Showing posts with label Nancy Drew. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nancy Drew. Show all posts

24 March 2022

Dark Tales for Children

Thanks to Joseph D'Agnese's Reading in Bars blogpost (HERE), I read Zilpha Keattey Snyder's The Egypt Game, and really enjoyed it. I think Snyder captured childhood obsession and fantasy perfectly. You do the damnedest things in childhood, from time-travel to being horses, from reading every single novel by an author and memorizing every freaking character and plot twist (Tolkein, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Andre Norton, Heinlein, T. H. White, Ray Bradbury, Carolyn Keene, Sherlock Holmes, etc.) to knowing you are going to die if you don't get to watch the latest episode of [fill in the blank here].  

And children know that adults have absolutely no understanding or comprehension of who you are, what you want, or what you're going through, and never will. Deep down, every child completely disbelieves that adults were ever children. They are an alien species, set down among us to tell us what to do and train us for some future role. This is, I think, part of the attraction we had for Stranger in a Strange Land, aside from the sex (which for the 60s was pretty damn racy). The Old Ones raising the Nymphs to become something else made perfect sense. 

But I disagree about the darkness of The Egypt Game. Yes, a child is murdered. And a second one, later on. I know, I know, if that isn't dark, what is? Well, so is child molestation, and in my childhood neighborhood we had a guy across the street who was molesting his foster kids, and our college-age next door neighbor tried to molest me when I was six. That's dark - too dark for most children’s book writers to think about touching, and probably rightly so.  

Anyway, despite the murders, there's a distance kept throughout the novel which makes sense:  children really can ignore almost everything if they're obsessed with something else. And 99% of the adults of The Egypt Game are harmless. Most of the time, the children spook themselves, which is also normal. 

MY NOTE:  In The Headless Horseman, my Laskin character, Linda Thompson, reminisces about how she talked herself into an obsession with a man – who does look pretty odd – that makes her absolutely terrified of him. Meanwhile, in case you haven't guessed, there were worse characters roaming Laskin at the time.  

Anyway, as I thought about it, I realized that children's literature has actually gotten tamer in many ways.  Try Nancy Drew - the books we were reading in the 1960s were still, mostly, the editions of earlier years. And thinking back on those books, what I remember is how in almost every story, Nancy was knocked out, kidnapped, bound, gagged, and taunted at least once, if not more than once. 

Nancy Drew in bondage
Image courtesy of The Paris Review

And sometimes it was Nancy and her chums. Repeatedly. In The Clue of the Velvet Mask, George Fayne, one of Nancy's best friends, was not just chloroformed and kidnapped, but shot up with mind-altering drugs, and - when she's finally rescued - is terrified that they are all going to be killed. Now this is important because George is, throughout the series, just as brave as Nancy, and even more of a daredevil. So for her to be frightened? So frightened that she's screaming at Nancy to give up the investigation? Scary. Also, the villain nearly smothers Nancy to death in that one. In fact, the ruthless, dangerous criminals who Nancy's up against repeatedly drug and physically assault Nancy and her friends. (Wikipedia)  Very dark.  

MY NOTE:  The Clue of the Velvet Mask was the last ghostwritten Nancy Drew by Mildred Benson, who has been credited as Nancy's original creator, and apparently the darkest one she ever wrote. If you want to see how dark it can get, you need to find the original - the 1953 edition - currently out of print.  

SECOND NOTE:  We all knew, BTW, that George was gay, even back in the 1960s, but then we were California girls, and learned stuff early. Didn't bother us a lick. When we role-played Nancy Drew novels, none of us minded being George if we couldn't be Nancy - what we hated was being assigned to play Bess Marvin, George's cousin and Nancy's other best friend, who was always depicted as plump, hungry, and scared of her own shadow.

Yes, children's literature has been tamed. Think about Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. An orphan is almost starved to death in an orphanage, escapes, and is taken in by a young gang of pickpockets and thieves under the tutelage of a career criminal. Among the companions are a young prostitute who is regularly beaten and eventually bludgeoned to death by her brutal criminal lover. Etc. How the hell did this ever get read aloud as a post-supper treat? And yet it was. 

Going back even further in time, there's Martha Sherwood's The History of the Fairchild Family, published in 1818 and remaining in print for over a hundred years, and part of every good Victorian child's library.  Fiercely Calvinist, it's all about the Fairchild parents trying against all odds to save the souls of their little unregenerate children Emily, Lucy, and Henry.  Horrific things happen - Augusta Noble, saucy, pert, and disobedient, plays with candles and burns herself to death, which immediately leads to everyone declaring the obvious truth that she is now burning in hell as well. And, when Emily, Lucy, and Henry fight amongst themselves one day, their father first whips them, then takes them out to see a gibbet, where a rotting corpse is hanging, its chains rattling in the wind, and makes them kneel in the dust and pray underneath it.  Now that's nightmares.

BTW, if you want to read The Fairchild Family in all its horrors, you can read the 1819 text HERE - especially "The Story on the Sixth Commandment."  It explains the early Victorian mindset better than any modern analysis can ever do.

And, finally, Grimm's Fairy Tales. I remember The Robber Bridegroom very well, because for some reason I was fascinated by the fact that the robbers gave the poor victim three glasses of wine:  one white, one red, and one yellow.  Anyway, the miller's daughter goes to see her betrothed in the forest, not knowing he's a robber. At the house both a bird in a cage and an old woman tells her that the people there will kill her and eat her. The old woman hides her behind a cask, and the robber & his gang arrive with a woman whom they proceed to get drunk, and then kill her and chop her up. Luckily the ring finger flies off and lands in the miller's daughter's lap, and she shows it at the pre-wedding banquet. The bad guys are executed, so all is well. Huzzah!

Maybe that's the hallmark of true children's literature - in the end all the bad people are caught, executed, die, are destroyed? And then you grow up, and you find out that the bad guys aren't always caught, executed, die, or destroyed. That's when your heart breaks, and the real nightmares begin.

"Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon."~ G.K. Chesterton, writing the original lines, in Tremendous Trifles, Book XVII: The Red Angel (1909)

28 October 2016

We are what we write?

C.L. Pirkis's Loveday Brooke
My "Women of Mystery" class at George Mason University has been examining the ways in which 19th- and early 20th-century women mystery writers have challenged contemporary attitudes about gender roles and gender relations. In a Victorian Era when men and women were assigned to "separate spheres" based on their "natural" characteristics (to quote a brief essay by Kathryn Hughes at the British Library), it was likely refreshing to see fictional female detectives taking the lead on investigations and besting men in the process. And even in our class's short sampling of work from the era, it's been fun to watch how the implied quickly gave way to the explicit. In C.L. Pirkis's "Drawn Daggers" (1894), for example, Loveday Brooke holds her own in conversations with her employer, Mr. Dyer—not backing down in disagreements about how to approach a case or where the truth might be found, and eventually proved right about her plans. Two decades later, Baroness Orczy could be much more direct in the first of her Lady Molly tales, "The Ninescore Mystery" (1912), where the narrator—a member of Scotland Yard's "Female Department"—states from the start: "We of the Female Department are dreadfully snubbed by the men, though don't tell me that women have not ten times as much intuition as the blundering and sterner sex; my firm belief is that we should haven't half so many undetected crimes if some of the so-called mysteries were put to the test of feminine investigation."

Even in 1912: You've come a long way, baby—right? Toss us a pack of Virginia Slims—from 1968.

Pauline Hopkins
With most texts, we've been zeroing in on the progressive elements—the ways in which these writers have conceived of their protagonists both within and then in opposition to prevailing feminine ideals, the ways in which the texts have commented on and subtly (or not) criticized the values of their eras. In the case of Pauline Hopkins' "Talma Gordon" (1900), generally considered the first mystery story by an African American writer, we've looked at how a writer can address racial issues as well as gender issues—two perhaps not unrelated parts of a more progressive agenda—both through the story that's told (the plot that unfolds, the racial themes within the story) and through a strategic awareness of the publication venue, its specific audience, and that audience's values and concerns.

What's interesting about Hopkins, however, is that even as she explores racial attitudes and gender issues with a progressive's eye, her story is more conservative on other issues, somewhere at the intersection of class, intellect, and morality—and Hopkins herself seemed to be so as well, advocating elsewhere the "amalgamation" of the races as a way to bring down racial barriers, but also stressing that it was the "worthy" blacks and white intermingling which would improve civilization, while those unworthy ones... well, as critic Sigrid Anderson Cordell explained it in a fascinating 2006 essay on Hopkins' work, those unworthy ones would be "'civilized' or removed from the gene pool."

Even in texts without the racial elements, my student saw that attention to gender equality often parted ways quickly with concerns about class inequality. Lady Molly and her companion in the Female Department were quick to dismiss men's attitudes and achievements, but the story was equally quick to villainize women of the lower-classes for greed and for sexual promiscuity—"slut shaming" them, as one of my students put it.

Much of this discussion came to a head this week as we discussed Nancy Drew—everyone's favorite girl sleuth (or nearly everyone's; see SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens' terrific dissent here).

As an icon perhaps even more than as a character, Nancy can—and certainly has—been celebrated from a number of feminist perspectives, from her first appearance still in the shadow of the 19th Amendment's ratification (just a decade before) and right up til today. As Priya Jain writes in her 2005 Salon essay "The Mystery of a Feminist Icon," Nancy was "a model citizen with a perfect balance of toughness and femininity, an icon of independence and poise. As such, she has provided a connective thread between the six generations of girls she has ushered into adulthood." And Jain links Nancy's "smarts, pluck and independence" to the passions of the first Carolyn Keene, ghost-writer Mildred Wirt, "a young college graduate filled with the ideals of suffrage and the women’s movement."

As a class discussing The Mystery at Lilac Inn, we worked through the ways in which Nancy could be considered a valuable role model (and, Bonnie, you'll be pleased to know that one student did ask, "But isn't that a lot of pressure to put on the girls reading this?"), and we circled again around that word "progressive" in terms of the images and messages in the text. But at the same time, we couldn't help but be aware of the hints of conservatism lurking at the book's core—those parallel messages about upper-middle-class values, nostalgia for the past (look what's being done to the Lilac Inn!), about respectability and social grace and unerring etiquette.

We read the 1961 edition of the book, but I also brought in the original 1930 text—almost completely different. (In case readers here don't know, the original books were rewritten beginning in 1959, so for most of us, the Nancy Drew books we grew up on were not the original Nancy Drews.) In that 1930 version, not only are class issues more evident but—perhaps hand in hand—so are some unpalatable references to race and ethnicity. When Nancy is tasked with hiring a new housekeeper to temporarily replace Hannah Gruen (called away by a sister's illness), Nancy first interviews a "colored woman" ("dirty and slovenly in appearance and [with] an unpleasant way of shuffling her feet"), then the next morning an Irish woman ("even worse than the one that came yesterday") and a "Scotch lassie" ("she hadn't a particle of experience and knew little about cooking"). Later in that edition, the villains are revealed to be working class, uneducated, and mostly dark-complexioned; one is distinguished by a "hooked nose."

What's most interesting here isn't necessarily the racial/ethnic prejudices—signs of those times, one might argue—or the fact that these were revised away in the 1961 edition, there already in the midst of the Civil Rights Era (and the Cold War too, my students pointed out, noting that Nancy in 1961 also keeps criminals from selling secrets to enemy agents). Instead, what's possibly most interesting is that Wirt in 1994, in an introduction to a reprint of the original Mystery at Lilac Inn, stressed that "judging from reader letters, [Nancy] never was offensive" in the same paragraph where she talks—without explanation—about the books being rewritten beginning in the late 1950s.

...all of which brought us back to our earlier discussions of C.L. Pirkis and Baroness Orczy and Pauline Hopkins and to the assumptions underlying those discussions that the authors were intentionally or strategically challenging gender stereotypes. But were they always? And even where statements about gender issues seemed explicit—as with Lady Molly and the assertions about the Female Department's superiority—was the author aware of the negative attitudes toward lower classes crying out from elsewhere in the text? Were those latter messages explicitly intended as commentary on class, or was the author simply blind to how her views (and prejudices) had snuck into the writing?

In short, I guess, how can you tell when a writer is commenting on the values of her era—and when she's simply reflecting them?

And to flip this around, how many of us writing today are explicitly championing certain values in our work—and how many of us are unaware of the values we're revealing in those same works?

A good discussion in class on these topics—and I hope maybe a good discussion ahead here.

15 April 2016

Lost and Found—and Tasty Too!

I've mentioned before—and often—how I was a big fan of the Nancy Drew books as a child, and while I respect and understand my colleague B.K. Stevens' frustration with them, I never experienced any of those feelings myself. I stayed—and still remain—enamored of both the character and the series. (I've even taught a Nancy Drew book in my classes at George Mason and plan on doing so again in the fall. Plenty to talk about there, which I'll likely revisit here when the time comes.)
So much of a fan was I that sometime in the late 1970s (or was it early 1980s?), I ordered a copy of The Nancy Drew Cookbook: Clues to Good Cooking, and while I can't remember the year, I do remember distinctly the moment of picking up that special order from The Book Cellar in Jacksonville, NC, and more specifically several layers of mixed emotions about it: excitement about the possibilities the book offered, since I also loved to cook (and still do); amazement at this joining together of two things I enjoyed so much; and—admittedly—a little self-consciousness about both those enthusiasms, there on the eve of my adolescence and clearly aware of how strongly each of them leaned toward "girl" stuff.

No matter. It was mine and, hesitations be damned, I loved it.

Fast forward to more recent years and to my wife Tara and I collating our respective editions of Nancy Drew on a shared shelf after we got married. Whose copy of each title was nicer? Which ones were we still missing? What to do with duplicates, and how to track down the ones we still needed?

And then: where was that cookbook that I know I had?

Despite my best efforts to go through the boxes of books I'd relocated from my parents' house to my own home, it never turned up—until a couple of weekends ago during a visit to North Carolina when I discovered some other boxes up in the attic, boxes of younger children's books, picture books, etc. Pulling those down to explore for my own son (who's now 4), I found that tucked in among that stash of books the title I thought had been lost for good.

Memory is a fickle thing, of course. Looking through the book now, I can't remember which recipes I might have made all those years ago. But I did immediately begin noting which recipes I wanted to try today. Many of them are fairly standard recipes, as you can imagine, the kind of thing I imagine might have been taught in Home Ec classes around that time; as the introduction from Carolyn Keense states, "Nancy's friends have helped with her cookbook and Hannah Gruen has lent advice. Bess likes rich foods, George the slimming ones. The boys are experts on barbecues, picnics and beach parties." Of course, all of the recipes come with clever names tying into the world of Nancy Drew. Among the ones I've got my sights on now: Hollow Oak Nest Eggs, Ski Jump Hot Chocolate, the Mapleton Milk Shake, A Keene Soup, and Missing Map Cheese Wafers. And we've already made one, which turned out simply delicious and which I decided might be worth sharing here.

The Ringmaster's Secret Chicken

4 chicken breasts
1 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon red hot sauce
1/8 teaspoon garlic salt
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup fine dry bread crumbs

Wash the chicken and dry with paper towels. Mix together sour cream, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, garlic salt, paprika, and salt. Place the chicken breasts in this mixture and leave in the refrigerator overnight to marinate.

Take the chicken out of the mixture and roll each breast in the bread crumbs. Put them in a large baking dish, arranging them in a single layer. Cover the dish and place in the refrigerator for at least 1 1/2 hours.

Heat the oven to 325°. Uncover the dish and bake the chicken for 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Make your own bread crumbs: crush stale bread or crackers with your fingers, then sift them until you have a cup of fine crumbs.

Malice Domestic 

Two weeks from today, Malice Domestic will already be underway, as Barb Goffman previewed a couple of days ago in her own post—and congrats to her and to B.K. Stevens for being Agatha Award finalist in the short story category and to B.K. for also being a finalist for her YA novel Fighting Chance. I'm pleased that my book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories has been named an Agatha finalist for best first novel (the full list of finalists in all categories is here), and I'm thrilled to be appearing at several events throughout the weekend. Here's my schedule for the convention—busy busy each day!
  • Panel (as moderator): “Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees,” with Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell, Terrie Farley Moran, Harriette Sackler, and B.K. Stevens • Friday, April 29, 1 p.m.
  • Opening Ceremonies • Friday, April 29, 5 p.m.
  • Panel (as panelist): “New Kids On the Block: Our Agatha Best First Novel Nominees,” with Margaret Maron (moderator), Tessa Arlen, Cindy Brown, Ellen Byron, and Julianne Holmes • Saturday, April 30, 10 a.m.
  • Agatha Awards Banquet • Saturday, April 30, 7 p.m.
  • New Author Breakfast • Sunday, May 1, 7 a.m.
Looking forward to seeing old friends in a couple of weeks—and to making new ones too!

12 March 2016

Why I Stopped Reading Nancy Drew: The Case of the Perfect Protagonist

by B.K. Stevens

I no longer remember the title of the last Nancy Drew mystery I checked out of the public library in Tonawanda, New York. I no longer remember anything about the case Nancy was working on or the clues she'd uncovered. But I do remember, almost word for word, the last two sentences I read before slamming the book shut and vowing never to read another.

ND1tsotoc.JPGNancy is with her friend Bess, investigating something or other outdoors. When the day begins to get foggy, Bess begins to fuss. She'd spent a long time working on her hair that morning, and now the moisture in the air is making her curls droop and die. Here are the sentences that ended my years as a Nancy Drew fan: "Nancy smiled. The damp air just made her own naturally curly hair even bouncier."

That did it. I'd long ago gotten used to the idea that Nancy is uniquely smart, brave, and pretty, that she's always the one who spots the clues and solves the mysteries. I knew her father is kinder and wiser than anyone else's, her boyfriend better looking than anyone else's, her eyes bluer and her roadster sleeker. I'd stopped being surprised when she keeps displaying new areas of expertise. When some snooty diving champions challenge her to a competition, I took it for granted that Nancy's jackknife would put theirs to shame. I was right.

But naturally curly hair? That was too much. Like poor Bess, I had stick-straight hair. I had to torture it to make it look slightly bent. And now, to learn that Nancy Drew, so clearly superior to me in every other respect, also effortlessly enjoys what I could never achieve--I couldn't stand it. I returned the book to the library and began a quest for a more satisfying teenaged detective. Nancy was probably supposed to be a role model, but she was so far out of my league that I couldn't even fantasize about rising to her level. I yearned for a teenaged detective who had flaws as well as strengths, one I could admire but still feel some kinship with, one who would set an inspiring example without depressing the hell out of me.

My favorite was probably Trixie Belden. When I began to think about writing this post, I decided to reread Trixie's first mystery, The Secret of the Mansion, to refresh decades-old memories. I was reminded that, like Nancy, Trixie is quick-thinking and courageous, with a keen sense of right and wrong. Unlike Nancy, though, she sometimes makes mistakes. She can be impetuous, tactless, even foolish. And she's not always the best at everything. Her closest friend, Honey West, is a far better rider. When Trixie impulsively mounts the most spirited horse in the West family stable, she gets thrown and narrowly escapes being trampled. When she dives into a lake to cool off, she forgets to check the depth, bumps her head on the bottom, and nearly passes out. She adores her sensible, loving parents but sometimes chafes at the chores they assign her, sometimes keeps secrets from them. None of that ever kept me from admiring Trixie, or from wishing her well in each of her adventures.

When I started toying with the idea of writing a young adult mystery of my own, I naturally began by reading some recent examples. A lot has changed since the days when Trixie and Honey bicycled down the tranquil streets of their fictional village of Sleepyside. Today's YA detectives may find themselves in the seedier sections of major cities, dealing with dangers ranging from gang violence to cyber-bullying, from serial killers to designer drugs. (Sometimes they also deal with vampires, shape-shifters, and evil wizards--but we'll set those aside.) At least in the books I've read, they seldom enjoy the guidance and protection of parents comparable to Trixie's, or to Nancy's rock-solid widowed father, prominent attorney Carson Drew. More often, their families are fractured by divorce, abandonment, death. Some have never known their fathers; many have to deal with parents who are abusive, addicted, or psychologically damaged. Perhaps to compensate for the lack of strong parents, these protagonists usually have reliable, fiercely loyal friends. I haven't read widely enough to hazard even a tentative generalization, but it seems to me that in some recent YA mysteries, friends play the roles parents used to play: The protagonist's parents may be inadequate or absent, but friends provide advice, support, and unconditional love.

And the young detectives themselves? In the books I read, I didn't find any Nancy Drew-type paragons who excel at everything, but I did encounter protagonists who might be considered paragons of resilience. Generally, they're tough, brave, and smart. They may be cynical and find it difficult to trust others--after all, they've usually been through a lot, and they've often got big problems at home. Aside from that, most of the YA detectives I met are surprisingly unscathed by their experiences and surroundings. Despite their haphazard upbringings, they're people of utter integrity. No matter how harshly they've been treated, they're sensitive and compassionate. And although their parents may be addicts, they live clean. Offhand, I can't think of a single teenaged detective who sneaks so much as a sip of beer, despite circumstances dismal enough to drive most of us to drink.

Reading these contemporary YA mysteries helped me begin to plan my own. I knew three things for sure. First, my protagonist would be male. At the time, I was teaching English in a Cleveland high school, and I wanted to write a book that would appeal to male students who, bright as they might be, often weren't enthusiastic readers. Second, my protagonist would be athletic. When I recommended outside reading novels to my male students, they often responded with a question straight out of The Princess Bride:"Are there any sports?" I wanted to write a book that would respond to that interest. And third, my protagonist would not have naturally curly hair.

Krav Maga trainingBeyond that, I wasn't sure. I had no interest in writing about a protagonist as flawless as Nancy Drew. I wasn't consciously thinking about Trixie Belden--until I started working on this post, I'd barely thought about her in years--but my protagonist, Matt Foley, has more in common with Trixie than with Nancy. He's a thoroughly nice kid with good instincts and a generous nature--for example, he won't stand idly by if someone else is being bullied--but he makes plenty of mistakes. He's not always a good judge of character: He can be taken in by a pretty face or a smooth talker, he's too quick to believe gossip, and he tends to think the people in his own popular crowd at school are superior to the misfits.

Matt's not as accident prone as Trixie, but he too can be impetuous, rushing into situations without pausing to weigh the dangers. (That's one advantage to having a teenaged male protagonist. If a widowed forty-year-old mother of two goes to a deserted spot late at night to search for evidence, she's being so culpably foolish and irresponsible that readers may well be incredulous, unsympathetic, or both. If a seventeen-year-old boy does the same thing--well, what else would you expect from a seventeen-year-old boy? He's young. He'll learn.) Matt treasures his friends, but he doesn't always get along with them smoothly. He clashes with his long-time best friend, Berk, when they both get interested in the same girl, and he jeopardizes his relationship with a new friend, Graciana, by making immature comments. When I think back to my own high-school days, that rings true. Friendships are vitally important, yes, but they can also be delicate, and they don't always last forever.

Then I thought about Matt's family. I ought to have some conflict there, I decided. Maybe his parents should be divorced. Maybe one or both should be abusive, or addicted to something. Maybe the family has been torn apart by some horrible experience, such as the violent death of an older sibling. After all, today's young adult novels are supposed to deal honestly with the problems real families face.

In the end, I decided to pass on divorce, abuse, addiction, and horrible experiences. I'm glad many mysteries for young people deal with such problems. That's important. But I think it's also important for some YA mysteries to acknowledge that even when families are intact, even when loving parents work hard to do their best, young people can still feel alienated and isolated. Even when problems aren't dramatic, they can still be real, still be frustrating--and sometimes, they can have a lighter side. Those are the sorts of family problems Matt faces in Fighting Chance.

Image result for Stevens fighting chance Matt's a good person, his parents are good people, and they all love each other. But they have different interests and different perspectives. Sometimes, those differences lead to relatively minor problems. Matt's resentful because his parents don't pay more attention to his athletic achievements, he doesn't understand how they can be so perpetually perky and upbeat, and he's appalled when his mother serves him tofu stir-fry and quinoa patties instead of the cheeseburgers he craves. Sometimes, the differences have more serious consequences. Determined to provide Matt with a sense of security, his parents don't talk about the problems they're facing. As a result, Matt feels there must be something wrong with him, since he's apparently the only one whose life isn't perfect. Because he assumes his parents won't be able to understand, he often keeps things from them, sometimes flat-out lies to them. He feels guilty about it, but he can't bring himself to open up to them until events in the novel face him to risk it. I like to think Fighting Chance is a coming-of-age novel as well as a whodunit. Reaching a better understanding of his parents is a major element in Matt's transition from childhood to adulthood.

There's no need for Nancy Drew to come of age, of course. In every important respect, she's already an adult on the first page of her first mystery. But she's been part of the coming-of-age process for countless young readers. For a while, at least, she sets an example for them, gets them excited about reading, and makes them love mysteries. Are there any adult female mystery readers or writers who didn't read Nancy Drew novels when they were young? Maybe, but I've never talked to even one who's admitted to such a shocking gap in her literary education. And I'd guess there are few, if any, adult male mystery readers or writers who didn't start out with the Hardy Boys. If we eventually get impatient with Nancy Drew, if we start yearning for mystery protagonists who are more like us and share more of our problems and shortcomings--well, that's probably part of the coming-of-age process, too. The young adult mystery is a genre within a genre, but it's neither narrow nor rigid. It's capacious enough, and flexible enough, to meet the needs of many different sorts of young readers in many different generations, at many stages in their progress toward adulthood. I slammed my last Nancy Drew novel shut many decades ago, but I'll always look back at Nancy with affection, and with gratitude.

Image result for nancy drew silhouette

16 November 2015


by Susan Rogers Cooper

As Thanksgiving rapidly approaches I thought I'd jot down a few things I'm thankful for: my beautiful daughter and her three wonderful children, the memories of a good marriage that lasted over thirty-four years, old friends and new friends, and, yes, books.

I'm thankful for Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Winslow Brothers who enriched my childhood, for Agatha Christie, John Steinbeck and J.D. Salinger who molded my teenage years, and for John D. MacDonald who brought me back to mystery in my early twenties. I'm thankful to Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and Sarah Peretsy who taught me that women can write just as hardboiled as any man. And I'll always be grateful to Jan Grape, my mentor, who did more for my career than any agent or editor has ever done. And I'm thankful for those agents and editors who helped mold my work – especially the undisputed queen of mystery editors, the late Ruth Cavin, who once told me – when I complained after she read my fifth book that I hadn't gotten the editing letter from her that I usually got – that I finally sent her one without any big boo-boos.

I'm thankful that I've been blessed with the career of my choice, and that I've had a job that makes me mostly happy – except on those days when all I can do is stare at a blank screen. I'm thankful for the friends I've met since I started this career – Joan Hess, Sharan Newman, the late Barbara Burnett Smith and the late Nancy Bell, Dean James, Charlaine Harris, and so many more who've made me laugh and cry and given me advice that I'll always remember.
This is a good time to remember these things, to count our blessings, and say thank you to those we love. And to stock up on extra books since we'll soon have a day off.

01 June 2014

Secrets of the Girl Sleuth

Norwegian Nancy Drew
Norwegian Nancy Drew

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.

11 March 2014

Women Sleuths of the Silver Screen

In a recent post, I considered some minor mystery movie series, closing with the promise that I'd follow up someday regarding movie series featuring female detectives.  A more recent column by Leigh Lundin reminded me that March is "Women's History Month" and, more specifically, "Women in Mystery Month." So why not "Women in Mystery Movie Series Month" as well? It seems like a good fit.
I know of three such series from the 1930s, and each is worth a look.  (Each shows up on TCM from time to time.) All three series had literary antecedents, two now obscure and one still famous.  The three protagonists are surprisingly diverse, given that they were battling crime at more or less the same moment in time. 

Hildegarde Withers

A Boston school teacher turned amateur sleuth, Hildegarde Withers was the creation of Stuart Palmer, novelist, short story writer (including two Sherlock Holmes pastiches), screenwriter, and president of the Mystery Writers of America.  Withers debuted in The Penquin Pool Murder in 1931.  Withers reappeared regularly through the early fifties and even had two titles released in the sixties, with Palmer sharing credit with writing partners, including Craig Rice (Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig).  Withers, a comic take on Miss Marple,  is a busybody crime solver.  Much of the humor derives from her clashes with a tough New York police inspector, Oscar Piper.

With RKO producing, Withers made it to the big screen only a year after her literary debut, in a film version of that debut, The Penquin Pool Murder.  She was played by the great Edna May Oliver, an actress with a long face and a great way with an acerbic line.  A native of Massachusetts who specialized in independent and cranky characters, Oliver was born to play Withers.  She followed up Penquin Pool with two more, Murder on the Blackboard (1934) and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935).  All three benefit from James Gleason's performance as Piper.  After Honeymoon, Oliver left RKO for MGM, where she graced big-budget costume pictures like Romeo and Juliet and Pride and Prejudice until her untimely death in 1942, age 59.  Following Oliver's departure, RKO tried three more Withers films, staring first Helen Broderick (not good) and then Zazu Pitts (worse).  Later, there were two television Withers, Agnes Morehead in a failed 1950s pilot and  Eve Arden in a 1972 television film, A Very Missing Person.

Hildegarde Withers (Edna May Oliver) and Oscar Piper (James Gleason)

Any of the Oliver films is worth catching.  My favorite is Murder on a Honeymoon, which features location footage shot on Catalina Island, an uncommon thing in a film of that period.

Torchy Blane

One of old Hollywood's favorite stock characters was the plucky female reporter.  She could pop up in A pictures like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) in the person of a genuine star like Jean Arthur or in B pictures like Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) in the person of a contract player like Glenda Farrell.  Farrrell was a member of the Warner Bros. stock company, and as such was as likely to play a gold digger in a Busby Berkeley musical as a gun moll in a gangster picture.  The Warners films of the early thirties were known for their rapid pacing and general brassiness.  Farrell, a brassy blonde who was to wisecracking what Edna May Oliver was to superciliousness, fit right in.  Warners eventually gave Farrell her own series, in which she played a crime-solving newswoman, Torchy Blane.

The series was inspired by a story Warners had purchased from Fredrick Nebel, a pulp writer who published in Black Mask alongside Hammett and Chandler.  Nebel's original story featured a hard drinking male reporter who competed against and knocked heads with a cop named McBride.  Warners switched the reporter's gender, renamed him (or rather, her) Torchy Blane, and started cranking them out.  McBride was played by Barton MacLaine, and he became Blane's love interest as well as her professional rival.  Blane would stop at nothing to solve the crime and get the story, including exploiting her relationship with McBride. The films were light and, at around an hour each, lightning paced.  Of the nine films released between 1936 and 1939, seven starred Farrell, with Lola Lane and future Oscar winner Jane Wyman each stepping in for one.

Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell) and Steve McBride (Barton MacLaine)

Farrell's take on the wisecracking blonde went out of style when the thirties went west, but she kept acting, sometimes in smaller movie roles, sometimes on the stage or on television.  She died in harness in 1972, age 66, and was buried at West Point beside her second husband, an army doctor who had served on Eisenhower's staff.

Leonard Maltin calls Smart Blonde (1936) the best of the Torchy Blane films, and I'll bow to his expertize.

Nancy Drew

Carson Drew's only child debuted in book form in 1930 and has been solving crimes (and lying about her age) ever since.  The brainchild of the genius book packager Edward Stratemeyer, the books, written under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene (originally by Mildred Wirt Benson) were an immediate success.

In 1938, Nancy Drew made it to the big screen courtesy of Torchy Blane's studio, Warner Bros. She was played by a young actress with a name that always sounded to me like it should have belonged to an old actress:  Bonita Granville.  Granville was a movie veteran in 1938, having made her debut in 1933 at age nine. (Her most famous child role was an Oscar-nominated turn in These Three, the original film version of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour.)  Granville first played the girl sleuth in Nancy Drew, Detective, based on The Password to Larkspur Lane.  Three more films followed in 1939, the last being Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.  Carson Drew was played by Warners regular John Litel, and Frankie Thomas played Nancy's boyfriend (with his book name, Ned Nickerson, changed to Ted Nickerson for reasons best known to Warners).

The films were short, fast-paced, and Nancy was both the brains and heart of the outfit (though some critics found Granville insufficiently intrepid).  I'd recommend the last one, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.  (And not just because it has a title I remember fondly.)

Ted Nickerson (Frankie Thomas) and Nancy Drew (Bonita Granville)

Though she remains a publishing franchise and has spun off into new areas like video games, Nancy Drew's screen afterlife hasn't been much more impressive than Hildegarde Withers'.  There would be only one more big screen attempt, Nancy Drew, a 2007 film released by her old studio, Warner Bros., starring Emma Roberts.  There also was a television show, which premiered in 1977, with Pamela Sue Martin in the role.  (Drew was eventually squeezed out of that by her co-detectives, the Hardy Boys.)  A 2002 made-for-television movie, also simply called Nancy Drew, starred Maggie Lawson of Psych fame.      

Granville would remain with Warner Bros. long enough to appear in support of Betty Davis in Now Voyager.  When her acting career wound down, Granville became a television producer. She died (just when she was getting old enough for her name) in 1988, age 65, of lung cancer, like fellow Warners alumnus Glenda Farrell.