penny Warner, whose “The Official Nancy Drew Handbook” publication in November is timed to coincide with the new movie’s DVD release. Warner fell in love with the book series in sixth grade, after a bout of mononucleosis felled her for two months.

Fortunately, a neighbor had the entire Nancy Drew collection. Warner started with “The Secret of the Old Clock” and worked her way through all 56 classics, from jewel heists to crocodiles.

Warner didn’t just read about Nancy’s heart-pounding escapades; she says she learned about Morse code and picked up tips on how to escape perilous situations, too.

“I think she rescued (Ned) one time from quicksand,” says Warner, “which, as you know, is all over San Ramon Valley, so you need to know that. And what to keep in your car, how to get out of a canoe, fashion tips while you’re in danger. She was kind of like a MacGyver.”

The books, says Warner, “made girls want to do the things she did. They gave us a sense of power we didn’t have.”

Even today, the classic books continue to sell well. Nancy Drew fills two shelves at Pleasant Hill’s Borders bookstore, and significant real estate at Lafayette’s Storyteller, too.

“I think girls have found them on their own, or their moms or grandmothers bought them,” says the Storyteller’s Lori Bahr, who describes herself as “more of an Encyclopedia Brown girl.”

And it’s the classics, not the updated versions, that captured the fancy of teens Bethany Walls and Sarah El Mossalamy when they were young. Nancy Drew was the antidote, says Walls, to all those stories about puppies and kittens.

“My sister used to read it to me,” said El Mossalamy. “It was the best.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/times-change-but-nancy-drew-has-lost-none-of-her-appeal/