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As a number of contributors point out in the new essay collection Nancy Drew and Her Sister Sleuths: Essays on the Fiction of Girl Detectives, super-sleuth and cultural icon Nancy Drew is herself a figure shrouded in mystery. For starters, it’s become common knowledge, of course, that “Carolyn Keene” is just a front for the ubiquitous Stratemeyer Literary [End Page 418] Syndicate, but this easy assumption of anonymous authorship has been greatly complicated by interviews, correspondence, and testimony by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Mildred Wirt Benson, both of whom lay claim to writing books in the series. Nancy’s unyielding determination and freewheeling lifestyle have been held up as symbols of the “new girl” mentality of the modern age, and she even, on occasion, has been called “feminist,” but her squeaky clean propriety and unabashed domesticity equates her with a bygone era and reifies her heteronormative code of behavior. Things are complicated further by the multiple incarnations of Nancy Drew that have appeared over the last century, not only in the multiple “updates” of the original novels, but also in films, television shows, cartoons, comics, and (as of late) video games, websites, and (believe or not) porn. Where does the truth lie?
This collection, which was inspired by the “Nancy Drew and Girl Sleuths: Past, Present, and Future” conference in 2007, provides some answers and (even better) non-answers, all of which are welcome contributions to the current scholarship on Nancy Drew and turn-of-the-century series books in general.
As for new answers to the many mysteries surrounding Nancy Drew, in the opening essay, “The Nancy Drew Mythtery Stories,” James D. Keeline puts to rest some of the more famous myths surrounding the Nancy Drew books and the Stratemeyer Syndicate in general. Keeline knows the history behind the syndicate better than any scholar, and his piece is informed by many archival documents, including letters from the Stratemeyer Syndicate Records Collection at the New York Public Library. He provides many interesting bits of information on Edward Stratemeyer and his organization/company, such as more accurate details about the “breeder sets” and the costs of the books, as well as a number of tidbits about the Nancy Drew series, including more details about Edward Stratemeyer’s outlines and the revelation that Nancy was originally “Nellie Fay.”
Leona W. Fisher takes an unflinching look at the depiction of race in the Nancy Drew series in her essay “Race and Xenophobia in the Nancy Drew Novels: ‘What kind of society. . . ?’” only to conclude that “the texts assume a white implied reader whose sense of default privilege, ‘colorblindness,’ and xenophobia can be counted upon to remain unexamined” (63). In Fisher’s eyes, the early texts are a veiled form of imperialism that enforce Nancy’s “conquest of (and moral superiority to) inferior or suspect persons of color” (66), and the now well-known attempts to “update” the series in the middle of the century by omitting all of the black and ethnic characters evidence an even deeper form of racism and xenophobia. [End Page 419]
Nancy’s lack of knowledge of the hard sciences and her unfamiliarity with and downright fear of technology is examined by one of this collection’s editors, Michael G. Cornelius, who makes the interesting observation that Nancy’s seemingly limitless control over her world is always destabilized when she is confronted with a scientific problem or some complicated technology, at which point “a crisis of confidence results, and only the male with the solution to the technological mystery can restore order, a role that had previously always been Nancy’s” (80).
All three of these essays are insightful and provide direct answers to some of the persistent questions about the series, but, for this reader, the more interesting analysis in this collection comes from those who are willing to embrace the many contradictions inherent in a phenomenon as complex as Nancy Drew and a publishing scenario as unique as the Stratemeyer Syndicate...