The Mysteries of Nancy Drew

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Molly Edmonds: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. This is Molly.

Cristen Conger: And I'm Cristen.

Molly Edmonds: Cristen, I have a mystery for you to solve.

Cristen Conger: Ooh.

Molly Edmonds: Get ready. Here are your clues. What do Laura Bush, Diane Sawyer, Oprah's friend Gail -

Cristen Conger: Gail King?

Molly Edmonds: Yes. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Hillary Rodham Clinton have in common?

Cristen Conger: They're all women.

Molly Edmonds: And?

Cristen Conger: And successful.

Molly Edmonds: Yes, but do you know what I bet a lot of them would say their success is due to? Well, maybe not directly due to; that might be a stretch.

Cristen Conger: What? What's that?

Molly Edmonds: Reading Nancy Drew as a child.

Cristen Conger: Ah, these are all Nancy Drew fans.

Molly Edmonds: They are, and Nancy Drew's really been in the headlines a lot lately because during her confirmation hearings, Sonia Sotomayor has mentioned a fondness for Nancy Drew. That's lead to a lot of stories about what does the influence of Nancy Drew mean on these women.

Cristen Conger: Right, and I think I saw a recent article in The Times about how Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor were also big Nancy Drew fans.

Molly Edmonds: Yes, so something about being a judge and needing the clues might come from Nancy. But, you know, I really identified with hearing that these women liked Nancy Drew because I loved Nancy Drew. Fun fact about me, my cubicle is decorated in postcards that are of the old Nancy Drew book covers.

Cristen Conger: Yes, it's a lovely decoration, nice decorative touch.

Molly Edmonds: It's to remind me to always dress fabulously no matter what mysteries I might be solving.

Cristen Conger: We are always solving mysteries at How Stuff Works, so you should be dressed appropriately.

Molly Edmonds: Did you read the books, Cristen?

Cristen Conger: I did read the books. My mom actually gave me the - when I was, I don't know, maybe 13 or 14, she gave me the reprinted originals. I think she was actually more excited about buying them and having them in the house than I was because her name is also Nancy.

Molly Edmonds: Oh, it was a very popular name thanks to Nancy Drew.

Cristen Conger: Yes. That's probably dating her a little bit. Sorry mom, but yeah, she was a big Nancy Drew fan, and then my older sisters read Nancy Drew, and then finally, once I was 11, 12, I was finally allowed to start the Nancy Drew series. My mom was very particular about when she wanted me to start reading Nancy Drew so I could fully appreciate all of the careful nuances of Nancy Drew's psyche.

Molly Edmonds: So it was a rite of passage.

Cristen Conger: It was definitely a rite of passage.

Molly Edmonds: You know, I had - my mom had both those yellow-bound original books, the old ones, but I also read, sort of, the modern day equivalents of Nancy Drew, whatever the '80s version of Nancy Drew was. I remember they were - you know, Nancy always looked saucier on the cover, but I remember looking at those books and being like, wow, Carolyne Keene is really old because she's got these old yellow books, she's got these new paperbacks. That lady is old and probably tired.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, and she would have to be a fast writer.

Molly Edmonds: I know. But then, I come to find out, there is no Carolyn Keene.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, Carolyn Keene does not exist.

Molly Edmonds: Which we are going to talk about today, all the mysteries of Nancy Drew. But let's - if there are people out there who haven't read the books, let's talk a little bit about what they're about, who Nancy was.

Cristen Conger: Nancy Drew, she's kind of a stock character if you think about it. She is from a wealthy family. In the first series of books she's 16, and then she is eventually updated to be 18-years-old. She lives with her father, who I believe is a lawyer.

Molly Edmonds: Um-hum, Carson.

Cristen Conger: Carson Drew. Nancy Drew's mother passed away at three, so she has Hannah Gruen, her German housekeeper, kind of serves -

Molly Edmonds: So trusting.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, fills in - is kind of the more maternal role.

Molly Edmonds: She's got a boyfriend, Ned Nickerson.

Cristen Conger: Ned Nickerson, who is about -

Molly Edmonds: A little spineless.

Cristen Conger: He's about as exciting as paint drying on a wall.

Molly Edmonds: He's very patient though. If you're a young girl and scared about dating, I think Ned could be very reassuring that the most that will ever be expected of you is a peck on the cheek before you run off to save your friends from certain death.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, but don't rely on people like Ned to save you if you're -

Molly Edmonds: Oh, goodness, no.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, usually Nancy had to end up -

Molly Edmonds: Saving Ned. She's got two friends, Bess and George. Bess always a little concerned about her weight. Pleasantly plump.

Cristen Conge r: Pleasantly plump. Her plump chum.

Molly Edmonds: That's how she's often referred to.

Cristen Conger: And then there is her "tomboy" friend, George, also a girl.

Molly Edmonds: But, Nancy herself is just, you know, every single good quality you can think in a person, she has it. She's both athletic, but dainty, so she's not as tomboyish as George. She's very smart. She sees one thing on the street, and all of a sudden, she knows how to solve the mystery.

Cristen Conger: She's very observant.

Molly Edmonds: She is observant. So I think that this is why people sort of hold her up as this kind of model of girl power. She doesn't need Ned to solve the cases. She is just very reliant on herself to get things done.

Cristen Conger: Right, Molly. That aspect of her character, being just very self determined and independent, I think, is one of the main appeals of Nancy Drew. Sandra Singlow, a writer in The Atlantic, put it very well when she said that the real allure of Nancy Drew is that almost uniquely among classic or modern heroines, she can follow, and is allowed to follow, a train of thought. And considering that the first Nancy Drew book came out in 1930, it was a pretty modern idea of a young woman.

Molly Edmonds: It really was. Nancy is filling this hole in 1930 that, you know, girls just didn't have that kind of heroine to look up to. We were reading about a character that was around at the time of Nancy Drew, and she's described as being a great person because she knows how to do laundry because she watched their housekeeper all the time.

Cristen Conger: I think her name was Honeybunch, which I liked.

Molly Edmonds: Honeybunch, she knew how to take care of a home, whereas Nancy knew how to fix her car. But she still knew how to tap dance in Morse code, so she's very well balanced.

Cristen Conger: And accessorized. I remember reading something like, Nancy Drew is always so smartly dressed.

Molly Edmonds: But, was she too smartly dressed? Was she too perfect? Some people are critical of Nancy Drew because does this person even exist, and as time has gone on, the new Nancy Drew has been more like, oh, I can't hop this fence because I'm wearing a skirt.

Cristen Conger: Right. Like you said, some people have criticized this idea of Nancy Drew as a feminist icon because they say, well, she's just a wealthy girl living off of her father's money, who has a housekeeper to take care of all of her chores, and she just trots off and fate just guides her through mysteries, and it's just completely unrealistic.

Molly Edmonds: And it might not be realistic, but let's go back in time to 1930 and see just how Nancy came into being. Who were the people behind this Carolyn Keene woman?

Cristen Conger: Yes, the interesting thing about Nancy Drew is that she was actually conceived by a man. That sounds odd to say, but she was the brainchild of this huge publisher, who tapped into the children's, kind of, pulp fiction industry.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah. His name was Edward Stratemeyer, and he was born in 1862. As he was growing up he liked to write stories, and eventually he realized that if he just kept pumping out stories, that's how he can make money. He realized that he had a lot of friends who could pump out stories just as fast as he could, so he gathered them all together, kind of formed this literary syndicate, this gang of ghostwriters, and he would give them all a three-page outline and between $50,00 and $250.00 and say write me a book in a month. And he just kept pumping them out and the kids ate it up. He was responsible for the Hardy Boys, The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift books, like, just these books that our parents grew up with.

Cristen Conger: Right, and these were a new kind of children's book for the time because a lot of times, what kids would be reading would be just moral lessons, more like Sunday School type lessons. That's why they were slightly controversial for some people because it was straying from that more moralistic tone.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah, some librarians wouldn't want to stock a book that the Stratemeyer Syndicate had written because it just was gonna rot these kids' imaginations. And then, Stratemeyer was nothing if not a good salesman. When the Boy Scouts were formed, he immediately pumped out this series about Boy Scouts having all these adventures, and the Boy Scouts got mad at him because then the real Boy Scouts didn't want to just do the boring Boy Scout things. They wanted to have adventures.

Cristen Conger: Adventure!

Molly Edmonds: So this guy was a good businessman, and he really seemed to understand children well. At the time, a lot of the thinking was that girls would just read boys books; they didn't need their own characters.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, they didn't think that they would sell very well, which doesn't really make sense, and Nancy Drew proved them wrong.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah, Nancy Drew outsold all of them.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, I think one of the last stats that I saw, maybe from a couple years ago, was that there have been over 200 million Nancy Drew books sold since 1930.

Molly Edmonds: It's kind of unreal, but like I said, he's a good businessman; he has the right idea at the right time. Detective fiction's getting kind of big, and so he started thinking of this girl detective character.

Cristen Conger: Right. In 1929, a year before the first book came out, he described his vision of Nancy Drew as "an up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful, and full of energy."

Molly Edmonds: That is Nancy.

Cristen Conger: And it worked.

Molly Edmonds: It did work. Originally, he wasn't going to call her Nancy Drew.

Cristen Conger: Yeah. There were all sorts of potential names, such as Stella Strong, and I think Nan None was one of them.

Molly Edmonds: Diana Dare.

Cristen Conger: Diana Dare, which is good; that's a good one.

Molly Edmonds: I don't know if I would have read as many books with Diana Dare.

Cristen Conger: That's a little cheesier. But one of them was also Nan Drew, which the publishers eventually lengthened to Nancy.

Molly Edmonds: But Stratemeyer did not actually write the books. As I said, he's got this big barn of ghostwriters, and he sends the plot summary for Nancy Drew over to a writer names Mildred Wirt. She's pretty impressive. She had been the first woman at her school to get a Masters degree.

Cristen Conger: University of Iowa.

Molly Edmonds: She was a pilot. She almost is the spunky heroine. She infused all of that into Nancy Drew.

Cristen Conger: Even though she really created the model of Nancy Drew that so many girls have come to know and love, she didn't really get to enjoy the fruits of her labor that much. Because these things have sold like gangbusters, but she made, I think, $125.00 per book, and she didn't have any kind of copyrights or anything to that. So she didn't get the profits that were coming from all these books that she wrote. She said one year she wrote 13 full-length books while holding down another job, but she really didn't become famous until much later.

Molly Edmonds: She couldn't. There was a case later on to discover who had actually written the books, but these books are selling like gangbusters and everyone thinks it's this g irl named Carolyne Keene. Meanwhile, Mildred Wirt's making $125.00 a book. I mean, you think you're underappreciated at your job; talk about Mildred Wirt.

Cristen Conger: But then, an interesting conflict arose soon after the first Nancy Drew book came out because Stratemeyer passed away and his daughters took over the business. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams really took over control of the company and overseeing the production of the Nancy Drew books. She would go in and start to make edits, and Mildred Wirt and her did not get along that well. Their visions of Nancy Drew were pretty different.

Molly Edmonds: You can't fault Harriet for some of the changes she made because a lot of those early books that Mildred Wirt did write, had these very racist, to us today, kind of stereotypes, a lot of making the villains ethnic in some way, and just for political correctness, you probably don't want those carrying on. She also, kind of, softened Nancy. She wanted Nancy to be this sweet and light character who everyone loved.

Cristen Conger: Right. Mildred Wirt would complain that when Harriet Stratemeyer was going through and editing the copy, she would add in little adverbs here and there to try and soften her. Like, Nancy said that laughingly, or Nancy softly sighed as she rode on horseback through the green pasture.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah, I have an example from Salon, an article written by Amy Benfer, and here's the original sentence: "Nancy rode along, glancing occasionally at the neatly planted fields on either side." Nice, descriptive, straight to the point.

Cristen Conger: Not bad.

Molly Edmonds: Harriet's version: "Pretty, she commented to herself. Oh, why can't all people be nice like this scenery and not make trouble?" I mean, that's pretty frou-frou for a girl detective. She should be living off the trouble.

Cristen Conger: Right, and also in Salon, there was an interview with Mildred Wirt, and she complained that - like, her conception of Nancy Drew was supposed to be a girl who was really ahead of her time, and kind of this new idea of female heroine, but then Stratemeyer went back and made her into just more of a house-type. Nancy Drew would probably grow up, marry her sad-sack Ned Nickerson boyfriend, move to the suburbs, and resent Ned Nickerson for the rest of her life while she was ironing every day.

Molly Edmonds: That's true. Although, I will say that in that same interview, Mildred Wirt made it clear that she didn't think of Nancy as a feminist the way other scholars were trying to pin this label on her. Nancy would have never stood to be labeled like that, and that it might not have been a bad thing if Nancy had settled down. She said, the lesson I want girls to take from Nancy is to be free, but not to take too much license with your freedom. Be responsible.

Cristen Conger: It's not a bad message for young girls.

Molly Edmonds: No, of course not. So both Mildred and Harriet now have passed away, but the books keep on coming, along with movies, television series. There are constant updates. Harriet was certainly not the last one to update Nancy Drew. Currently, Nancy Drew has a cell phone and drives a Hybrid.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, and she uses a lot more slang.

Molly Edmonds: And she has a lot more doubts. There have been a lot of articles about the psychology of Nancy Drew and whether she's relatable, and so now, Nancy Drew is narrated in the first person and she's like, ah, I just don't know about myself, about Ned. She's very more angsty.

Cristen Conger: And I would say she's probably a lot more true-to-life of an average 16 to 18 year old girl. I remember reading the Nancy Drew books when I was younger, and she was just always so calm and self-determined, and just always seemed to know that everything was going to work out. When I was 14 and reading Nancy Drew, it couldn't be farther from the truth in my head.

Molly Edmonds: Right. We were reading one passage about how Nancy had a crush on some rock star, allowing herself a rare moment of humanity, and when the guy didn't like her back, instead of crying on the bed and crying -

Cristen Conger: She wanted to cry, but she wouldn't allow herself to.

Molly Edmonds: She wanted to cry, but she j ust filed her nails and wrote a letter instead.

Cristen Conger: Wrote a letter to Hannah Gruen, her German housekeeper.

Molly Edmonds: Good old Hannah. But, I mean, that's sort of the paradox that people struggle with now. Do you want that ideal woman to look up to so that when you do face your own heartbreak, you can kind of be like, you know what, it's not worth crying, I'm just gonna file my nails. Or, do you want someone more relatable, someone angsty?

Cristen Conger: Well, Molly, considering that list of women, very successful women that you ticked off at the beginning of the episode, such as the three Supreme Court justices, or -

Molly Edmonds: One nominee.

Cristen Conger: One nominee, and two Supreme Court justices, Hillary Clinton, Diane Sawyer, Gail King, et cetera, it seems like that original Nancy Drew, although slightly unrealistic, worked as a role model for them.

Molly Edmonds: I know. It's hard to argue with her success. I look up to her every day as a model of well-dressed intelligence.

Cristen Conger: Yes, and wonderful cubicle décor.

Molly Edmonds: She is wonderful cubicle décor. But you know, without even knowing that we were talking about Nancy Drew today, we got a listener reading list - you know we love to do our listener reading list, from Crystal who is taking classes on elementary school libraries, so she's reading a lot of graphic novels. But she mentioned that the Nancy Drew Series is being made into a graphic novel to sort of bring more readers in. When we were doing our Chicklet podcast, we talked about how something like a graphic novel could really hook young readers and get them reading. So let's take a look at what Crystal is reading. She says, because she's taking this class she's reading graphic novels. She's reading The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett, The Fairytale Detectives by Michael Buckley, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and Captain America by Ed Brubaker.

Cristen Conger: Sounds like a fun list.

Molly Edmonds: It does sound like a fun list. I wish I could take classes on stocking children's libraries. I'd bring my postcards along to show them, little flashcards.

Cristen Conger: That would be a little creepy, Molly.

Molly Edmonds: Probably.

Cristen Conger: But on another note, if you would like to stock us, don't be weird about it, just send us an email at If you have any ideas or memories about Nancy Drew books, any favorite or least favorite Nancy Drew books, feel free to send them along, or any other questions or comments. And, of course, you can always check out what Molly and I are digging into during the week on our blog called How-To Stuff. You can find all of this and much more information at

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