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. ;)



11 responses to “The Female Detective: Nancy Drew

  1. Most teen crime-solvers are doing so from a position of privilege; in large part, it’s that privilege that gives them plausibility. The only reason they can do what they do is because they’re rich and, worst case scenario, they can be bailed out by their connections. The more realism you try to add to those sorts of characters, the less flexibility one has in the breadth of stories and settings you can place them in. It also adds a decent bit of fairytale-ish whimsy to otherwise dangerous and threatening situations that can allow for the stories to be enjoyed without too much fear for kid in that situation. Take that privilege and whimsy away from your junior-sleuths, and you might end up with something like Blue Velvet…

    And Frank Booth would’ve gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling kids!

    • Too true.

      I realized that my post was more of a musing as I was rereading it. I have to agree with what you’ve said–but also to point out that dear Nancy is a product of her time and now we have characters like Veronica Mars, not rich but still white, who can go to great lengths to solve mysteries… does she get away with it because she’s a cute blonde or because she is smart and the daughter of the ex-sheriff?


      • One of the lynchpins of most junior detective stories is having responsible and well-connected adults who can act as a safety net.

        Being the daughter of a law enforcement officer is what sells the plausibility.

        The character could be male/female, attractive/unattractive, black/white/whatever, and it wouldn’t matter as much towards suspension of disbelief as if the character’s parents were some combination of wealthy, in politics, in academia or in law enforcement.

        • ^_^ I like to pick your brain.

          The net of plausibility is expanding here in our definition–which is great! And hopefully, we can look forward to some young contemporary detectives of varying colour and backgrounds, but for the moment, Nancy, Veronica and their pretty white contemporaries remain.

  2. I grew up with Nancy Drew, so I suppose my opinion would be biased. I always liked the fact that even though she has all of these things, she chooses to help people and solve mysteries and go on adventures. She’s different from your typical privileged white teenager because she’s doing something with herself. If we had a story about a rich girl using her money to just travel the world, I’d have some complaints. But I always looked up to Nancy for being smart, adventurous, and (for lack of a better word) cute. Sometimes it’s hard to find female role models that are girly AND intelligent/academic.

    • I am also biased, I too enjoyed Nancy for being a smart girl and ineffably doing the right thing. It’s just, looking back on her I cringe a little to see the systemic issues inherent from the 1950s on and all the entrenched norms. Perhaps, we can consider the Nancy novels those that, despite their flaws, have endured simply because they are good stories with a character who is enjoyed by many. :)
      Thank you for the comment!

  3. I agree, it’s important to look at texts within their historical context. A book that seems terribly outdated to us might have been quite progressive for its time. Nancy Drew was a young woman who solved crimes, which regardless of her colour or income was itself was quite progressive in an era in which most young women’s socially-acceptable career prospects were severely limited.

    It’s also important to remember that, for many of us, books are indeed an escape – that’s precisely why we read! I was a lower-income, chubby, non-blonde white girl growing up, but that was certainly the last thing I wanted to read about, I knew far too much about my own reality, and would much rather have read about pretty rich white girls with exciting lives and daydreamed about how lovely that life must’ve been. While it is of course important that children be able to see their realities represented in fiction, it also important that they have options for escaping those realities, and to read books featuring characters whose lives are entirely different from their own.

    Though let’s be honest, I never really read Nancy Drew. I was always a Hardy Boys fan. They had waaaay better adventures. ;)

    • I’ve started rereading the Nancy Drew books now (I read maybe 3 as a kid? Way more into survival stories and Redwall then). They’re funny, both amusing and in the sense of a social text cluing me into what was normal/acceptable/ideal in the time and place they were written in, and the ideas about the world they convey. No mystery today, for instance, would allow a protagonist who so gently convinces criminals to reform. Reading the books with that in mind is at least as entertaining as the mysteries themselves – also, reading with an eye for the different authors in the series. Some of the books vary rather a lot in tone and authorial skill (the fourth book ends on a three-plus page infodump of a monologue by the lead villain).
      Are the Hardy Boys really better? They have more action, but one of them is always knocked on the head or otherwise rendered unconscious at some point :p

      • I do remember loving certain Nancy Drew adventures more than others and now, looking back, I realize it was probably because of the authors. Interesting! :)
        Also, yeah, Nancy is laughably gentle by today’s standards.

  4. Nancy Drew is what began the fun in reading for myself as an 8 year old. I remember one holiday when I took about 11 books of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys along with me incase of boredom.

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