Sherlock Holmes. Miss Marple. Hercule Poirot. All of these detectives are household names, and all of them are adults. While these sleuths are all much loved and timeless, there is something to be said for reading about a character your own age, which is why teen girl detective Nancy Drew has had such staying power in the world of mystery novels.
Created by Edward Stratmeyer, head of the Stratmeyer Syndicate, to capitalize on the popularity of his other creation, the Hardy Boys, with teen girls, Nancy Drew first appeared in 1939. Like the Hardy Boys, her novels were ghostwritten by various authors and published under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene.
The character was an instant success. By the third book, girls were clamoring for more and more Nancy Drew mysteries. While Nancy Drew’s initial draw came from being a teen girl sleuth, she also has an element of perfection that readers love. Yes, she is young, just like you, but she is also beautiful, rich, smart, athletic, and talented. Nancy Drew is fantastic and solves mysteries to boot. Her skills and talents allow her to move around in the adult world easily and, oftentimes, demand respect. She is not afraid to question authority and to stand up for what is right. She is powerful in nearly every sense of the word, from intelligence to strength to even the power wealth affords. It is a mix of relatability and fantasy with which average readers immediately resonate.
Throughout the years, Nancy has starred in numerous series containing their own continuity. The longest-running series, Nancy Drew Mysteries, ran from 1930 to 2003 and contains 175 novels. A spinoff series, The Nancy Drew Files, ran from 1986 to 1997. The unsuccessful Nancy Drew: Girl Detective series ran from 2004 to 2012. A replacement series, The Nancy Drew Diaries, was launched in 2013. Reception has been mixed, but with a resurgence in thrillers in the young adult space, Nancy Drew may have a renaissance.
For those looking to get into Nancy Drew, we will review some of the best entries from the Nancy Drew Mystery series. It is worth noticing that several of the books in this series received a rewrite in 1959, meaning two versions of the same novel are available for purchase and collection. The rewritten versions feature a less brash and impulsive Nancy, one who is sweeter and more in line with the expectations girls had to conform to in the 50s. Racial stereotypes are omitted, and Helen's character is eventually replaced with Nancy's friends, series staples Bess and George. The novels also add more adventure and peril and increase the pacing of the stories.
The Secret of the Old Clock
1930’s The Secret of the Old Clock is the first of the Nancy Drew Mystery Series and the world's first introduction to the prodigious, jet-setting detective, Nancy Drew. This first book features a mystery surrounding a missing will, which determines whether or not the estate of the late Josiah Crowley will be given to the deserving Turners or the cruel Topham family. One key difference between the 1930 and 1959 versions is that Nancy solves the mystery in the former because she wants to spite the family she doesn't like, whereas, in the latter, she wants to help the Turners. Both versions are worth collecting, and while a less impulsive Nancy may seem less exciting at the outset, a less classist Nancy is a better role model for young readers. Notably, The Secret of the Old Clock is among the best-selling hardcover children's books ever.
The Secret of Shadow Ranch
The fourth book in the series, The Secret at Shadow Ranch (The Secret of Shadow Ranch in the 1965 rewrite) is the first book in the series to introduce Nancy’s best friends, Bess and George. The three girls travel to Shadow Ranch, where they encounter a mysterious ghost horse that seems to be a harbinger of destruction, solve a mystery surrounding a lost treasure, and save the ranch from being shut down. The rewritten edition is significantly more thrilling.
The Haunted Showboat
Part of the excitement of the Nancy Drew series is that her father's wealth allows her to travel around the country and the world on amazing adventures in exciting locales. The Haunted Showboat, released in 1957, sees Nancy, her friends, and her boyfriend Ned vacationing in New Orleans for Mardis Gras. The festive atmosphere belies a chilling mystery involving missing pirate treasure, a sinister imposter, and a haunted riverboat on the bayou. As this novel was written later in the series, it was not rewritten and has only one edition to collect.