My if-you-like-Blyton post usually suggest books that are slightly less well-known, either newish authors or books that might have been forgotten over time. Whereas Nancy Drew is very much a household name, having been around since the 1930s in various incarnations. Still, I very much love her and I think that Blyton fan that might not have considered her already would enjoy her.
Who is Nancy Drew?
For anyone who has somehow not heard of her, Nancy Drew is an 18 year old amateur sleuth from the fictional town of River Heights (a fictional place) in Illinois.
She has solved baffling mysteries in well over 500 books (and that’s not including cross overs with the Hardy Boys or the recent graphic novels) but I will touch on the different series she appears in a little later.
Titian-haired Nancy lives with her father, Carson Drew, who is described as a famous (or sometimes prominent) lawyer. He often asks Nancy for help when he is working on a case (confidentiality be damned) and likewise she frequently consults him for advice on her cases. They are quite wealthy, living in a large house with a sweeping drive, and a live-in housekeeper. Nancy has her own car (a Mustang) and is regularly travelling both in the US and abroad for either fun or a mystery, though a mystery always turns up on her holidays too.
The housekeeper is Hannah Gruen, generally described as motherly or kind-hearted, and very close to Nancy since the untimely (or sudden) death of Mrs Drew when Nancy was three. (The bits in italics are things I can quote from memory as they are repeated in just about every book in the early chapters as they introduce the characters – just like the Famous Five each book is a complete story in itself and you needn’t have read any others let alone read them in order).
Nancy is often aided by her friends the cousins George Fayne and Bess Martin. George is actually a little like George Kirrin, described as tomboyish, slender and athletic, with short dark hair. She isn’t determined to be a boy but she is sporty and less prone to girlishness. Bess is the opposite of her cousin, blonde and often described as slightly plump. Although Bess is blonde I always picture her as Rosie O’Donnell as she looks in the Flintstones movie as Betty Rubble – without the cavewoman outfits, though.)
The main cast is rounded off by the love interests of the girls. Ned Nickerson has dated Nancy since high school, while his friends Burt Eddleton and Dave Evans date George and Bess respectively. One of them is tall and rangy, the other shorter and stockier but I can’t remember which way around it is!
Ned is generally considered a serious boyfriend to Nancy, while Burt and Dave are more casual dates of the other girls. Useful for local dances and events, but not a deep emotional connection. Ned and his friends are students at Emerson college (in one series anyway).
Those relationships don’t necessarily apply to all books. Dave and Burt didn’t appear until the 1950s, for example, and were then written out again in the late 1980s. Nancy and Ned have broken up a time or two in the 1980s on, in the Files books at any rate.
The different series
Nancy Drew Mysteries
The classic Nancy Drew Mysteries ran from 1930-2003, with 175 books. There are a few confusing points to highlight, though. Firstly, the UK did not publish the books in the same order as the US did, and so the series numbering is very different. The numbers below refer to the US publishing order as listed here, though the books are in a different order on my shelves.
The first 34 books were later rewritten – some with entirely new plots, though I believe all were shortened to meet a specific length, leading to some not making quite as much sense as they should.
There are different sections to the series, the first 34 which as above were rewritten, then books 35-56 which were written continuing on with the changes made to the earlier books (such as Nancy being only 16, and her mother dying when she was three, and not ten).
The books then moved to a different publisher (from Grosset & Dunlap to Simon & Schuster) and moved to paperback, with books 57-78 more or less following on with the same style and characters as the previous books, but adopting slightly more contemporary artwork. This is where my familiarity with the series ends – though this only takes us to 1985 which is before I was born. I suspect the quality of the later books meant lower sales and less reprints which is why I’ve not come across many.
Books 79-159 are from the S&S Minstrel imprint and began to add more contemporary technology and so on – which unsurprisingly has led to them being criticised for dating very quickly. Whereas books 1-78 do show the movement of time in slight changes to social customs and so on, they are fairly timeless.
And lastly books 160-175 are from the S&S Aladdin imprint. The criticisms of these are mostly that the continuity is poor, with the characters looks and jobs/education details being changed at random.
I would personally recommend books 35-78 as the best part of the series, closely followed by the first 34. I suspect that the first 34 would have been better in their original form, but of course Nancy being 16 and so on might make for a jarring change.
A last note is that Nancy never ages in the books. She is perpetually 18. I am sure she has several dozen summers over that time, and with mysteries that generally span at least a week if not two or more, then she would have aged at least 6 or 7 years in reality.
The Nancy Drew Files
Concurrent with the Minstrel books are the Nancy Drew Files. Several of these are amongst my favourite Nancy Drew books, despite being quite different to the originals.
These are set at the time they were written, the late 80s and early 90s, so will appear dated today – but then again the lack of any technology dates the originals. I think the difference is accepting a book will generally be dated to the time it was written and trying to update an old series to make it modern, despite modern not lasting very long.
These are perhaps for a slightly older audience as Nancy begins investigating more serious crimes such as murder. These are less cosy than the originals, which feature a lot of Scooby-Doo style fake hauntings (notable for straying from that trope is The Kachina Doll Mystery which has an actual ghost). There is peril in the original books, certainly, with Nancy locked in rooms in old houses while the criminals clear out, often tied up, but the Files does take this further with more serious threats to her life. The originals generally take the same line as with the Famous Five – with the baddies tying the children up and leaving them to be found later once they’ve finished with their activities.
Her relationship with Ned is also more grown up in the Files, with themes such as jealousy, long-distance relationships and so on explored, though they never go any further than affectionate hugs and brief kisses. As above they also break up and date other people but inevitably come back together in the end.
There are 124 of these, and I only have 41, mostly from books 1-74. It appears from the titles that from 70 on, and certainly from 98 on the books take a plunge into greater amounts of romance and the few I have from that time are not great.
I have a few absolute favourites:
- Trouble in Tahiti (historic murder and scuba diving)
- Danger in Disguise (political campaign and blackmail)
- Vanishing Act (rock star disappears mid-concert and is presumed dead)
- Bad Medicine (cheating scandal at a university leading to attempts on students’ lives)
- Over the Edge (suspicious accidents at an outdoor sports centre)
There are also a few series from the 2000s, but they all seem pretty terrible. There’s at least one aimed at younger readers, and diaries from Nancy’s perspective.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Carolyn Keene doesn’t exist. As a child I think I eventually realised that one woman probably hadn’t written all the books, not when they started in 1930 and were still going in the 90s. I think I thought that Keene was real, though, and the later books were ghost written to continue the series, much like with the Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M Martin. Though I didn’t know about the BSC back then, I actually assumed that Martin had written them all.
The books have had various authors over the years, but started with Mildred Wirt (later known as Mildred Wirt Benson), and with many early titles by Harriet Stratmeyer Adams.
Stratmeyer is an important name as the series was created by Edward Stratmeyer of the Stratmeyer Syndicate which had created the Hardy Boys four years earlier. (Franklin W Dixon is also a pseudonym.) Edward Stratmeyer wrote the outlines for the first three books, and edited them, before handing over much of those processes to his daughter, Harriet until 1981, which is the year before she died.
Despite all the different authors the series is very strong continuity-wise (excluding the impossible timeline). They stick to a tried-and-tested style, down to particular words and phrases being used from book to book, and this makes each one seem like an old friend. Nancy always behaves exactly as Nancy would, and so do her friends (even if on occasion this means they made the same sort of mistake more than once).
The mystery solving
When it comes to mysteries Nancy is a methodical sleuth. She works rather like Fatty of the Five-Find Outers, but with a car. She looks at the means, motives and opportunities, questions witnesses and suspects, finds a lot of secret passages and strange devices.
She has, however, got the back up of Chief McGinnis, head of police in River Heights who is always willing to vouch for her should she get into trouble, at home or elsewhere.
Nancy isn’t afraid of a bit of dressing up or false identities either. She even enlists her friends to go places she can’t, if she’s already been seen by the suspects for example. They do work together as a team but Nancy is definitely in charge, and often goes it alone. Her father does prefer it if she takes Ned, or at least her cousins with her, though.
Some of her mysteries just fall into her lap. Either an old friend (she must have hundreds of these) phones her for help, or she bumps into them looking distressed in a public place. Sometimes she bumps into distressed strangers and then embroils herself in their difficulties. Other times she is called or written to by friends, or friends of friends and asked to look into a mystery for them. Inevitably there are various red herrings along the way, and sometimes a secondary mystery. Often someone tries to prevent Nancy from setting off to where she needs to be or tries to deter her from investigating with various threats.
I don’t think this post has really done the books justice, but I do know that now I have a real hankering to re-read them. I have over 130 of them, and my instinct is to read them all in order (even though they can all stand alone)… but maybe I could break that rule so I can read my favourites first?