Summer, 1999. Your grandmother’s house is stuffy and dark, full of mysteries. When she’s not looking, steal the magnifying glass in the kitchen drawer. In the living room, your brother is reading a book about an army of brave squirrels. He does not want to go explore; he does not want to play outside. “They’re not just squirrels,” he insists. “They’re anthropomorphic.” This he says with slow triumph, as if it’s a secret word you couldn’t possibly know, a word that only fifth graders could understand, not lowly seven-year-olds like you. The word sounds made-up, an abracadabra of syllables. Like inevitably, or unfortunately.
Upstairs in your father’s childhood bedroom, thumb through the dusty books on the weathered shelf. Pull out the collection of yellowed spines. Each cover features a young slender woman, stylishly dressed, hunched over, clutching a clock or jewels or yellowed scroll, blue eyes wide with the clarity only a secret can endow. Shadowy figures loom in the background: a haunted mansion, an inky forest, the dark posture of a man, one arm always raised. Even through the magnifying glass, the shadows remain blurry, vague. Danger is always at the edge of things.
Sound out the title slowly: Nancy Drew. You like the sound of it: no-nonsense, sharp. Whisper it again. Nancy Drew. You look nothing like her—even the angles of her limbs exude confidence—but maybe one day, you could. Stuff as many books as you can fit into your duffel bag. Consider it your inheritance—they were your father’s books, after all.
Later at dinner, your grandmother asks if you’ve seen the magnifying glass. Take a long sip of milk, like you’ve been in the desert for weeks, then shrug and say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The great American feminist icon Nancy Drew was first envisioned by a mustachioed man: Edward Stratemeyer. An early pioneer of dime-store novels, Stratemeyer created the Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate in 1905. The business boomed, becoming a veritable fiction factory. Although he began as a writer, Stratemeyer quickly farmed out the work to a series of ghostwriters. The Syndicate pumped out a successful string of children’s series: the Rover Boys, Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys and, of course, Nancy Drew.
The early twentieth century witnessed an American gender landscape that was changing rapidly. During World War I, women gained significant traction in the domestic labor force, working positions previously exclusive to men; by 1919, they won the right to vote; by 1923, they could legally divorce their husbands. Ever the keen businessman, Edward Stratemeyer took note of these cultural and political transformations. Upon examining the success of the Hardy Boys among young female readers, Stratemeyer realized there was a viable commercial market for a new type of heroine who was bold and independent, hungry for mysteries.
Stratemeyer was a traditionalist at heart, though—his envisioned heroine could not completely subvert traditional American femininity, the pillars of which include domesticity, subservience to men, and adherence to heteronormativity.
But Mildred Wirt Benson had other ideas. Born in Iowa in 1905, Benson trained as a journalist at the State University of Iowa. After university, she was hired on as a ghostwriter for the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1926. Impressed by her work, Edward Stratemeyer selected her to write the first Nancy Drew novel under the pseudonym, “Carolyn Keene”. In 1929, The Secret of the Old Clock was published by Grosset & Dunlap. Over the next twenty-five years, Benson wrote over 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books.
Like Stratemeyer, Benson believed that readers wanted female characters with more gumption and street smarts. However, Benson wrote Nancy Drew to be far edgier than Stratemeyer himself could have ever envisioned: Nancy dove headfirst into adventure, mocked the police, and wasn’t afraid to call the shots. She shrugged off violence like an old winter coat: she was poisoned three times, bombed and harassed four times, chloroformed eight times, kidnapped sixteen times, and knocked unconscious nineteen times. She was also locked in castle towers, elevator shafts, phone booths, and hidden staircases. When her blue roadster got a flat tire, she just sighed and muttered: “Oh, well, I suppose I must fix it myself, because there won’t be another car for an hour on this road.” Nancy Drew was a woman who could handle anything thrown at her.
Despite her bravado in the nefarious criminal underworld, Nancy didn’t completely upend traditional gender norms. She was home each night in time for dinner with her father, the successful lawyer Carson Drew. Nancy always wore the newest fashion—cloche hats and handbags and expensive, colorful frocks—and she was a decent cook and a talented tap dancer (granted, the latter proved most handy when she was imprisoned and needed to tap out Morse code). She knew which fork was for salad and meat. By book seven, The Clue in the Diary, Nancy had acquired a boyfriend, although most critics agree that Ned Nickerson was more stage prop than character, functioning as little more than a quick nod to Nancy’s latent sexuality, lest anyone think her queer.The brilliance (and transcendence) of Nancy’s character lies in her liminality. At sixteen, Nancy was no longer a girl, yet not quite a woman.
The brilliance (and transcendence) of Nancy’s character lies in her liminality. At sixteen, Nancy was no longer a girl, yet not quite a woman. Her autonomy and independence ruptured the constriction of Victorian mores, but her genteel upbringing and decorum adhered to the WASP cult of femininity. Nancy literally lived in the middle of things—even her hometown, River Heights, was considered a true “midwestern” city. She was a borderland, a fantasy onto which young girls could project their most idealized versions of themselves: beautiful and independent, feisty yet beloved. In a twist of authorial genius, Benson managed to render a revolutionary heroine without summoning the conservative, patriarchal goonsquad of the era.
The strategy paid off. During the Great Depression, young readers devoured the Nancy Drew series, even as other book sales plummeted. The Depression had all but erased the American middle class; the country’s morale was at a nadir, and the birth rate had declined.
Pitted against the wily, gauche villains like Stumpy Dowd and the coiffed Foxy Felix, Nancy’s adventures provided an escape for children and adults alike. In his book, Rascal At Large or the Clue in the Old Nostalgia, Arthur Prager writes, “Hungry kids, shattered by the announcement of bubblegum rationing, drowned their sorrow’s in Nancy’s world.” Although the American Dream was quickly becoming a distant memory, Nancy’s life in the suburban (yet strangely criminal) River Heights remained a beacon of fascination and hope for readers across the country.
Becoming the girl detective isn’t easy. The learning curve takes years to unfold. It requires constant vigilance, a fine-tuned ear. Dusting for fingerprints leaves bread flour on all the doorknobs, which the old family hound eagerly licks off. When your parents decide to buy a new car, insist on inspecting the trunk for a release lever. Your father is annoyed. “We’re not planning on kidnapping anyone,” he says, but you can’t be too sure.
The suburbs of Cincinnati hardly qualify as a hotbed of criminal activity, but if you look hard enough, secrets are everywhere. For instance, there’s the woman who drives in languorous loops around the cul-de-sac with the windows down, or the neighbor boys who smoke weed in the skinny patch of woods behind your house, their bony backs hunched to the wind.
And then there’s your mother, who takes inordinately long baths and goes for long drives alone. Your father claims ignorance, innocence. “She’s just tired,” he says, but you suspect otherwise. There’s no use in looking to Nancy for guidance here—her mother died when she was just a child, and none of the books ever touched that mystery. Your brother continues to read his books, only now he’s moved on to hobbits and elves. If he notices your mother’s sadness, he doesn’t say anything about it. Only his eyebrows raise.
What’s a girl detective to do? With your allowance money, buy a lock diary and stash the plastic key in your pillowcase. In the diary, tabulate a list of everything you know about your mother: adopted, grew up on a farm in southwestern Ohio, barely speaks to her family, dyes her gray hair strawberry blonde. When you ask her for more information about her childhood, she rubs her temples and sighs. “Thinking about it gives me a headache,” is all she’ll say. A likely story, you think. Years later, the nature of inversion will emerge in tragic technicolor: the less your mother speaks, the louder her sadness echoes—same as yours.
But that’s years away. For now, look for a clue, any clue. Sneak into her room when she’s out for a drive. Find a cache of romance novels beneath her bed, each cover featuring a bare-chested man embracing a woman, the peach skin of her breasts glowing against the dark fabric of a dress.
Back in your room, skim the pages. Something like wings unfolds between your legs. Shut the book and push it deep beneath your bed. Did Nancy Drew never have this feeling? You can’t remember. Do not write about this in your diary.
At the school library, borrow books on Morse code. Practice tapping out, Can you hear me? beneath your desk, fingers expertly avoiding the ancient, calificied gum. When Mrs.
Shelton looks at you, shrug. Do not imagine kissing her. Tap out, Stop. Do not imagine her peach skin. Help. Ignore the trill in your stomach—this is a riddle even Nancy could not solve. You are not prepared for this, even though your backpack is filled with everything a girl detective might need: a screwdriver, a flashlight, a magnifying glass, a tube of your mother’s ruby red lipstick, a small blank notebook, three broken granola bars. Pull the bobby pin from your hair and wonder which doors, exactly, it might open.
When Edward Stratemeyer died in 1930, his daughters, Harriet Adams and Edna Stratemeyer, inherited the Syndicate. Up to that point, their involvement in the financial and editorial operations of the family business had been tangential, but they quickly picked up where their father left off. Harriet was the driving force behind the Syndicate, especially after Edna resigned as a “silent partner” in 1942. Throughout the following decades, Harriet successfully ran the operations of the Syndicate, even during the tough years of World War II. It was quite the feat—female CEOS were few and far between, and under Harriet’s tutelage, the Syndicate only continued to expand with the introduction of new series like The Dana Girls, Tom Swift Jr., and The Happy Hollisters. By 1952, Harriet decided to write the Nancy Drew series in-house, effectively terminating the contracts with the Carolyn Keene ghostwriters, most notably Mildred Wirt Benson.
In 1959, the Syndicate decided to revise the Nancy Drew series, making each book shorter. It was a financial decision—the original books contained twenty-five chapters, whereas the revised books contained twenty, making them cheaper to reproduce and distribute. At the time, short-form television shows like I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver, and The Honeymooners were shaping cultural aesthetics, and many modern readers preferred faster, shorter narratives. The Syndicate took this preference to heart, replacing the flowery language and opulent description from the original books with condensed, action-packed scenes.
But there was another reason for the series’ revision: Harriet Stratemeyer wished to recast Nancy in a softer, more feminine light. Although Harriet herself was a trailblazer—a female CEO, prestigious Wellesley graduate, and former writer for the Boston Globe and the Newark Sunday Call—she was hardly a flaming feminist. Her aesthetic preferences veered towards traditional, finishing-school protagonists who embodied elegance, not panache. To Harriet, Benson’s Nancy Drew—who challenged institutional male authority, drove over the speed limit, and condescended to servants and characters of color—must have seemed crude, a cultural anachronism in the emergent era of the suburban housewife.
With Harriet’s heavy editorial touch, Nancy traded her gumshoe recklessness for sophistication and grace. Her class consciousness evolved to the standards of the era—although Nancy was wholly aware of her upper middle-class standing, she rarely called attention to it. Once disdainful of police and other detectives, Nancy now obeyed the speed limit and deferred to officers’ opinions. She was intelligent but not cunning, resilient but not rugged. Even the villains were tamer, less rogue, using verbal threats instead of gunshots. Stratemeyer erased the edgy street smarts of the earlier Nancy—this new Nancy was more Jackie Kennedy than Rosie the Riveter, more debutante than tomboy.
The erasure didn’t cease with Nancy’s character. In an attempt to expunge racist stereotypes, all nonwhite characters in the original series were erased and rendered white, most notably by speaking “proper” American English rather than the pidgin dialects Benson had assigned them. The most egregious example of whitewashing is Jeff Topham, the black caretaker in The Secret of the Old Clock who stumbles upon a screaming Nancy while she’s locked in a closet. In the 1929 version, Jeff shouts, “Dat’s enough! Hold yo’ siren! I’ll let yo’ out. Dar ain’t a man in de world could make a racket like dat! Dis way out, lady!” In the 1959 revision, Jeff maintains his provincial manners but his ethnicity and race are coded more discreetly: “All right, all right, ma’am. I believe you! No man could make that racket. This way out, lady!” The homogenization of River Heights suggested that any deviancy or diversion from the dominant white American culture needed to be brought gently back into the mainstream, only to be pushed to the margins once more. It’s no coincidence that the revised Jeff Topham is still subservient to Nancy—poor, nonwhite characters are meant to exist only at the peripheries of the reader’s imagination. Otherwise, all eyes are trained on Nancy.
The revision process was so comprehensive that in 1965, Harriet Stratemeyer claimed authorship over the whole series, declaring herself the “real” Carolyn Keene. Why would Stratemeyer claim total authorship, when she’d worked directly with the ghostwriters for years? No one knows for sure, but critics speculate on the fact that of all the Syndicate’s protagonists, Nancy was always Harriet’s favorite—she loved Nancy like a daughter. It’s no wonder she took such painstaking care to shape her into the perfect girl detective.
Of course, the Syndicate also legally owned the novels and pseudonyms, rendering any ghostwriters’ claims to the contrary ineffectual.
Nancy Drew is a master of disguise. She knows how to hide the edges of her body. She dons a wig. She wears fake glasses. She calls herself Debbie Lynbrook, Dru Gruen, Irene Innsbrook, Anne Boonton. Nancy disappears, reappears, then disappears again.
Alas, you have no such parlor tricks. At fifteen, your body remains stubbornly visible, despite your best efforts to make it disappear: no desserts, no meat, two hundred sit-ups a night. Early in the summer mornings, sneak into the neighborhood pool and swim clumsy laps, when no one can see you. In the water, you’re weightless. It’s like moving through a dream.
Your body is a blade, both shield and sword.
But to your horror, your mother still insists that you now wear a bra, although your hands barely cusp your pale breasts, the embarrassing pink of your areolas. “You need to grow into your body,” she declares, but that’s just the problem—you want to grow out of it, like a weed through cement.
Your mother should know a thing or two about escaping a body. In addition to being a marketing director, she now moonlights as a Jazzercise instructor in a strip mall a few miles away, where she barks orders at a group of groggy middle-aged women and a septuagenarian named Otto. Chassé! Grapevine! Keep it up, ladies! Despite all the dancing, she’s still gaining weight, a fact that irks both of you. The pantry is stocked with vitamins and shake mixes,
Slim-Fast and macronutrients. The solo drives are gone, but she’s started to sleep on the couch downstairs, citing irreconcilable differences with your father’s snoring.
Your father has other concerns. “Get any thinner and you’ll disappear,” he jokes, but he’s started to offer you half of everything he orders at restaurants: three chicken wings, half a hamburger, a salad with croutons that slice your gums. In an effort to be helpful, he points out boys, as if you were incapable of identifying them yourself. “That one’s cute,” he says in a serious tone, as if noting a rare species of bird. Of course, he misinterprets your blush—he is no girl detective.
The first month of high school, meet with your guidance counselor. Fill out her personality questionnaire slowly and thoroughly. Pause before the question, “Does your family have a history of depression?” The word lodges in your throat. Do not think of your mother curled up on the couch in the dark morning. Do not think of your body in the pool: weightless, invisible. Cross your legs. Stare at the ceiling as if you were a humble peasant before the Sistine Chapel.
Your guidance counselor doesn’t push it. She lets you read silently in her office while she eats lunch. Genevieve is her name. She has wide cheekbones and bright eyes. “You can call me Gen,” she offers, but you won’t. Genevieve. On your tongue, it feels like a secret.
In French class, your teacher explains cognates. Ordinary, ordinaire; melancholy, melancholie. With a flourish of his hand, he adds that in ancient Greece, melancholy was associated with sickness and black bile, an infection of despair.
“Gross,” your classmate whispers, gathering her hair into a ponytail before letting it fall. The smooth curve of her white ear flashes—resist the urge to reach forward and touch it. Clutch your hands in your lap. Your body is a marionette; you are pulling the strings.
“Brut,” your teacher corrects.
Cognates remind you of your grandmother’s matryoshkas, those dusty, nested Russian dolls. Melancholy, melancholie, melankholia. It’s like rinsing a word clean, or rearranging the past to fit into a coherent chronology. Everything is contained, all the linguistic notches flattened out into a straight line. It’s a girl detective’s dream.
One night, while your brother’s watching an Iron Chef marathon in the basement, you tell him about cognates. Despite a stunning SAT score, he’s a half-hearted Latin student at best, preferring instead to shoot off fireworks and play video games.
But he waves you off. “It’s the false cognates you gotta watch out for,” he says, clutching a Dorito in his hand like a maestro with a baton. Without breaking his view from the television, he explains that false cognates are words that are similar in form and meaning, but don’t share the same etymological roots. In other words: “You think they’re related but they’re not.”
On the TV, a contestant hurls a sweet potato across the kitchen and screams. Your brother shrieks, his laughter rich and resonant, tinged with the honeyed, stale stench of marijuana. It surprises you: the laughter, the weed, the sweet potato pulpy against the tiled floor. All you can think is, is someone going to eat that?
Other things surprise you, too. The hushed thrum of your parents’ conversation whenever you leave a room. The condoms stashed in your brother’s glove compartment. How sadness, unbidden and powerful, occasionally rips through you like a tornado on the prairie, leaving emotional wreckage in its wake. The way your period has all but vanished. You are a borderland: no longer a girl, not yet a woman. Do you want to be? No. Maybe. It’s too early to tell. You have no idea what you want.
After your brother leaves for college with his hair dyed platinum blonde, your parents decide to clean the whole house. “It’s time to throw out the junk,” they say. Sneak into your brother’s empty bedroom and grab the stack of oversized sweaters that he left behind. Pull one on. The fabric hides the hollow of your collarbones; underneath the cable knitting, you could be anyone, just like Nancy. You are a Russian doll of secret selves. Hunger makes a mystery out of you.
But it also makes you irritable. For months, you slam doors, stomp up stairs, sharpen the flint in your voice until it sparks. “Why are you being like this?” your mother asks, after you’ve stormed into your bedroom, locking the door with a loud click!
Lean against the doorframe. Gather your voice to say, “Like what?” Listen closely for her response, but there’s only heavy silence, then the soft footsteps of her retreat. Neither of you can say what you’re like anymore. So this is the price of disappearing: no one can recognize you. Exhaustion threads your bones.
But the girl detective has no time to despair. Dig out your old magnifying glass from its shoebox underneath your bed. Walk into the bathroom and inch closer to the mirror, until your face starts to distort, the angles erased into something pale and unrecognizable, maybe beautiful, maybe terrible. Say, Hello, as if meeting a stranger, or a suspect, for the very first time. Hello hello hello.
In 1979, Harriet Stratemeyer ended the Syndicate’s long standing relationship with publishers Grosset & Dunlap for competitor Simon & Schuster, who began to publish paperback editions of the original volumes. The decision quickly proved to be a financial boon. Soon after, Grosset & Dunlap sued Simon & Schuster for a breach of contract on the grounds that because the original Nancy Drew volumes were written by ghostwriters, Simon & Schuster didn’t own the work and thus had no right to reproduce them.
The case went to court the next year. In an effort to grant Simson & Schuster legal reproduction rights, Harriet Stratemeyer testified on the company’s behalf, clinging to her claim of total authorship over the series. Presumably the stakes were higher than just money for Harriet—if Grosset & Dunlap were to win the case, she might have lost her iron-clad grip on the trajectory of Nancy’s character.
But Harriet was not prepared for Grosset & Dunlap’s star witness: seventy-five-year old Mildred Wirt Benson, flown in from Toledo, Ohio. Upon seeing Benson in the courtroom for the first time in decades, Stratemeyer famously said, “I thought you were dead.” Although Benson was confirmed as the original Carolyn Keene during the trial, Grosset & Dunlap lost the case, and to this day, Simon & Schuster still maintains publishing rights to the Nancy Drew franchise.
Since the 1970s, there have been a number of character spin-offs, including the Nancy Drew Girl Detective series, the Nancy Drew Notebooks, and Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew, among others. Each version of Nancy differs, according to the cultural milieu and intended audience. In one campy series, Nancy dumps her two-bit boyfriend Ned Nickerson and starts dating “experienced” older men; in another, she has a cell phone and drives a Prius. Relevance, it seems, requires revision.
Despite the contextual differences between the series, the narrative arc always remains the same: Nancy stumbles upon something fishy, begins to investigate, finds herself in grave danger, outwits the villain, and continues with her life as if nothing of great significance ever happened in sleepy River Heights. For almost a hundred years, the Syndicate’s formula has been tried-and-true. As Bobbie Ann Mason wrote in her book of cultural criticism, The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide: “The plots of Nancy Drew mysteries are like sonnets—endless variations on an inflexible form.”Like Eve from Adam’s rib, Nancy is carved from negative space—who she isn’t becomes who she is. And like Eve, Nancy too is frozen in the amber glow of mythology, solving the same mysteries again and again, because she cannot bear the heavy weight of realism that plagues her readers…
The simile also extends to Nancy’s ever-evolving character. Whether she’s reckless or demure or boy-crazy, the discrepancies hardly matter; they are all predicated on erasure, “endless variations” scaled and tailored into the vector of a perfect young woman. Trying to discern the “real” Nancy Drew is futile. It’s like looking into a funhouse mirror—every angle is phantasmal. She disappears, reappears, and disappears again.
The allure of erasure is the promise of momentum: if you can expunge unsavory elements of the past, you might become more whole in the present. But redaction is a poor substitute for revolution, and ironically, it is precisely this destruction that renders Nancy timeless. Like Eve from Adam’s rib, Nancy is carved from negative space—who she isn’t becomes who she is. And like Eve, Nancy too is frozen in the amber glow of mythology, solving the same mysteries again and again, because she cannot bear the heavy weight of realism that plagues her readers—financial troubles, hormonal blemishes, depressive episodes, insufferable heartbreak, disordered eating, irreparable mistakes. Nancy is not like the rest of us—she is never wrong, never cruel, never weak. Never, never, never.
For all their authorial differences, both Mildred Wirt Benson and Harriet Stratemeyer knew this: creating a myth of the girl detective was far preferable to building a real one. The evidence always lines up. The mystery always ends by the final page.
Summer, 2020. The girl detective’s days are over. Your magnifying glass shattered years ago. Your backpack is filled with a broken pencil, a diary, and three overdue library books. You are not prepared for anything, it seems.
And now there are days where you cannot stop crying. The world preens in such precise detail it aches: the gingko trees, the three-legged dog at the park, the pimpled cashier who handles the avocados with such tenderness you almost weep. You are an unknown variable, a false cognate, a riddle with no answer.
Confess to your therapist you don’t know what’s going on. This depression is more raw than any you’ve encountered. In The Secret of the Old Clock, when Nancy was locked into a closet by a group of thieves and the panic started to rise, she muttered, “I’m only wasting my strength this way. I must try to think logically.” But you are not Nancy. Emotion, not logic, governs your actions.
Your brother is concerned. “You can’t be that vulnerable all the time,” he says. “It’s not healthy.” He suggests starting a new hobby, like disc golf or woodworking. Take up cooking instead. Prepare meals with elaborate ingredients whose names you can barely pronounce. Stock your refrigerator with grass-fed butter and soft cheeses and glass bottles of whole milk; stock your bathroom with extra Tums. The war with your body ended years ago. These days, you can hardly believe it’s still yours, although you suppose there is no receipt for such a thing—it’s a gift you can never return.
Cut your hair. Don’t flinch when your mother frowns. “You had such beautiful hair,” she says. “Just like mine.”
Run a hand over your shorn head and say, “It’ll grow back.” She sighs. “Not like it was.”
Find a lover. Take long walks at night, when the moon threatens to swallow the sky whole. In bed, fold yourself like origami into her arms and try not to wince when she asks, “Have you always been this sad?” Shrug as if to say, That information is confidential, although the truth is you feel wholly unqualified to answer. The locus of your depression blurs, a dark hole into which rationale plunges and writhes. For all of Nancy’s adventures, she never found a ghost. It was always just another hooligan in a costume: Rudy Raspin, Benny “the Slippery One” Caputti, Zany Shaw. Unfortunately, there is no such audacious villain responsible for your mysterious sadness. The only viable suspect is you.
On the nights you cannot sleep, take out your old journals. Flip through the pages, study the inky fingerprints. Whatever you’re looking for, the evidence is right there, all your past lives dated in careful blue cursive. What used to animate you—there are secrets everywhere if you look hard enough—now fills you with dread. Maybe you won’t recognize yourself in these pages. Maybe you will.
Shut the journals, slip back into bed. The case is closed. The girl detective is gone, you decide, and some stranger has taken her place.