Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Titian Haired Sleuth Turns 80!

I just discovered via facebook that today is the 80th anniversary of the first appearance of Nancy Drew. Coincidentally, when I saw it, I was in the middle of a blog post about Agatha Christie's early (and much maligned) adventurous flapper books which I think sprung out of the same post-war cultural moment as Nancy Drew.

I love mysteries more than any other kind of book, and although the Nancy Drew books weren't the first ones I read (that honor belongs to Peggy Parrish), I first read them when I was very, very young and they influenced me tremendously. I love them, and for a while, when I had the money, I collected them semi-seriously (they might be the only thing about which I am seriously, embarrassingly geeky. I mean, I know about endpapers).

I think lots of women and girls take Nancy Drew very personally. She's just so perfect. She's smart and beautiful (titian haired, slender, dancing blue eyes) and kind and athletic and is freaking good at everything from ballroom dancing to car repair. I know some girls who are a little angered by her. But I loved all of it. The mysteries which were easy to solve as whoever was rudest always wound up being to blame, her friends Bess (timid, chubby) and "Nancy's boyish friend" George (every girl's first literary lesbian!). Her father, famed lawyer Carson Drew and her beloved housekeeper Hannah Gruen. Nancy lived in a world where she would simply leap into her blue convertable and dash off on adventures involving moss-covered mansions, ivory charms, tapping heels, whispering statues, brass bound trunks and missing maps. She never had to worry about school or money or seemingly anything except solving mysteries and helping the downtrodden who were always being victimized by mean rich people.

The books were consistently well written, mainly because a very small number of people wrote them and great care was taken. If you are interested in knowing who the writers were behind the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, I highly recommend the wonderful book Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak. The re-write that was inflicted on the books in the late 50s and 60s still makes me angry. The prose was flattened and simplified, and much of the charm and quality was lost. Go back to the earlier versions which are still pretty widely available, or the facsimile versions that came out in the 90s.

Nancy Drew stands like a colossus over girl culture. She is the first truly important figure of the modern age and the fact that she is still being published and read is staggering. I don't think there is a teen girl cultural icon that even comes close. If you go into Books of Wonder on 18th Street and ask them about why there are no Nancy Drew books in their (remarkable) rare and out of print section, they will tell you that whatever they acquire never makes the shelves. They are purchased instantly. The demand outstrips everything.

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