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Oh Nancy, Nancy!

The mysterious appeal of my first detective: A Slightly Foxed books Essay

February 1, 2020

6:14 PM

1 February 2020

6:14 PM

When I was four, I fell in love for the first time. The object of my affections was Jemima the rag-doll from preschool. That was a trial run. I was seven or eight when I got my first serious crush. She was an older woman: red-haired, wholesome, adventurous and intelligent. She was 16. She was always 16. Her name was Nancy. My love for her — like the young Julian Barnes’s love for an older woman — did a great deal to shape my life.

The Nancy Drew mysteries (I didn’t know, then, that ‘mystery’ is what Americans call a detective story) were the first series of books to which I became completely addicted. And, since there were dozens of them, it seemed as if I could never run out — useful, for a child who weekly exhausted his borrowing limit at Dorking Library in Surrey.

My grandfather got into the habit, for a bit, of buying me one a week. Whenever I had a book token, it was into the bookshop at the top of the main street (I can’t for the life of me remember its name) that I would go. Oh! the anticipation of a fresh one, a fresh mystery, smelling of new paperback, picked off the long shelf of Nancy Drew books in the children’s section and taken home in a crisp paper bag.

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That long shelf was itself a part of the pleasure. I grew a long shelf of my own. Before I piqued myself on my row of white-spined Picador books in my teens, or the black-spined battalion of Penguin Classics (a purple stripe across the top for Latin or Greek; red for English; yellow for Russian or French; and the odd showy green if you had the Bhagavad Gita), my pride was in a lengthening collection of uniform Nancy Drew mysteries, filed in numerical order. It was a great long stripe of primrose.

The editions matter, the physical books matter, when you’re reading with that intensity: they are part of the memory. This was when Armada was publishing them in the UK in a uniform design that one collector I’ve found online has called the ‘yellow box’ editions. The covers were a soft yellow — not far off the color of Slightly Foxed’s quarterly, though a wee bit yellower — with a painted illustration in a box on the front below the author and title. All those illustrations, it seems, were the work of one Peter Archer. A triangle of color on the bottom left corner, matching the color of the title, told you that this was ‘Nancy Drew Mystery No. . . .’

Oddly, one of the very first I read – The Mystery of the Tolling Bell – was different. It had a white cover with a photograph of a startled looking Nancy, rather than a painting, and a brassier design scheme: the author’s name picked out in typewriter-style Courier and the title in crisp blue block capitals. The flash said, ‘As seen on TV’, though I don’t remember ever seeing her on TV.

My Nancy Drew years can be dated. Google tells me that these editions were in print from 1975 to 1982. I was born in 1974. I must have caught the tail end of the yellow-box editions — and, indeed, I remember a faint sense of unease and disapproval when they started to appear in a new guise. They were a different color, with rather trashy painted images spilling out of a circle in the center of the cover, and a ‘Nancy Drew’ logo in blockbuster size above, in star-spangled Country & Western lettering, dwarfing title and author. Those editions were the beginning of the end of my time with Nancy. We were starting to grow apart.

Still, the titles alone are a waft of literary Old Bay. The Secret of the Old Clock. Nancy’s Mysterious Letter. The Clue in the Crossword Cipher. The Clue in the Crumbling Wall. The Whispering Statue. Each one was a mystery, a secret, a clue, a quest, a password, a ghost. The stories, like those of Scooby-Doo, existed in a world that was laced with the supernatural, or the suggestion of it, but that always (as far as I remember) provided naturalistic, human explanations. They were spooky but reassuring; domestic gothic.

Nancy was what would — when the books were written, between the 1930s and the 1970s — have been called ‘spunky’: she was intrepid. She sneaked about finding clues, and she braved and faced down dangers and villainy. Hers was a bounded world – bounded not only by its familiar human furniture (widowed father, housekeeper, cousins George and Bess, chaste boyfriend Ned) but, as I can now see too, by the world of WASP privilege she inhabited.

And the stories were exciting. They were exciting enough that they occasioned my ‘sneak reading’ — after-lights-out marathons, for the most part shrewdly tolerated by my parents, which unless I’m misremembering them really did involve torches under the covers as per the cliché. And I recall clearly once literally bouncing up and down on my bed exclaiming ‘Nancy! Nancy!’ in excitement and alarm, she having found herself in a situation that would now be described by the British Board of Film Classification as containing ‘mild peril’.

Nancy Drew’s adventures would be supplanted, in time, by the works of Wilbur Smith and Stephen King, Hammond Innes and James Michener, with eye-widening peeks into the Harold Robbins on my parents’ shelves — giants of the Seventies, many now belonging to the fossil record.

And they were not all I read, even then: I also adored the ‘Adventure’ series by Willard Price, which told the stories of Hal and Roger Hunt, teen zoologists who travelled the world having encounters with animals; and the Doctor Who novelizations by Terrance Dicks. I read Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine series; and the Three Investigators books, which came with the endorsement of no less than Alfred Hitchcock. But the Nancy Drew books were first among equals.

And even then, I was forming the beginnings of what – for a future professional book reviewer — I fancied was literary discrimination. For instance, I might have enjoyed the Three Investigators but I had no truck with the Famous Five: Enid Blyton did nothing whatever for me.

Of one thing I was absolutely certain: Nancy Drew was an infinitely superior product to the Hardy Boys. Carolyn Keene, the author of the former, was in every respect a better stylist and story-teller than Franklin W. Dixon, who wrote those adventures. Oh, the blandness of the Hardy Boys, with their bluff blond extrovert masculinity, their letter-sweater squareness. Nancy — motherless Nancy, mystery-tangled, feminine, solitary, clever Nancy — was something altogether other.

Here, I’m afraid, was my fundamental error. For Carolyn Keene never existed. And nor did Franklin W. Dixon. And inasmuch as they did exist, they were the same person: the collective pen-name of an East Coast writing syndicate founded by Edward Stratemeyer (1862–1930). Peter Archer painted the Hardy Boys covers too, though I never noticed. Nancy was a factory product. Of Stratemeyer, who sold 500 million books even though you’ve never heard of him, it was said: ‘As oil had its Rockefeller, literature had its Stratemeyer.’

He died in the year that Nancy first appeared in print — though he wrote the outline for the first three novels. In her world, Nancy has a living father but a dead mother; in the real world she had a dead father but a living mother. Of the dozens of ghostwriters who produced the stories between 1930 and the present day, Mildred Wirt Benson (1905–2002) was the queen. She lived in Toledo, Ohio, and was paid a flat fee of between $125 and $250 for each book. And she wrote most of the ones I so delighted in — all but seven of the first 30 books in the series. Here was, as I never knew at the time, The Mystery of the Invisible Ghost.

We have ghostwriters to this day. But the writing syndicate – a huge yet under-noticed feature of 20th-century publishing — seems to have gone the way of all flesh. And that may seem, to most literary sensibilities, like a good thing — the demise of a conveyor-belt approach to fiction-writing as product, to art as so many tins of beans. But to quote George Eliot, ‘that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs’. The Stratemeyer syndicate — and Mildred Wirt Benson, resting in her unvisited tomb — brought Nancy Drew to me, and my eight year-old life was incomparably richer as a result.

I think I was 10 or 11 when, for my younger brother’s birthday, I gave him my complete collection of Nancy Drew novels. I remember the weight of them, held between my two hands like a squeezebox. Not a cheap hand-me-down. As he knew, I was giving him the most precious thing I owned. I don’t think he ever read them. The franchise goes on. Feminist literary theorists study them. Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush have cited them as influences. They’ve changed publishers and formats. Nancy has been reinvented as an 18-year-old with a cellphone and an environmentally friendly electric car. Wikipedia tells me they’ve sold 80 million copies in 45 languages, spawned five films, two television series and a number of video games.

But all that seems irrelevant. I’ll always have my Nancy: the one who appeared in yellow Armada paperbacks between 1979 and 1982.

Sam Leith is Books Editor of The Spectator’s UK edition. This article was originally published in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly.


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