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What Women Mystery Writers and Female Sleuths Owe to Nancy Drew


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Someone who read an early draft of my novel The Marsh Queen wrote me to say, “Loni is like a girl-detective grown up.” She meant it as a compliment, and I took it as one. There might be more than one girl-detective, but the one I understood her to mean, of course, was Nancy Drew, the protagonist who showed girls they could be detectives and probably anything else they wanted.

Nancy was a regular person—a teenager with a reasonable dad, a sometimes clueless boyfriend, and incredible curiosity. I know, I know, “Carolyn Keene” might have been a room full of writers churning out stories for an enthusiastic, if gullible, easy-reader audience base. However, the basic template focused on Nancy’s character. She was stalwart, she could tell when something wasn’t right, and she wasn’t afraid to take risks if she needed to find something out. Often, she put herself in peril to pursue an answer.

Don’t all mystery writers hope for such a character? We might make our heroes and heroines more complex, more flawed, or more psychologically dark, but the thread that pulls readers through our stories is the desire to know, which Nancy modeled in every book. Along with that, her confidence that she could find out, in spite of the odds against her, gave her young female audience a bit of confidence too. In their lives outside the covers of the books, they might have been dismissed as “just girls,” but while they read, they could walk in the shoes of someone who wasn’t stopped by ignorant attitudes toward “the fairer sex.”

The Nancy Drew books followed the consistent pattern of moving from stability to chaos to order restored, and while many modern mysteries do away with the initial stability and just dive into a state of crisis that lasts for most of the book, readers still look for satisfaction in an ending. The killer is discovered and brought to justice, the reasons why people have acted as they have are uncovered, the clues that were peppered in along the way all make sense. How did writers learn to do that? From reading mysteries. And what were some of our first mysteries?

They keep printing Nancy Drew novels. Every generation since 1930 has gotten a taste. And each generation of women writers and readers sees something they like in Nancy. Folks as disparate as Sandra Day O’Connor, Sonya Sotomayor, and Laura Bush have attested to their influence.

Yes, Nancy is white, privileged, and gender-normative, and our modern protagonists might not be. Yes, the plots can be formulaic, and some of the values haven’t aged well. These novels, in spite of more recent updates, are based on old thinking, and at times guilty of reinforcing the dominant culture’s ingrained negative elements. That is not to be ignored. In her book The Girl Sleuth, Bobbie Ann Mason celebrates Nancy, but also acknowledges that culturally, the stories “seem to satisfy two standards—adventure and domesticity. But adventure is the superstructure, domesticity the bedrock.” There’s validity to the criticism, and one wants to be aware of the messages one has received, especially at a tender age.

Without at all negating the need for more progressive heroines, I have observed a tendency in grownups to gently scoff at the things they liked when they were young. I’d venture to guess that the scoffing wouldn’t bother Nancy. She’s been scoffed at before, and it never stopped her. What woman hasn’t been scoffed at? But I know for certain there’s an indirect line between seeing that something can be done, and doing it myself. Given the challenges women still face in this society, isn’t it great that those of us who were influenced by these stories can incorporate the empowering messages they instilled, and can move forward, writing more open-minded modern mysteries? Thanks for that, Nancy. And thanks, Carolyn Keene, whoever you are.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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