The Female Detective: Nancy Drew

Ah Nancy Drew.

loved Nancy Drew as a kid and, during my stint at the local bookstore in Ottawa, I surprisingly found myself, more than once, recommending a Nancy Drew as a great gift idea for a girl gearing up to launch into middle grade (and up) level books. I always recommend The Hidden Staircase or the Case of the Broken Locket or just number one The Secret of the Old Clock as these were some of my favourite originals.

I say “surprisingly” because I also found myself wondering just how dated Nancy Drew was and if she was still a good role model for a modern youngster that identifies as “girl,” if you know what I mean. I think what sticks in my craw is that on one hand, for the boys, we have superhero figures like Batman and The Green Lantern and then for the girls we have beautiful blonde, heterosexual and in so many ways mundane Nancy Drew. . . but is that really so bad?

The Nancy Drew that I remember, published in the 1930s-1950s (Volumes 1 – 56) was certainly a sort of mythic character, she was rich and beautiful (blond and blue eyed, of course) but she was also independent, successful, and incredibly self-confident as she endeavoured to uncover the truth. Like so many classic female figures, and certainly equally as flawed as the Batman figure, Nancy Drew has her drawbacks but was and remains an iconic feminist figure in literature for young people and in the criticisms of that literature (see Deborah Siegel, Nancy Pickard and also Amanda Cross for examples).

Here are some traits that make her excellent: Not only is she very keen and smart, she is independent and successful at what she does mostly because of her unwavering confidence in finding the truth. What is wonderful is that Nancy doesn’t necessarily just rely on herself, she has friends and family (particularly her father) on which she relies and calls upon frequently on her cases and this is incredibly refreshing despite it’s publication date. What’s more these are genuinely intriguing mysteries that aren’t (or at least aren’t all) easy to figure out before Nancy, which means readers are swept right along with our detective from beginning to end. I think Nancy offers a version of (white, privileged) girlhood that blends convention with practicality and competence. While Nancy is often close to home, family and friends and so more domestic than, say, The Hardy Boys even, she does take risks in order to do what she believes is right–and when in a sticky situation (bound and gagged, as she often is) it is she that rescues herself more often than not.

Some flaws? Well, the fact that Nancy is a pretty white girl in a privileged financial position is an issue and also helps her as she solves crimes–she has a convertible car (of several different makes over the years), she is often travelling far away for these mysteries (I remember ski lodges, summer homes/cottages, even European trips). Not to mention the few times that being an adorable girl helps her uncover clues or evade imminent danger. This last isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it makes Nancy just that much more larger than life. I must admit that over the years the series has been updated and edited for some of these flaws, but the core Nancy character remains the same for all intents and purposes.

So, in the end, I’m still a little torn about good old Nancy. I still love her and the idea of her, but as an adult looking back, I can see that she doesn’t necessarily offer that reflection that readers are looking for but instead offers an unattainable ideal–an escape only. Yet, I can’t help thinking that the good character traits in Nancy were before their time, proto-feminist if you will, and make her a stand-out character even today.

Indeed, the Nancy Drew series must be doing something right because it is the longest-running girls’ detective series in publication (that I know of) as she is turning 86 this year and there are still new Nancy Drew iterations being released! Some for the younger readers called Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew and new issues of the classic series all written by Carolyn Keene (not actually an author but instead a group of writers, men and women, interesting!).

As with everything perhaps Nancy Drew is best enjoyed with a little grain of salt. Great stories, offering fun banter, creative mysteries and a confident, independent and amiable heroine (even if she is a little too white-sliced-bread for contemporary savvy readers).

Enjoy responsibly. 😉