Back in the ’50s, when I was 10 or so, I must have read a dozen Nancy Drew volumes. I liked mysteries, and I was attracted by the exotic names (The Sign of the Twisted Candles, The Password to Larkspur Lane) and the pretty blonde girl on the dust jackets. They weren’t very well written, but either I didn’t notice or I didn’t care. As for their author, Carolyn Keene, I assumed she was a kind of grown-up Nancy.
By now, of course, Nancy Drew fans are aware that Carolyn Keene wasn’t a real person, that the books were cobbled together by editors from the Stratemeyer Syndicate (first Edward Stratemeyer and then his daughter Harriet) and ghostwriters (at first mostly Mildred Wirt), in the same way that the Syndicate did the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys and the Tom Swift volumes. The plots aren’t exactly Agatha Christie level, there are spoiler titles (whose idea was it to call a story about how someone can slip in and out of a locked house The Hidden Staircase?), and Nancy never met an adverb she didn’t like (“Nancy announced firmly”). But that hasn’t stopped Nancy Drew from selling 200 million copies. Starting in the late ’50s, Harriet Stratemeyer and her staff rewrote the early volumes, making them less dated and racist and inserting more action. (The racist stereotypes notwithstanding, not everyone agrees that the rewrites are an improvement.) Subsequent spinoffs have been aimed at different age groups: The Nancy Drew Files, The Nancy Drew Notebooks, Nancy Drew: On Campus, Nancy Drew Girl Detective, Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew. There was a short-lived ’70s TV series with Pamela Sue Martin (who went on to do a “Nancy Drew Undraped” spread for Playboy); there are Nancy Drew computer games and manga-style graphic novels. A 50th-anniversary bash in New York City in 1980 drew fans including Bette Davis, Barbara Walters, Beverly Sills, Fran Lebowitz, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Mayor Ed Koch.
There’s not much mystery as to what makes Nancy so popular. She’s independent, she’s resourceful, and she excels in whatever she takes up, whether it’s tap-dancing or growing prize delphiniums, riding bareback or flying a plane. Although she’s never so much as kissed him, hunky college football quarterback Ned Nickerson is hers for the asking. (But does she want him when tall, handsome, authoritative Carson Drew seems more like a husband than a father?) She believes in a world where you figure out what has to be done and then do it, where you smile and the world smiles back. It’s the world Nancy Drew fans wish they lived in.