01 June 2014

Secrets of the Girl Sleuth

Norwegian Nancy Drew
Norwegian Nancy Drew
by Leigh Lundin

A few weeks ago for the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine web site, I wrote about the secret author of the Hardy Boys and the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Last week, I picked up the theme with Nancy Drew, again for Ellery Queen. In preparation for the article, I came across mildly scandalous and salacious background notes. Warning: Adult themes ahead.

Passionate Predilections, Take 1

It seems to be a rule that Wikipedia and certain fan sites of well-known fictional characters carry a few (or many) paragraphs about implied homoerotic relationships: Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Nero Wolfe and Archie, Spenser and Hawk, Alex Cross and Sampson, and… the Hardy Boys. Some fans will inevitably read more than ‘bromance’ into such friendships, but it’s especially creepy in the case of the Hardys, who are brothers.

Nancy Drew’s not immune from such speculation. She hung out with Bess and George. It didn’t help that her friend ‘George’ was actually Georgia, wore short hair and was described as “an athletic tomboy” even though she dated at least two boys, Buck Rodman and later Burt Eddleton. But these implications were minor blips on the radar. Nancy may have had a more… sensual side.

Passionate Predilections, Take 2

In reading the first two novels in the Nancy Drew series (The Secret of the Old Clock and The Hidden Staircase, both published in 1930 and revised by Harriet Stratemeyer in 1959), I dipped into other articles. I noted in passing a comment a fan wrote that she blamed (or credited?) her passion for bondage on the young sleuth, noting that poor Nancy was constantly being tied up by one evildoer or another.

As I researched, I realized the remark about bondage wasn’t merely a comment in passing, but that several readers associated Nancy Drew with ropes and chains. Some said they didn’t recognize the feelings that infused them until becoming adults, but a few admitted an odd awareness back in their childhood. This isn’t a small aberration; readers can find fan fiction and art web sites on-line with these themes.
Laurie Long as Nancy Drew
Laurie Long as Nancy Drew

At least one fan took matters a step farther. In Becoming Nancy Drew, artist Laurie Long physically transformed herself into the girl sleuth. She dyed her hair Nancy’s titian blonde, and for two years lived and worked as the girl detective, recreating scenes from the Nancy Drew novels, and writing a book in the process.

For any writer, the risk of releasing a story means the characters become a possession of the public, and the public will have its way with them.

Another Author Revealed

The Nancy Drew novels proved immensely popular, but books 8, 9, and 10 enjoyed a surge of popularity. Readers had no idea ‘Carolyn Keene’ was a pen name, a property of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and a change of authorship had occurred.

As mentioned in the Something is Going to Happen article, Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson wrote twenty-two of the first twenty-five Nancy Drew books, but she did not write numbers 8, 9, or 10. Those three were written by another author in the Stratemeyer stable who’d written other series books. They were written by a military man.

Within the Syndicate, that wasn’t unusual: Women authors wrote under male pseudonyms and vice versa. To be sure, #26 and #34 were also written by men, but readers reacted to something special and indefinable in numbers 8 through 10. The author here was a naval officer, historian, journalist, script-writer and novelist, Walter Karig. Besides stories under his own name, Karig wrote a total of nine books for the Stratemeyer Syndicate. His Password to Larkspur Lane became the first Nancy Drew movie, Nancy Drew: Detective in 1938.

Walter Karig might have continued to write Nancy Drew stories, but he made a mistake. The circumstances aren’t entirely clear but in 1935, Walter Karig revealed to the Library of Congress he’d written three of the Nancy Drew novels. Although this didn’t make the press, the revelation aroused the ire of the Syndicate who threatened legal action against him. As popular and brilliant as his work had been, Karig never again worked for the Stratemeyer Syndicate and Mildred Benson once more picked up her pen.

Walter Karig’s Nancy Drew novels include:
  • #08 (1932, rev. 1968) Nancy's Mysterious Letter
  • #09 (1933, rev. 1968) The Sign of the Twisted Candles
  • #10 (1933, rev. 1966) The Password to Larkspur Lane

The Orphans

In digging into the Stratemeyer novels, I discovered that a lot, perhaps the majority, involved orphaned little heroes and heroines or at least motherless children. Thinking about it, I realized that much of children’s literature involves motherless children: Harry Potter, Tarzan, Dorothy of Oz, Little Orphan Annie, Pinocchio, Mowgli, Huck Finn, Scout Finch, Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger's pals, David Copperfield, Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip, Peter Pan and all the Lost Boys… and that’s not delving into fairy tales– Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and so on.

A simple answer is that no mother would let these kids take on dangerous adventures as portrayed in the stories. But I suspect there’s something more, something deeper. Are young readers supposed to feel fortunate they still have parents? Or are authors toying with vicarious wish fulfillment? I haven’t come upon a satisfactory explanation.

Oddly, some articles blame Disney, but a quick glance at the list above demonstrates the phenomenon long preceded Bambi, Simba, Ariel, Belle, Princess Jasmine, and so on. The Disney brothers simply continued what had long existed.

So what’s the solution to this mystery? Help Nancy Drew solve it with your thoughts.



The 2014 Nancy Drew Convention runs 2-8 June in San Diego.

20 comments:

Dixon Hill said...

"Froken Detektiv" -- I'm not sure how that translates, but I'd say it's a keeper, Leigh! lol

I took the time to read most of your links -- including your excellent posts at Something is Going to Happen. Great stuff, buddy!

--Dixon

P.S.: Can't get this scene out of my head:

Man 1 "Who are you, and what do you want?"

Man 2 "I'm a froken detektiv!"

Man 1 "Sure, ya' are, and don't think I'll never forget your froken face, neither!"

Fran Rizer said...

Leigh, you've convinced me. The Nancy Drew books were all written as part of a conspiracy to kinkicize the female youth of America.

Needless to say, that's meant in jest, but today's is an interesting post.

Janice Law said...

Good piece.
I think that until recently, very few detectives of any age had family.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I've known about the motherlessness thing for a long time. Disney also harrowed kids with the traumatic loss of two mothers, Bambi's and Dumbo's. I've always thought the archetype had to do with the principle that if you have a mother, you're fundamentally safe--and if you're safe, you don't have adventures.

Leigh Lundin said...

Dixon, that brought a much-needed laugh this morning!

Fran, I'm not sure it was intended or not, but it worked in some cases.

Janice, I hadn't thought about that, but you make a good point. A family man or woman might think twice before running into danger.

Liz, I'd been wondering what your take might be. A mother is more likely to let her young ones read about danger than risk danger.

Anonymous said...

Clarissa Pinkola Estes has analyzed the issue of mothers and motherlessness in her books (Jungian-based analyses of Story and Myth), and in particular in an audio tape called The Stone Child. It's intriguing stuff.

Leigh Lundin said...

Anon, that sounds intriguing. I see references (and an audiobook) called 'Warming the Stone Child'. That must be it?

In googling, I found a YouTube overview of the same title, which I'm listening to as I write this. She has a lovely, soothing voice. Listening now…

A Broad Abroad said...

Now, if the Hardy Boys had tied up Nancy Drew...

Leigh Lundin said...

YouTube may have the entire lecture on-line in possibly as much as ten parts, a little confusing because it looks like the first part isn't labeled part 1 and parts 3-8 are missing.

The audiobook can be found here.

Estes is a great story-teller! Thanks, anon!

Leigh Lundin said...

You're a naughty, naughty girl, ABA, saying what the rest of us are thinking, and we love it.

Anonymous said...

Leigh, I am so glad you found "Warming the Stone Child" (and you are correct; I mis-remembered the full title) and are enjoying it! I have always found Estes' analyses of major mythic themes intriguing, to say the least. Joseph Campbell was one of the first myth analysts of this stripe, but I think Estes broadens the scope of things in a really useful way.

Leigh Lundin said...

Anon, Estes is captivating, a great combination of psychologist and story-teller. She tunnels past the façade of civilization to the core of human being.

In a way, Chip Walker does that too, but without the poet approach of Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

CarolynJenkins said...

Aha! Now I see where your mind was at when you answered my email. I enjoyed Nancy Drew books when I was young because of the adventure. Girls back then-late 50s to early 60s, were in training to become homemakers. I loved the adventure, camping, hiking, sports. I hated cooking and housework and was labeled a tomboy. When I graduated from high school, another adult told my Dad, don't bother sending her to college, she's just going to find someone, get married and never use that education. And so all I did and do in life is self taught, because I never give up.

Leigh Lundin said...

(laughing) Carolyn, if there's a way to misread anything, I'll find a way to do it!

And that's the right thing: Never give up!

Short Stories Information said...

Call me naïve, but that's a take on Nancy Drew I hadn't ever considered. Now makes me wonder about Encyclopedia Brown.

Leigh Lundin said...

Hmm. Brown had a girl bodyguard, brainy little Sally Kimball. I think they had a crush on each other.

Jan Grape said...

Gosh. Guess I just enjoyed reading the books. I was a bit of a tomboy and enjoyed adventure. Never looked for hidden meanings. Enjoyed her friendship with George and Bessie and never thought about hidden agendas. Enjoyed her relationship with her dad. Felt sorry she had lost her mother. But I devoured books and never spent time analyzing because I was on to the next book.

C.S.Poulsen said...

I was in love with Gary Castle from Kindergarten through Fifth grade. Gary moved over for Paul McCartney my next true love. Those years, the fifties, seemed to be the last era of innocence for the world and my psyche. The sexual side of life exposed itself blatantly from then on in books, film, tv and the girls who "had" to drop out of school.

Having said that, I'm still appalled at Nancy being depicted as anything but a gutsy, smart female heroine.

Why do adults have to portray her sexually now? Gay? Tying up one or more of the Hardy boys? Really?
It was children's literature for heaven's sake! Why take the focus off her skills and place it on fantasized sexuality? Whatever anyone comes up with, it's the eye-of-the-beholder type thing I would imagine.

As for me, my motherless heroine, who didn't have to worry about Momma's rules (isn't that what we as children wished for?)went to college, met the future president of the united states and cracked down on the bad guys in a big way. She gave birth to future sleuthers who brought down the terror cells of the world. They were written about in children's literature and when someone tried to sexualize them, Nancy would show up at their house with a big bar of soap. (to wash out their mouths, Leigh, their mouths) That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

C.S.Poulsen said...

I was in love with Gary Castle from Kindergarten through Fifth grade. Gary moved over for Paul McCartney my next true love. Those years, the fifties, seemed to be the last era of innocence for the world and my psyche. The sexual side of life exposed itself blatantly from then on in books, film, tv and the girls who "had" to drop out of school.

Having said that, I'm still appalled at Nancy being depicted as anything but a gutsy, smart female heroine.

Why do adults have to portray her sexually now? Gay? Tieing up one or more of the Hardy boys? Really?
It was children's literature for heaven's sake! Why take the focus off her skills and place it on fantasized sexuality? Whatever anyone comes up with, it's the eye-of-the-beholder type thing I would imagine.

As for me, my motherless heroine, who didn't have to worry about Momma's rules (isn't that what we as children wished for?)went to college, met the future president of the united states, and cracked down on the bad guys in a big way. She gave birth to future sleuthers who brought down the terror cells of the world. They were written about in children's literature and when someone tried to sexualize them, Nancy would show up at their house with a big bar of soap. (to wash out their mouths, Leigh, their mouths) That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Leigh Lundin said...

I'm not sure. I asked the same question, why sexualize? But obviously some of read exactly that into the stories. So-called 'sexploitation' takes matters to another depth, a lot which seemed to come out in the '70s. I suppose it's a matter of taste (or distaste), but authors must realize once their book is on the market, a tug of war is going on as readers take their characters to heart.