I’m sure you remember Nancy Drew? The much celebrated Girl Sleuth has been one of America’s most enduring heroines of juvenile fiction for over eighty years. She has been the star of theatrical films, multiple television series, and a popular line of computer games. When I asked if you remembered Nancy Drew, the expected answer was really not a mystery at all. Everyone remembers the “Titian haired teen detective from River Heights.” A more precise question might be which Nancy Drew do you remember? Nancy Drew has changed over the years although she certainly doesn’t look “eighty-something!” The original Nancy was a Feminist icon who inspired young readers of both genders with the then radical idea that women could do anything men could do …and they might just do it better! She was independent and had no hesitancy in speaking her mind. She was a keen observer of the world around her and she was not afraid to speak up if she saw something that offended her sense of right and wrong. She was a role model and her adventures motivated young readers to the extent that some of them eventually grew up to become pioneers in their respective fields. Women like Hillary Clinton, Diane Sawyer, and Gloria Steinem fondly recalled how the brainy and beautiful sleuth had thrilled and inspired them to aspire to academic and professional success. The description of the literary detective and her influence sounds uniformly positive until you consider how she changed after here initial appearances.
Nancy Drew’s stories were written by ghost writers who used the corporate pseudonym of Caroline Keene. The problem was cracks in Nancy’s picture-perfect porcelain façade began to appear when the owners of the character decided they wanted her depiction to change from the manner in which she was first described. The spunky Nancy was largely the creation of Mildred Benson but as a staff writer she had little control over the character when her employers decided to tame the Girl Sleuth in more ways than one. New writers were hired and changes became all too apparent. Readers didn’t need a magnifying glass to see how their heroine had changed! A more conservative view began to dominate the fictional world Nancy inhabited. She was abruptly changed to conform to a well-mannered young lady who deferred to all adults and never had a negative word to say or even to think about anyone she encountered. She continued to risk her life in the pursuit of justice but she did so in white gloves and kitten heels. The Nancy Drew of the 1959 revisions was a shadow of her original self when it came to attitude and appearance.
By the seventies economic demands and publishing trends led to more changes. Nancy Drew began to appear in shorter paperbacks that were simultaneously aimed at the teen romance audience while also being simplifier in terms of plot and vocabulary to appeal to less demanding readers. The cover art changed as well and Nancy was depicted as a younger girl with a much more provocative demeanor.
In recent years, Nancy’s strange evolution has continued in several different ways. There are books aimed at the youngest readers in which she is a child sleuth who deals with innocuous and bland mysteries. She also appears in more traditional form in graphic novels that draw upon the popularity of Japanese Manga art. Finally, in early 2013 the first books in the new Nancy Drew Diaries series appeared. The new books combine first person narrations with cutting edge technology and a slightly flawed and more realistic Nancy; however, the plots again lack the depth found in the original books.
It seems obvious that no matter how she is viewed by her ever changing creators and no matter what may be found in her “clues” closet; Nancy Drew continues to appeal to a wide audience in a variety of formats. She’s not going away and for that countless readers are grateful!