Nancy Drew

I have Nancy Drew to thank for a lot of my childhood quirks. It’s because of her I grew up tapping on walls, hoping to find a hidden passageway; was convinced that all attics had secrets stored inside; and eyed any suspicious-looking character who came my way.

Oh, who am I kidding? I still do all that.

It was 80 years ago yesterday that the world was first introduced to the intrepid, titian-haired girl detective. On April 28, 1930, the first three Nancy Drew books — The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase and The Bungalow Mystery — were released, opening up a world where girls could — and did — do anything. Nancy wasn’t relegated to the sidelines; she was the one leading the charge, usually in her cool roadster.

She wasn’t alone, though. By her side during most cases were her best chums, cousins Bess Marvin and George Fayne. She also had a caring father, lawyer Carson Drew, and doting housekeeper Hannah Gruen. Last but certainly not least was her “special friend,” the dreamy Ned Nickerson. Any man who isn’t afraid to let his girlfriend take the reins gets an A+ in my book.

At 25, I’m part of the generation that was raised to believe that we could grow up to be whatever we wanted. I took that to heart, and here I am, living my professional dream. But times of course were different when Nancy made her first appearance. It wasn’t a girl’s world for the taking. That this amateur sleuth who put bad guys behind bars could show young women what they were capable of accomplishing was amazing. I’m not alone in my admiration for Ms. Drew. Some pretty awesome people are also fans, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor and Oprah Winfrey. Nancy Drew hasn’t just touched the lives of us American girls; her influence is global. Nancy Drew books are published in 25 languages, and have sold 200 million copies worldwide.

The books weren’t perfect in the beginning; they were marred by racial stereotypes of the day. I remember reading older copies and being shocked by the blatantly racist portrayal of minorities (who were, of course, the cleaning people, drivers, etc.). In the revisions the offensive material was taken out, but for those who have seen the originals, it’s a sad reminder of what used to be acceptable.

Some complain that the books are too contrived, formulaic and unbelievable. To those people, I give a polite but firm, “Get over it.” These are works of fiction, marketed for young people. I’m not suggesting we dumb down books for children; that’s absurd and insulting. But what kid doesn’t want to read about adventures that are exciting, slightly implausible and a tad bit dangerous? For me, the best stories involved ghosts, spooky mansions and the occasional racketeer. That’s probably why my favorite Nancy Drew book was The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, chockful of séances, organ-playing phantoms, creepy crooks and a frightening trip to New Orleans that almost took our girl out for good. This made for a riveting read for an eight-year-old, and if I had my trusty copy with me, I’d crack it open right here and now as a tribute to Nancy.

I’m not the only one celebrating Nancy’s entrance into octogenarianism. Grosset & Dunlap released a limited edition, special 80th anniversary edition of The Secret of the Old Clock, on sale today. The cover is simple, with the familiar silhouette of Nancy, magnifying glass in hand. It looks modern, with a retro twist. Now I want to hear from you, Shelf Life readers. Who else is a Nancy Drew fan? Why did you love the books, and which one’s your favorite?

Nancy Drew
  • Movie
  • 97 minutes
  • Andrew Fleming