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The Nancy Drew Mysteries

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I grew up believing that Nancy Drew, the "titian-haired attractive sleuth," was the girly version of the Hardy Boys, as Jamie Somers is the girly version of Steve Austin, Six Million Dollar Man. In fact I somehow missed out on both the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew as I grew up, so wanted to try a few today to find out how they compare to Enid Blyton's mystery and adventure books.

Following the success of the first Hardy Boys books starting in 1927, the Nancy Drew series was likewise conceived by Edward Stratemeyer and his team of ghostwriters, collectively known as the Stratemeyer Syndicate, this time using the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. It's a long, interesting, and slightly confusing history. The first book, The Secret of the Old Clock, was written in 1930 and featured Nancy Drew as a feisty 16-year-old blonde sleuth. In 1959, still going strong, the Syndicate decided to shorten and streamline all the books written thus far—which meant the first 34 books were cut down from twenty-five to twenty chapters. Questionable racist references were removed, Nancy was reintroduced in the first book as an 18-year-old (and remained that age forever afterwards) and various plots were completely rewritten. This process went on until 1977, but in the meantime new Drew books continued to be churned out, only now in the preferred 20-chapter format. This means that while books 1-34 were heavily edited, books 35 onwards remain in their original form.

It could be said that there were 56 books in the original series, if by "original" we mean published under Grosset & Dunlap. But in 1979 the Syndicate switched to another publisher, Simon & Schuster, who have continued the series forward to the present day; indeed, the series is currently up to number 175, Werewolf in Winterland. (I would assume it's not a real werewolf, because that would be far too silly.)

Not so long ago I obtained five "original" Nancy Drew books, as follows:

  1. The Clue in the Jewel Box
  2. The Clue of the Leaning Chimney
  3. Mystery at the Ski Jump
  4. The Haunted Showboat
  5. The Clue of the Dancing Puppet

These are 1970s editions, with matte pictorial covers. The newer versions are virtually the same but glossy, with the same artwork—one of the nice things about the modern hardback editions.

It's interesting to note the difference in quality between the first three (20, 26 and 29) and the last two (35 and 39). My copies of the first three books are not the original texts; they're the heavily abridged versions, with around five chapters' worth of text cut throughout each book. This heavy editing shows. Granted, it wasn't simply a case of cutting text and leaving great big holes here and there; instead a ghostwriter went through cutting text and pretty much rewriting wherever necessary to bridge the gaps and keep the whole thing flowing; sentences, passages, chapters, and in some cases entire books! In any case the heavy editing shows through, and if the desired result was to speed up the pace, instead the result is quite the opposite: mindnumbingly boring.

Why? Because it's hard to feel anything for characters who have no substance other than a name; and it's difficult to get a good look at the setting when you're snatched out again before you've even had time to focus. We flit from scene to scene at a breathless pace—yet it's not a fast, exciting, action-packed sort of breathless, but the sort of breathless you experience when someone stands up and reads an essay in a rapid but flat monologue. You hear a stream of emotionless narrative, and that's about it.

For example, we follow Nancy into a jeweller's, she speaks briefly to the owner, she leaves, that afternoon she goes to the garage to follow a lead, she talks to the mechanic, the next morning she gets on a plane, has a smooth flight, arrives at her aunt's, has tea, the next day she... and so on. Occasionally the narrative slows enough that you can look around and get your bearings, experience the scene as it's developing... and then suddenly it's over and it's the next day and we're somewhere else, all in the space of a sentence.

I read The Clue of the Leaning Chimney wearing a perplexed frown for most of the book—not because I didn't understand what was going on, but because I couldn't believe this stuff was ever published. But of course the original would have been far better, having been penned by an author writing with twenty five chapters in mind. It's this terrible editing that lets it down.

I then read The Clue of the Jewel Box (yes, I got the order wrong, but it hardly makes a scrap of difference chronologically). In fact I gave up on this book halfway through; as intrigued as I was to learn more about the insufferable Francis Baum (Prince Michael), I groaned loudly at the scene where Nancy throws a rock at someone to disarm him:

She seized a rock from beneath the window and threw it at the gun. The weapon went spinning from the man's hand. In a flash Nancy scrambled through the window, snatched up the gun, and handed it to her father.

Ridiculous, and made worse by the illustration above, which clearly shows what an incredible aim she must have (especially throwing like a girl!). Plus, I couldn't stomach being unceremoniously dumped out of any more scenes. Here's the end of a fairly interesting scene involving Nancy and her friends on a picnic, where Michael invited himself along. The friends decide to leave him behind, stuck on the little island:

     "Hey, wait for me!" he shouted.
     "Can't hear you," Bob called through cupped hands. "Louder!"
     Michael shouted again and again. Finally, as the boats sped away, he slumped down on the beach.
     "It was a mean trick—" Nancy began, but Ned interrupted her.
     "He deserved it. Don't waste any of your breath on him. Save it for Mrs Alexandra."
     When the young people reached River Heights, they all went to a movie.
     The next morning Nancy dropped in to see Mr Faber about her father's birthday gift. The antique dealer said, "I think I have found just the right gentleman's box for Mr Drew..."

This switching from scene to scene with almost no pause reminds me of the sort of thing a child would write in an essay at school: "Over the summer holidays we went to the seaside. We had ice creams and hot dogs. Then we went to the shops and did some shopping. Then we went to the movies. Then we went home." Whoa, slow down!! Now, was it sunny? Hot? Was the beach crowded...?

I'd be interested in comparing this passage with the original, if anyone has a copy? That said, it's not purely the editing that annoys me but also the way all the characters (police officers, complete strangers, even criminals) so obligingly permit Nancy to stick her nose in and investigate. Oh, and the sheer number of characters is a bit much for me. Perhaps the original text would make all these characters worth reading about, but in these edited books they're nothing but a list of names. Except for Francis Baum/Michael, who's actually a very interesting character; I guess even the Stratemeyer Syndicate realized it was important to maintain one character's personality.

On the more positive side of things, the books written after the 20-chapter format was established are much, much better. These are available today as originally intended (bar any minor alterations since then), and because they were written with twenty chapters in mind, naturally there's no heavy editing and all the author's character-building and settings remain intact. The difference is very noticeable.

After the first one-and-a-half books mentioned above I decided to skip straight to number 39, The Clue of the Dancing Puppet, hoping this would be better. And it was.

In fact, this novel was—dare I say—a pretty good read, paced as you'd expect and with characters that actually live and breathe. I still found there were a few too many characters, and the end seemed a little rushed, but overall it was quite a nice read. The illustration shown here is another scene that made me laugh though; it's hard enough to imagine a hand "lowering menacingly" without this depiction of a distinctly unmenacing puppet. It's also a little hard to imagine the puppets being self-animated the way they're explained, with internal battery-operated gadgets. Animated maybe, but dancing unassisted across a lawn? Hmm.

I also went ahead and read The Haunted Showboat, which in fact was the first to be written in this new 20-chapter format. Again, this one was a pretty acceptable read, although as usual too many unnecessary characters. I cursed inwardly when "the guys" were brought into the story; Ned, Burt, and whatsisname—well, who cares anyway? They do absolutely nothing for the plot. And the plot itself is sort of strange—an old derelict showboat tucked away on a river in New Orleans, which supposedly no-one will go near to restore or move out of the bayou because it's haunted...

This isn't a bad idea for a plot, but it takes ages to actually witness any "hauntings." The first four chapters are quite breathless and far too much happens. Nancy's car is stolen so her father gives her another, and then, on the way to New Orleans, she finds that her new car has been fitted with a bomb! She calls the police of course (something Nancy does a lot of) and they come out, remove the bomb by the roadside, and send her on her way! The girls finally arrive in New Orleans, but not without further incident en route. WAY too much happening in four chapters. And yet it takes forever to get to the hauntings on the showboat itself, and even then the hauntings are pretty feeble: a few drums beating, a bit of music, and a man in a white sheet. What's all the big fuss about? Was it worth calling Nancy Drew all the way to New Orleans? Couldn't someone, anyone, more local have dealt with the matter?

That said, the depiction of New Orleans is pretty good—the author obviously visited there—and the character Alex is, like most of the primary guys, quite well drawn. Donna Mae, his fiancé, is also interesting, very emotional and unpredictable. Overall the book has some nice ideas and good settings, with a couple of genuinely interesting characters. And the idea of the plot isn't bad. It's just not executed very well.

But there's hope for this series yet, even though I'm not exactly blown away. The unedited versions are definitely better though. I've read several Nancy Drew reviews on the internet and most fans are of the same mind—that serious collectors are only interested in the original, unedited 34 books because the revised editions mentioned above have, frankly, been butchered. Well, I've learned my lesson.

The internal artwork isn't bad. Some examples are very good, but overall the black and white illustrations are what I would consider "okay"—certainly nothing to sneer at, although I find some of the chosen scenes and associated captions laughable as you might have noticed from the examples on this page. Still, some of the illustrations are quite striking...

But not all the illustrations are like this. One book has some really awful artwork, very plain and simple as if drawn by a child. And then there's the inside cover of each book. Four out of five of my copies have a montage of Nancy images, depicted in scenes from some of the past cases. But in my fifth book I have something else entirely. Compare...

On the left...
Nancy is sultry and sexy in the montage images, straight out of a Sean Connery James Bond movie.
On the right...
Hmm, looks like the publisher's kid came home from school with a sketch and begged for it to be printed...

What were the publishers thinking? The horrible illustration on the right is printed four times on the inside cover pages of The Haunted Showboat. And yet the rest of that book's artwork is superb. Perhaps it was time for a change from the montage? But the montage returns in book 39, The Clue of the Dancing Puppet, so I guess they wised up.

From old Nancy Drew books to new paperbacks...

For those who are interested, many new Nancy Drew Mysteries are available at Navrang in paperback. These are very nicely bound with serious, adult-like covers. Nancy is still the "titian-haired attractive sleuth" as depicted in the earlier books, only here she's been updated to the 21st Century.

There are so many books in the series now that it would be asking too much for customers to buy a complete set, so you have to pick and choose the ones you want. Don't be confused by the odd numbering though; the high-end numbers (79-175) mark the latest episodes in the "original" series.

Then a new series begins, numbered 1, 2, 3, etc, and these are part of the rebooted Nancy Drew Girl Detective series: "America's most popular female detective has been given a complete makeover—with a new look, new car, some new friends and, of course, brand-new cases to solve. Longtime fans and newcomers alike will be on the edge of their seats, as Nancy, Bess, George and the rest of the gang join forces once again to fight crime and rid the world of evil."

If I were a newcomer to Nancy Drew, I believe I would start on any of these spiffing new paperbacks. Then, if I liked what I read, I would begin a more comprehensive collection going right back to the original versions, starting with 1930's The Secret of the Old Clock and all those that followed during the 30s and 40s. I would avoid books 1-34 printed after 1959, but would feel quite "safe" with any old editions number 35 onwards. But heck, 175 books plus the new and continuing rebooted series? That's a LOT of books!

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Last Updated: October 15, 2006

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