I can almost pinpoint the day that I fell in love with thrillers. It was a Saturday afternoon and I had just purchased my first Nancy Drew book. I was about ten years old and had outgrown Enid Blyton. My mother had driven me to the nearest book shop and after much deliberation, it was decided that I was old enough to try a mystery book. Well, I think my mother was sorry she agreed to this, as I became addicted and demanded the full collection. Checking online for the purposes of this article, I discovered that there were actually 175 titles. The first one, The Secret of the Old Clock, was published in 1930 and was followed by 63 more hardbacks. Then the rights were sold on, and the remaining books were published as paperbacks, written by a variety of authors. It is these versions that I collected and I can still remember the covers, the excitement of getting the next in the series, and the satisfaction when I could solve the mystery before the end of the book.
Nancy Drew was often paired up with The Hardy Boys on bookshelves and I have no doubt that there are many crime thriller readers today who were weaned on the antics of these mystery solvers. While I can’t really remember the plot lines of each book, I do remember being sucked in from the very first chapter and turning the pages with tremendous speed. Nancy seemed so grown-up and glamorous and appeared to gravitate towards excitement. For a pre-teen in Ireland, this was a long way from my world and yet I felt a bond. A bond of sisterhood. A mystery solving bond. I was convinced that I had the skills to become a famous sleuth and that I too could crack the codes of unsolved crimes, all while wearing a well cut dress with appropriate footwear.
It seems I am not alone in my remembrance of the Nancy Drew books – a bit of online sleuthing uncovered a veritable hoard of fans.
International best selling author, Claudia Carroll says “’as a young teen, I actually wanted to be Nancy Drew. For me, she was like a sort of prototype feminist, strong-minded, independent, not to mention super-smart. It’s wonderful to see a whole new generation embrace these books, but then what’s not to love?’”
The strong female character is a common memory for many and inspired a whole generation of female writers. Author of fourteen Bestsellers, Colette Caddle was delighted to have a heroine like Nancy Drew to aspire to: “growing up I was always a bit cheesed off that whilst I received dolls and craft sets for Christmas, my brother would get racing cars and Lego… how I adored Lego and would play with it whenever I was allowed. Likewise, when we played games, my big brother was the doctor and I was the nurse; he was the sheriff , I was the deputy… well, you get the idea. I was a ‘girl’ and only good for assisting, not being in charge, perish the thought! An avid reader all my life, was it any wonder I was drawn to the delights of books where girls were strong, clever problem solvers? I loved The Chalet School series but, Nancy Drew was, without doubt, my heroine. Fearless and smart and of course, always successful in solving crimes, how could I not be enchanted? The books were fast-paced with intrigue and action on every page. If you weren’t into playing with dolls, make-up or threading beads, the Nancy Drew series was a revelation. I wasn’t weird or odd after all, I simply had different tastes. Though, even in the eighties, there were still jobs girls weren’t supposed to do, I think we were a much more confident and forceful generation who didn’t accept that we were less intelligent than men. And, perhaps reading books like these allowed us to dream and then chase those dreams. Or maybes I’m just wearing my rose-tinted glasses! Either way, those books gave hours of pleasure. I may just go back and have a little read… for old-time’s sake.”
The sassy, independent nature of Nancy Drew appealed to many young girls who had been raised on stories where boarding schools and uniforms were the norm. Escapism was sought and solving mysteries was an added bonus. The Secret Seven, The Famous Five and The Hardy Boys were also a popular choice, as Irish Author, Claire Allen recalls, “Nearly every visit to the local library when I was a child was to get a Secret Seven book. I dreamed of their adventures. I wanted in the garden and the picnics and the mystery solving fun they had. It seemed so thrilling – and of course it gave us a sense that children could be powerful, useful and solve mysteries.”
I was curious to find out if Nancy paid a pivotal role in the writing a thriller today, so asked Liz Nugent, debut author of the Irish Book Awards nominated Unravelling Oliver, if she read the iconic stories? Oh God yes, I devoured those books and the Hardy Boys stories. I just googled them there to remind myself. I guess she was the first really strong female character I read (after Jo in Little Women) that was proactive about her life. A lot of fictional girls in children’s literature spent their time doing embroidery and making sandwiches for their Dads, but Nancy was doing something fearless and a bit dangerous. I wanted to be Nancy. I still do!”
The common thread seems to be that we all admired Nancy for her assertiveness and strong will. It showed us girls that we could be whoever we wanted to be, breaking the traditional mould of housewife and mother. We could even take on the bad guys and win!
New York Times Best Selling Author, Hazel Gaynor, also has fond memories of reading the mysteries as a pre-teen and wonders if they could still be seen in the same light today? “I read the Nancy Drew books when I was about 10, I think – and The Hardy Boys. After the innocent, ginger-beer based escapades of the Famous Five, Nancy Drew really impressed me. She was pretty cool – a proper detective, with attitude. I basically wanted to be her when I grew up! Great books. Not sure how PC they would be today though!”
It seems that the next generation are going to be introduced, via us mystery loving mothers. I have recently purchased the original hardback version of The Secret of the Old Clock for my 11 year old daughter Mia, and Wexford based author, Carmel Harrington has every intention of bring the Nancy Drew titles into her household soon “I think it’s quite possible that I’ve read ALL fifty odd of the Nancy Drew books, as a young child. And I’m quite sure that these mysteries are to blame for my including suspense as subplots in my writing now! I spent many a night reading about Nancy’s adventures, when I should have been fast asleep. I loved getting lost in her world and was by her side every step of the way, as she tried to unjumble clues and interview suspects. All in her brave quest for justice and truth! In truth, when I read those books, I WAS Nancy Drew! I can’t wait to share these books with my own daughter in a few years.”
So, I am not the only one to have fallen under the spell of Nancy Drew. Fast forward many years, and I am still reading mysteries, although the more grown up term is thriller. I have a love of crime thrillers and, even to this day, try to solve the crime before the protagonist. I am often heard mumbling that I could have been a sharp and alert Detective, or a skilled and articulate investigator. Sometimes I even think I could commit the perfect crime. (This one is quiet worrying). These are very sweeping statements, indeed. But after reading 175 Nancy Drew titles, who wouldn’t feel they were ready for the real world?
(c) Margaret Bonass-Madden
Margaret Bonass-Madden is a foster mother, and book-blogger who is currently returning to full time education. Read all about her favourite books here.