Early Reading Redux: Nancy Drew Mystery Stories
By Olivia Aylmer
Is it any wonder that a voraciously curious, whip-smart young woman in search of answers—no matter the dark paths they lead her down—feels like the heroine we desperately need in the constantly swirling chaos of 2018? Enter Nancy Drew: one of the first characters I encountered as a young reader who made braininess, independence, and confidence qualities to celebrate within myself, not shun.
I credit my grandmother, Marian, who, so I’ve been told, was about as precocious as they come in her youth, for passing along the secret of Nancy to me, somewhere around my ninth year. She had, wisely, kept her own childhood collection in pristine condition, and showed up at my house one day bearing an enviable selection of the earliest installments: The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, and The Mystery at Lilac Inn.
Before I’d turned the first page, I fell for the titles: twisted candles and broken lockets, whispering statues and missing maps? Say no more. As a girl whose favorite way to pass a languid summer afternoon consisted of sitting at the top of my backyard slide, thumbing through borrowed library books on all things supernatural and strange, the mysterious premises alone intrigued me like few other stories thus far had.
Then there were the charmingly cinematic illustrations, surprising readers every 40 or so pages; the addictively abundant cliffhangers which, for all their on-the-noseness, managed to sweep me into mystery after mystery, well past midnight; Nancy’s snappy blue roadster, her trusted conduit to hunting down “hot clues” on weekends; the swoon-worthy descriptions of special-occasion dressing (pink sheath dresses, aqua organdy); and topping the list, the spunky self-possession with which, at the end of The Mystery of Lilac Inn, Nancy tells her friends Helen and Emily, “For the present, my steady partner is going to be mystery!” Oh, Nancy: an unabashedly proud Single Lady before the term gained cultural clout via Beyoncé-slash-Rebecca Traister.
As I’ve come to learn in recent months, I’m not alone in my appreciation of Nancy Drew, the product of a ghostwritten series more than 80 years old. (As Jan Hoffman reported in the New York Times in 2009, Nancy Pelosi, currently Minority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, along with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Gayle King all count themselves as devoted Drew Heads.)
To my delight, a serendipitous Instagram post in homage to the series earlier this year revealed just how many women (and a few good men) in my life remain enamoured by Nancy, a fearless heroine who hinted at the possibility of a feminist future before the meaning of “feminism” had even entered our consciousness.
On Friday July 30, the inaugural meeting of The Nancy Drew Society was held at (where else?) Lavender Lake in Gowanus, Brooklyn. While a thunderous downpour moved the gathering indoors, a spirited conversation about Lilac Inn and Nancy’s lasting impact in our reading lives, then and now, unfolded.
Points of discussion ranged from the personal (echoes of “I’d kill for a ride in the roadster!” to an appreciation of the phrase “titian-haired sleuth” to discussions of Nancy’s romantic life, or refreshing lack thereof) to the political (comparisons between the 1930 and 1961 edition, the former of which was drastically rewritten based on the undeniably racist undertones of certain character depictions).
We mused about the relative absence of Nancy’s inner life, paired with her perfectionist tendencies, raising questions about the shallow emotional surface level upon which her adventures unfolded.
Someone wondered aloud about the etymological origins of “skin diving” (turns out it was quite the popular turn of phrase for something like snorkeling between the 1950s-1970s).
One woman fessed up to only making it through the first 10 pages a mere hour before the event, though she had every intention of finishing the book in subsequent subway commutes (look, all levels of Nancy fandom welcome!).
And a man in his mid-twenties recalled his mother’s well-kept collection of vintage editions, made possible by several years of babysitting money. As a young boy, he recalled feeling that the books were somehow “off-limits” and never allowed himself to dip into one, despite his curiosity, opting for the occasional Hardy Boys installment instead—an unconscious gender bias he recently absolved himself of upon devouring Lilac Inn during an otherwise tedious morning of jury duty selection.
One can only imagine such dogged commitment to the task at hand would have made Nancy proud.
Olivia Aylmer is a writer, formerly with Vanity Fair and currently at The Wing!