She still drives a Mustang, but how is Carolyn Keene's 1930s sleuth standing up to 1998?

Nancy Drew has a knack for solving mysteries, but she may never get to the bottom of her own identity crisis. Readers nostalgic for the golden (or is it titian) haired sleuth, who debuted in 1930 with The Secret of the Old Clock, might be taken aback by some of her most recent personas: lissome Baywatch babe in Nancy Drew: Mystery on Maui (”Surf’s up — and so is the crime on Nancy’s Hawaiian holiday!”). Pint-size amateur chef in The Nancy Drew Notebooks: Trouble Takes the Cake (”But for Nancy, the real trouble is the creepy, crawly cake that goes ker-plooey!”). Even — gasp! — teaming up with the Hardy Boys in — double gasp! — Operation Titanic: A Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Super Mystery. Author Carolyn Keene must have the strength of an ox.

Of course, Ms. Keene is a pseudonym — even the kiddies know that — yet who ever considers what vast army her bland facade must conceal? Determined to get to the bottom of the matter (some Drew fans, who learn tenacity and curiosity from their heroine, grow up to be journalists), I set out to meet Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman, authors of a cultural study called The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew & the Hardy Boys that’s just been published by Simon & Schuster.

Running late for my appointment, I muse that it sure would help to own a shiny blue roadster like Nancy’s (”It’s her signature color,” write Kismaric and Heiferman, ”the cool blue blood of American aristocracy”). But this is grimy midtown Manhattan. I take the subway.

Over breakfast, the pair discuss their theory of Drew as ”lithe, WASP supergirl.” Heiferman keeps trying to give the Hardy Boys equal airtime, but to no avail. ”One always ends up talking about Nancy,” says Kismaric, ”because she’s a more interesting character. She broke stereotypes for girls; they reinforced a stereotype of what guys are supposed to be.”

All three amateur detectives — as well as the Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift — were brainchildren of a man named Edward Stratemeyer, who ran a Disneyesque fiction factory called the Stratemeyer Syndicate from 1905 until his death in 1930. Kismaric and Heiferman explain that Nancy has been continually revised ever since the ’50s, when titles were updated and the original go-getter Nancy was tamped down into a more docile, conformist creature. The Stratemeyer Syndicate published with Grosset & Dunlap from 1908 to 1979, when Simon & Schuster was awarded the rights in a bitter court battle (though G&D still publishes the first 56 Nancy Drew books, and Applewood Books, a small Massachusetts publisher, has begun reissuing facsimiles of the very first editions). I call Anne Greenberg, executive editor at S&S’s Pocket Books and overseer of the current Nancys. How many people work on the books? ”It’s hard to be precise,” she says enigmatically. How much do ghostwriters make? ”Not a lot, but I can’t divulge the amount.” What rules do they have to follow? ”There are guidelines. Who she is, what her skills are — and they are considerable. Nancy can do almost anything.”