What I Learned from Reading All 56 of the Original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories

It took me about a year, but I read all 56 of the original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, the classic titles available with the yellow spines. Although I had grown up with Nancy Drew, I had never read the entire collection (I think I read 46 of them). And I certainly did not remember everything I discovered during this year re-read. Below are some my observations about reading Nancy Drew as an adult.

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To begin, it is difficult now not to see the classism inherent in the Nancy Drew books. I knew as a child, of course, that Nancy was rich, popular, and attractive. She had her own car and enough of her dad’s money to go on as many vacations and trips as she could ever wish. But I did not realize just how often Nancy and her mysteries favor the wealthy. Nancy helps poor, people, of course, but the books generally depict only two types–the genteelly poor (those who used to be rich, but have fallen on hard times and need Nancy to find their lost inheritance so they can regain their former social status) or the “rough” poor–the criminals in the stories. Basically, anyone in Nancy’s world who is badly or gaudily dressed, wears too much makeup, lives in the “wrong” part of town, and has bad manners has to be the villain. Sometimes, “nice” poor people can be objects for Nancy’s charity, though.

The Nancy Drew books are also frequently discussed in terms of the way they depict race. Though many of the earlier books were revised in an attempt to remove the racism that even readers at the time were denouncing, this project did not altogether succeed. Often, the books simply remove any characters who are not white. Other times, the books tend to stereotype other cultures, depicting Others as superstitious, backwards, or just plain “strange” because they are different. The Nancy Drew books love to have Nancy travel to other countries, too, and these books often prove opportunities for the author to drop knowledge that sometimes seems of questionable origin.

And we can’t forget the fat shaming! When I was growing up, I was aware that Bess is the “plump” one, George is the boyish athletic one, and Nancy is the popular and smart one. Well, I certainly did not realize exactly how many times George (usually) makes fun of Bess for eating. It comes across as particularly nasty since it’s coming from Bess’s own cousin and supposed best friend. And it is frankly baffling because the illustrator usually depicts Bess as about the same size as George and Nancy! And, when the books describe what the trio is eating (which the books love to do), the three typically eat the same meal. Sometimes Bess has an extra slice of dessert. I would, too.

These are, of course, the really bad things that I now notice about the Nancy Drew books, that I somehow managed to overlook when growing up because all I really cared about was solving the mystery. Who the villains were and what Bess was eating really did not matter to me. However, I also noticed some benign quirks of the series–things that become more evident when one reads the books all in a row.

For example, Nancy’s world is really interesting to me because it is at once very vague (no points for worldbuilding here) and full of stuff. Somehow, Nancy’s small Midwestern town is located next to a lot of prime castles, mansions, and abandoned manors. Usually once owned by some eccentric who left clues and puzzles in the estate. It also seems to be a really bustling place because Nancy has been trained in dancing, acting, and art. She can ski, too, and ice skate and trick ride like a professional. She seems to live in a small town with all the amenities of a city. And her father the lawyer? He has no defined specialty, but takes on a variety of weird cases, ones that usually seem to require a detective and not a lawyer at all. I have no idea what is going on in River Heights, but it always makes for a great story.

And the Nancy Drew formula is not to be missed. It changes over the course of the series, but the early books in particular almost always seem to have Nancy’s car narrowly being missed by a falling tree–or perhaps she will get caught in a bad storm or almost be driven off the road. The same blue roadster that gives her independence also brings her danger. (She also gets several new cars throughout the series.) The ending usually involves Nancy being knocked out and kidnapped, before being rescued by her friends–though sometimes she rescues herself. When this formula changes near the end of the 56 books, it almost feels like a tragedy. Are we even reading Nancy Drew?

In the end, I enjoyed revisiting the Nancy Drew books, even though I cannot overlook their flaws. They provide a fascinating glimpse into a period of history when questions of femininity were being debated and discussed–just as they still are today. Nancy walks the line between domestic and independent, showing that a woman can be smart, assertive, and bold, even as she can be charming and polite. Nancy Drew inspired me when I was growing up, telling me that I could do anything if I had enough daring. And that is something I cannot forget.

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21 thoughts on “What I Learned from Reading All 56 of the Original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories

  1. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    I think people at that time weren’t as inclusive as they are these days and hence a little racism and classism or body shaming is seen more than often in old books. I guess people believed in those things and that’s why vey few objected to it in those time. It’s interesting to read flaws of famous female detective series. Amazing post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I do think publishing at the time wasn’t really into being culturally sensitive or inclusive. Just looking at the titles of some books written back in the day can be uncomfortable. Everything “different” was sensationalized….

      What I found interesting was that some readers even in the early days were complaining about the racism in the books, and that was what prompted the revision of the first 30-some titles.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Mint says:

    Even now, Nancy Drew is held up as *the* classic example of children’s mystery, but I think you hit on a lot of important points re: the series. And I think there’s an argument to be made that the original series just doesn’t have the same relevance it used to.

    I recently learnt that the average age of the mystery/crime reader is quite old. In 2015, Nielsen did a report on US mystery/crime readers and found that less than 20% of readers were under the age of 30. 63% of mystery/crime readers were aged 45 or older.

    I’m trying to brainstorm why for a future possible blog post, and I think one of the major reasons is because there isn’t a strong, popular mystery series for young people today, Nancy Drew in its yellow spine form included.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Hm, I think that’s true. I can’t really think of a popular mystery series that’s currently being published. But, then, most middle grade books seem (to me) to be either fantasy or contemporary right now. I’m not sure why other genres aren’t being offered as much.

      I did like the concept of the Mighty Muskrat Mystery series, which has a sort of Boxcar Childen-like feel to it, except that it’s a current series focused on First Nation characters. But, I don’t see anyone talking about it and I don’t think my library even owns copies.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Rosie Amber says:

    What a great reading accomplishment. Despite the flaws that you have found now, I think the important point is that it inspired you and gave you confidence at a time when you may have needed it.

    Like

  4. jawahirthebookworm says:

    Wow what a feat! Congrats firstly, I vaguely remember reading one Nancy Drew book as a child but R.L. Stine quickly grabbed my attention (I guess I had the tendency to gravitate towards fantastical reads!).

    It’s pretty interesting rereading them now when you’ve grown up and know better to read these books back and pick up on things you’ve never guessed about before. Personally I never knew about Bess’s fat shaming.

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  5. Lissa says:

    Do you think that the books provide enough clues for the reader to solve the cases before (or around the same time) Nancy does? Or do they just give you those last, really important clues right before the big reveal? I’ve been wondering if as a child I actually ever solved any of the mysteries myself, or if I just enjoyed following along. ❤

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      • Lissa l Brox says:

        thank you! This is very helpful, I couldn’t remember what the formula was and also didn’t figure it out after reading one of the books, lol

        Liked by 1 person

        • Krysta says:

          I think there are a few where there is more than one possible culprit. Some of them are really just Nancy chasing the person from town to town because she knows who they are, but they keep leaving before she can catch them. And those ones are my least favorites.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Leslie @ Leslie's Bookcase says:

    I love this post. I have several of the books in my bookcase from my own childhood but can’t get my daughter (11) to show any interest. Maybe it is for the best! I still love my memories of reading them. And about the “abandoned castles, manors, mansions” that is too funny. I live in the midwest and don’t see too many of these, maybe the occasional abandoned mansion LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

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