Books October 2005

The Secret of the Old Saw

Nancy Drew has two mommies

Yes, I was one of the slightly vintage women who let out a shriek when we saw it at Costco: The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, a complete boxed set, fifty-six familiar yellow spines, shrink-wrapped. I can't remember now if it was $100 or $200 or $500, but I immediately paid it, with shaking hands. Surely my six-year-old niece or my preschool-aged daughters would eventually enjoy—indeed, would require—this treasure trove.

But that night it was I who jabbed car keys through plastic, removing the first five Nancys, a big fistful of them, like a furtive Costco glutton. I bent open The Secret of the Old Clock, and there it all was—titian hair, blue convertible, River Heights. But what I was flashing on most from pre-adolescence was the addiction. One lucky snatch at the corner Bookmobile and there you had it, your personal inhalant, whispering to you through an otherwise tedious afternoon. The Sign of the Twisted Candles, The Clue of the Tapping Heels, The Mystery of the Tolling Bell, The Secret of the Wooden Lady—Carolyn Keene's rhythms alone were hypnotic; I'd be clawing the shelves if she'd penned The Secret in the Old Hamper, The Clue in the Cat Box, or The Mysterious Handbag.

As I read, a calm came over me. Nancy Drew's household is such a perfect triangle. With Nancy at the apex, to the left is Hannah Gruen (chicken sandwiches, fresh apple crumble) and to the right is handsome, pleasantly distracted Carson Drew (always working, but never too busy to take a call). What post-feminist woman doesn't yearn for a Hannah and a Carson? In my own grimly equitable marriage I have a Hannah Gruen who disagrees with where I put the spatula and a Carson Drew who suspects that the professional quagmires I routinely wade into are all my fault. Worse still, unlike the titian-haired sleuth, I'm expected to earn money and do chores. Who can solve mysteries under these conditions? Who can hear herself think? Coordinated blue traveling suit plus heels? Forget it.

Nancy has beauty (which she expends little effort on), fame (which she impatiently brushes off), and a boyfriend, Ned (whose nuts, from lack of use, have long since dropped off). But the real allure of Nancy Drew is that, almost uniquely among classic or modern heroines, she can follow—is allowed to follow—a train of thought. The plot opens ever outward for her, her speeding blue convertible a metaphor for the sure-shot arrow of her intellect, the splendidly whizzing shaft of the maiden huntress Diana. For clever girls of all ages (blonde, brunette, or otherwise) it's a rare treat to read stories in which our heroine's emotions come alive not with the love of a good man but with the pursuit of a bad one. Who doesn't thrill to the adrenaline-charged arrival of a "hunch"—triggering Nancy's trademark excitement, her thoughts swirling, eyes sparkling, fingers deliciously drumming with impatience to get into the library and pore over long-forgotten River Heights records that might reveal a clue about some suspicious handyman with a name like Nathaniel Mordechai Crumbley? Who doesn't lust for a chandelier-filled Civil War—era mansion to tap, panel by panel, in search of a secret passage, or maybe jewels? I mean, think of having an unbroken week—seven whole days—to get up every morning with nothing more on your mind than roving along the balustrades of your very own mansion, tap-tap-tapping for swag.

Because forget sex and romance; the solving of puzzles, mental trial and error, the deeply pleasurable act of raveling and unraveling—therein lies a secret part of the female psyche. (Knitting, anyone? There ought to be a movie celebrating this complex craft, which, if you ever get hooked, can give you—as it did me and a surprising number of women I know—no less than an emotional foundation. I see it as a Henry Jaglom, Sundance Channel movie, all monologues straight to camera: Women Knitting.) I think of a girlfriend I ran into recently—a sometime playwright, sometime public-radio arts commentator. While we pondered life in our forties, she charmingly admitted, "I've given up on my artistic ambitions—nowadays my happiest mornings are doing the crossword." I knew exactly what she meant! How often do I long to just sit in my office and play computer solitaire all day, with as much intensity as I want, without having to make a living, feed my children, or converse with my husband? But no, these people I live with seem to do little more than encroach on mother's hallowed puzzle time. Full of needs, they don't seem to understand their Hannah/Carson roles. While their mistress is intellectually engrossed, with her keen, attractive excitement, they should unobtrusively be bringing her warm plates of food, sharpened pencils, fresh checkbooks.

Fantasy? Who wants to be Catherine Zeta-Jones (with high-maintenance Michael Douglas in tow) when you could be Nancy?

And now, for Nancy Drew fanciers old and young, comes Melanie Rehak's Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. With her first sentence ("Grab your magnifying glass, because this is a mystery story") Rehak shows she has a finger on the pulse of the faithful. A proper sleuth for grown-up girls, Rehak—in prose steely, lovely, and precise—explores why Nancy Drew has remained so popular since her arrival, in 1930, and answers the question Who was the mysterious Carolyn Keene?

Given her brainy if virginal nature, it's perhaps fitting that Nancy Drew burst full-grown, Athena-like, out of a father's head. He was the children's-book mogul Edward Stratemeyer, whose expertise at the time—he wrote and published juvenile fiction for forty years, much of it under the auspices of his syndicate of writers and editors—was almost Alan Greenspan—esque. He'd discovered, for instance, that writing under pen names such as Arthur M. Winfield and Laura Lee Hope actually boosted sales. (For the curious, Stratemeyer's Carolyn Keene began life as Louise Keene.) Also, he was not averse to throwing ever new leading characters against the wall and seeing who stuck. Aside from the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins, Stratemeyer's somewhat incestuous if lesser-known brainchildren included the Rover Boys, the Blythe Girls, the Outdoor Girls, the Motor Girls, Ruth Fielding, Doris Force, and Perry Pierce. As Margaret Penrose he had a promising start in Dorothy Dale, but upon Dorothy's engagement sales immediately tanked.

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. Her commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media's Marketplace, and her solo show, Mother on Fire, is currently running at the 24th St. Theatre, in Los Angeles.

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