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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Nancy Drew and Company: Culture, Gender, and Girls’ Series ed. by Sherrie A. Inness

Nancy Drew and Company


GoodreadsNancy Drew and Company
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 1997


This anthology includes critical essays on various girls’ series from L. M. Montgomery’s Anne books to Cherry Ames, Nancy Drew, and Judy Bolton. Lesser-known works such as the Linda Lane and Isabel Carleton books are also covered.

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Nancy Drew and Company, published in 1997, argues that the girls’ (and children’s) literature, though long overlooked by the academy, deserve to be serious objects of literary study. Through such literature, Sherrie A. Inness asserts, we can gain a greater understanding of our history, both in how it is depicted in popular literature, but also through the ways in which literature seeks to shape history. Girls’ series provide role models for readers that can simultaneously challenge and reinforce class, gender, and social roles. Thus, these books reveal, as Inness argues, “our culture’s values, mores, and biases” (10). The essays in this book explore a variety of girls’ series, from more popular books such as Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, to some lesser-known series such as the Linda Lane and Isabel Carleton books. Each essay opens a window into how literature works to shape society’s understanding of womanhood.

If there is any recurring theme that seems to link all the essays in Nancy Drew and Company it is that girls’ series often sought–usually unsuccessfully–to balance new ideals of womanhood with old ones. That is, even as these series asserted girls’ independence, assertiveness, and agency, they sought to convince readers that the protagonists were not interested in changing the status quo. Automobile girls might drive across the country seeking adventure, but they were also still concerned about appearing feminine and dating boys. They might be mistaken for suffragettes, but they were quick to tell everyone that their motives were not political. In the same way, many of the other heroines of girls’ series tried to balance domesticity or motherhood with their independence, creating contradictions that were never fully resolved.

These contradictions, however, are possibly what helped to make such series so successful. No matter what a reader was looking for in a heroine–assertion or passivity, independence or romance, adventure or domesticity–these qualities could be found in girls’ series. My own theory is that many modern adaptations of Nancy Drew have failed because they do not match up with readers’ expectations. And readers’ expectations can be vastly different precisely because of the way the original books are written. Some readers might laud the feminist bent of Nancy Drew, while others appreciate her old-fashioned values. Nancy Drew is a contradiction–something contemporary adaptors have to grapple with.

Nancy Drew and Company relies on the fame and popularity of Nancy Drew to lure in readers, but all the essays included are thought-provoking and fascinating. The book will have readers rethinking old favorites, but will also introduce them to many more interesting pieces of girls’ literature that have hitherto faded into history.

4 stars

39 of Nancy Drew’s Talents

A List of 39 of Nancy Drew's Talents

Nancy Drew seems to be able to do it all! But have you ever wondered exactly how many skills she has? We read the first 56 Nancy Drew mysteries to create this informal count of Nancy’s many–and varied–talents!

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She can change a tire. (1)

She is an excellent swimmer. (3)

She’s good at tennis. (3)

She was first in her skin diving class. (4)

She can knit. (5)

She is a “skillful rider” on horseback. (5)

She is a great diver. (10)

She is an expert at sailing. (14)

She is good at golf. (15)

She can tap dance. (16)

She knows Morse code. (16)

She has a limited knowledge of ASL fingerspelling. (17)

She’s good at Ping-Pong. (17)

She is a talented sketch artist. (19)

She can read music and play the piano. (21)

She can read Middle English. (22)

She can read French and speak French. (23 and 32)

She plans to take a ceramics class. (26)

She likes to water ski. (28)

She won a novice skier’s competition. (29)

She can ice skate well enough to be in an exhibition with professional skaters. (29)

She knows some ventriloquism. (31)

She can do trick riding well enough to join the circus. (31)

She can do ballet. (32)

She can do rhythmic dance. (32)

She mentions a chance to practice her German (though she does not actually use it in the book). (33)

She wins a prize for Togo at the dog show. (36)

She participates in a water ballet. (37)

She can dance (couples dancing on the dance floor). (37)

She is a swift runner who can vault fences. (39)

She is a wonderful actress. (39)

She learns to play the bagpipes. (41)

She goes scuba diving. (42)

She can sing very well. (45)

She can do first aid like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. (49)

She can cook. (49)

She can play the guitar. (52)

She can speak Spanish (though in another book, only Ned can!) (52)

She learns to fly a plane. (53)

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Even though Nancy is revealed to have at least 39 talents in the first 56 books alone, I fully expected her to have more! At least one new talent per book! Undoubtedly I missed some, or perhaps overlooked some talents the books take as a given for nice, domestic women (cooking, sewing, etc.). But, still, if Nancy can learn to trick ride professionally in a matter of weeks, I think she could pick up a few more skills!

What do you think? Is Nancy Drew as talented as you remember?

Reading Through Nancy Drew: The Secret in the Old Lace (Book #59)

Secret in the Old Lace


Goodreads: The Secret in the Old Lace
Series: Nancy Drew #59
Age Category: Children’s
Published: 1980


Nancy enters a magazine contest to tell the ending of a real-life mystery that took place long ago in Belgium. Then her story idea is stolen by someone else! She then sets off to visit Belgium to investigate a separate case–a friend of the Marvins has found an antique in her new house, and wants to find the owner. It turns out that Nancy’s stolen story and the Belgium mystery are intertwined.

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Spoilers ahead!

I have always loved the original 56 Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, but have not really connected to any of the later books. However, when I saw that Harriet Stratemeyer Adams (according to Wikipedia) was still involved with some of the books after the switch from publisher Grosset & Dunlap to Simon & Schuster, I thought I should read keep reading after book 56, to see if some of these books would have comparative quality to the earlier ones. The Secret in the Old Lace somehow does not feel like one of the original Nancy Drew books, even though it has one of the same ghostwriters.

The one aspect of the book that does feel consistent with earlier mysteries is the writer’s interest in describing the places and history of another country. In The Secret in the Old Lace, Nancy, Bess, and George travel to Brussels where they, of course, must visit the local museums, eat the local cuisine, and learn about the history of lace–all to educate the reader. Sleuthing occurs, too, but often the writer seems as if she were wishing she could write a travelogue instead of a mystery.

The rest of the story just does not feel like a Nancy Drew book. It has a strange opening, with Nancy entering a short story in a magazine contest–only to find that her story was stolen and plagiarized by another contestant. The author valiantly tries to connect all the shenanigans that ensue from this to the mystery in Belgium. It does not work. It feels like there is half a book about Nancy chasing men around River Heights because she is upset about her contest entry, and half a book about Nancy solving a historical mystery in Belgium.

Really, there is too much happening in this story for it to be any good. The pacing goes at a breakneck speed, with investigating a basement, digging for treasure, chasing a lace thief, rescuing Bess, touring Belgium, and more. So much happens that none of it feels dangerous at all because each incident is over within two pages.

I found myself really missing the formula of the earlier books. Much of that formula was outrageous, but not as ridiculous as this plot. Usually, toward the end of the book, Nancy is knocked out and kidnapped, while her friends frantically search for her, and she works on her escape. In this book, Nancy just happens to run into an American cowboy in Belgium, who happens to be the exact person she is looking for, and then they just happen to find hidden treasure together, sort of by accident. My disappointment was vast.

Nancy Drew feels like she is losing her way in The Secret in the Old Lace. The formula has changed, and not for the better. I don’t see myself ever rereading this one.

2 star review

6 Girls’ Series for Fans of Nancy Drew

Girls Series for Fans of Nancy Drew

Can’t get enough of Nancy Drew? Check out some of these girls’ series, books that focus on strong teens or young women who solve mysteries and pursue careers.

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Cherry Ames Series by Helen Wells

Cherry Ames Student Nurse

Cherry Ames launched onto the literary scene in the 1940s to encourage young girls not only to try a career in nursing but also to do so in order to help the war effort. But Cherry does more than nurse–she also sometimes finds herself in the middle of mini mysteries. Her series includes 27 books that take place in a variety of hospital and nursing settings.

Read our review of book one, Cherry Ames: Student Nurse.

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The Dana Girls Series by Carolyn Keene

By the Light of the Study Lamp

The Dana Girls is a serialized mystery series that began in 1934 in an attempt to replicate the success of the Nancy Drew books and the Hardy Boys stories. Written by some of the same ghostwriters who worked on those popular series, the Dana girls featured sisters who solve mysteries at their boarding school.

Read our review of the first book, By the Light of the Study Lamp.

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Judy Bolton Series by Margaret Sutton

The Vanishing Shadow

Margaret Sutton’s 38 books in the Judy Bolton mystery series were published between 1932 and 1967. The books feature a girl sleuth, but, unlike Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton ages over the course of her series and even marries.

Read our review of the first book, The Vanishing Shadow.

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Penny Parker by Mildred A. Wirt

Penny Parker Book One Tale of the Witch Doll

Mildred A. Wirt was the first ghostwriter for the Nancy Drew mystery stories, but she also wrote books under her own name, including the Penny Parker series. Penny, like Nancy, is a sleuth, but she works for her father’s paper and, apparently, Wirt favored Penny over Nancy (perhaps because she had more creative control over the books).

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Trixie Belden Series by Julie Campbell Tatham, et al

Trixe Belden The Secret of the Mansion

The Trixie Belden series is one of the more well-known girls’ series. It follows thirteen-year-old Trixie Belden and her friend as they solve mysteries.

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Vicki Barr Series by Helen Wells & Julie Campbell Tatham

Silver Wings for Vicki

Like Cherry Ames, Vicki Barr is a career girl who goes on adventures while also finding herself involved in mysteries. Book one sees Vicki taking a chance on seeing the world when she decides to train as a flight stewardess.

What books would you recommend for fans of Nancy Drew?

Reading Through Nancy Drew: The Flying Saucer Mystery (Book 58)

The Flying Saucer Mystery


GoodreadsThe Flying Saucer Mystery
Series: Nancy Drew Mystery Stories #58
Age Category: Children’s
Source: Library
Published: 1985/2005


Teenage sleuth Nancy Drew receives word that some people have seen a UFO in the woods. She heads out with Bess, George, Ned, Burt, and Dave to investigate. Along the way, she also agrees to search for a treasure hidden long ago in the forest.

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Spoilers ahead!

I have always loved the original 56 Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, and have not really connected to any of the later books. However, when I saw that Harriet Stratemeyer Adams (according to Wikipedia) was still involved with some of the books after the switch from publisher Grosset & Dunlap to Simon & Schuster, I thought I should read keep reading after book 56, to see if some of these books would have comparative quality to the earlier ones. The title on this one made me doubt that it would…and wow. What a mistake I made in reading it. It is probably the worst Nancy Drew I have ever read (so far).

I cannot express how truly awful The Flying Saucer Mystery is. Nancy and her five friends head to the woods to investigate UFO sightings (even though this seems out of Nancy’s line of work). However, they spend almost the entirety of the book riding around the woods, looking for their lost horses, sometimes getting bitten by snakes or just seeing snakes–all to keep up interest while Nancy does literally nothing to investigate the UFO. She does see the saucer fly overhead and land not far away fairly early on, but, because the group keeps losing their horses and their supplies, she cannot head over to take a look.

While wandering about semi-aimlessly, the group meets a naturalist who lives in a cabin and who believes that his father hid a treasure in the woods an unspecified number of years ago. Nancy agrees to look for it. She has nothing to go on. She just plans to search the entire woods. No one sees anything ludicrous about this.

Meanwhile, Nancy sees the flying saucer touch down in a swamp. She and Ned go to investigate, and suddenly they’re inside the saucer! They’re in new, spacey clothes; they can communicate telepathically; and they can fly with their new mechanized wings! This goes on for two whole chapters. A weird sci-fi interlude where one knows this must be a hallucination induced by swamp gas, but…maybe not? Maybe there are actually aliens in Nancy Drew’s world now. Everything about this book has been so terrible, it might actually be possible.

Afterwards, Nancy and Ned randomly decide they must be radioactive from being near the UFO, so they contact a bunch of scientists and government agencies who all hurry out to the woods to run tests and check on Nancy and Ned’s health. Why Nancy and Ned are apparently a national priority is the true mystery here. I highly doubt that a bunch of scientists and officials really care if some couple in the woods thinks they’re radioactive for some reason.

Nancy and her friends also periodically encounter a Native American man who cannot speak English. Initially, they treat him like a child, showing him shiny jewelry to keep him from potentially attacking (No, I don’t understand this, either) and later playing charades to communicate with him, but calling it “sign language.” This man is the only character who seems to know what is going on in the woods and how to survive there, so he deserves a lot more respect than he gets from the group of teenagers who keep losing their horses and their cooking supplies every couple pages.

Oh, and while Bess is always described as “plump” in the early books, with George poking fun at her love of desserts, the fat shaming reaches entirely new levels here. George actually compares Bess to a whale, and Bess’s weight must be mentioned at least four times in a negative way.

Nancy never does bother to solve the mystery of the UFO, but instead is approached by a group of people at the end who give her answers. Or some of them. Actually, most of what they can admit to saying is not very informative. Nancy does not solve this mystery. It is not a satisfying conclusion. It’s awkward.

The only joy from this book comes from the illustrations, and seeing Nancy and her friends rocking those sweaters as they enter the 1980s.

Read this book only if you are very interested in Nancy Drew going on a trippy adventure in space.

1 star

Reading Through Nancy Drew: The Triple Hoax (Book 57)

The Triple Hoax


GoodreadsThe Triple Hoax
Series: Nancy Drew #57
Age Category: Children’s
Source: Library
Published: 1979


Nancy, Bess, and George travel to New York at the invitation of Nancy’s Aunt Eloise, whose friend has been swindled out of a large amount of money. Nancy suspects that the con man responsible is associated with a group of magicians who take temporarily take people’s valuable during their show. As she closes in on the group, they lead her on an international chase.

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Spoilers ahead!

I have loved the original 56 Nancy Drew Mystery Stories since I was a child, but I have not really connected to any of the later books. However, when I saw that Harriet Stratemeyer Adams (according to Wikipedia) was still involved with some of the books after the switch from publisher Grosset & Dunlap to Simon & Schuster, I thought I should read keep reading after book 56, to see if some of these books would have comparative quality to the earlier ones. The short answer: The Triple Hoax does not.

The weirdest thing about The Triple Hoax is that it places an unusual emphasis on Nancy’s status as an amateur detective–which breaks the suspension of disbelieve one normally needs to have to accept this literary trope. Instead of simply stating that Nancy is an amateur sleuth, the book makes a really big deal about it. First, George runs out of money (for the first time ever??), but tells her dad she cannot get paid for her detective work because that would make her a professional and ineligible to work with Nancy and Bess. Next, Nancy gets stopped by the Mexican authorities for practicing without a license–until she explains she is strictly amateur class and never, ever accepts payment for her sleuthing.

Um… since are amateur sleuths actually regulated by anybody? I thought we all were just supposed to assume that the authorities conveniently overlooked all Nancy’s snooping, and breaking and entering, because she’s Nancy Drew. Not…because she’s actually allowed to do this under the Amateur Sleuth Status she’s claimed by…just saying she’s an amateur sleuth? Who regulates this? I’m so confused! And, if George is broke and needs money, why don’t the three all just become professionals and get paid? What’s stopping them? Nancy’s belief that accepting money from people is tacky?

Aside from that, the plot itself is one of the more unbelievable ones. Nancy gets called to New York City to investigate a swindle, then ends up connecting it to a a group of magicians who take people’s property onstage (before returning it all). She chases the group to Mexico and then to Los Angeles. A child is kidnapped along the way because, evidently, one can never stuff too many crimes into a Nancy Drew book. Watching Nancy trail criminals she just cannot seem to catch is never particularly fun, and it usually makes Nancy look more incompetent than not, so I would not call this one of the stronger installments in the series.

Reading The Triple Hoax was an interesting foray into a Nancy Drew title I had not heard of previously. However, I would say that the interest does stem mainly from the historical/literary significance of the title, and not from the plot or the writing. Only read this one if you really want to be a completionist.

2 star review

Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 51-56)

Reading Through Nancy Drew Books 51-56

About a year ago, I started my quest to read all 56 original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories. This post is the final installment in which I read and review the classic yellow spine books. It’s been a whirlwind journey, and it is sad to let Nancy go. I wonder what new reading adventures I’ll have!

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Book 51

A strange helicopter lands on Nancy’s lawn, containing a note from Ned, who has been kidnapped– “Beware the Cyclops.”  This sets Nancy off on an adventure to discover Ned’s whereabouts, while also uncovering clues surrounding a mysterious glowing eye.  If this were not enough excitement, Nancy also experiences some jealousy when her father takes on a new assistant, who seems both determined to steal Nancy’s case and maybe Carson’s heart, too!  The mystery is fairly solid, even if, as usual, there is far too much happening for a slim 180-page novel.  One of the stronger installments in the last books in the series, even if some of the science verges more on magic.

Ned Note: Ned is apparently kidnapped because he has invented…the laser?  Also, he’s an engineering student now.  Previously I thought he was in political science, and also something like archaeology.  No wonder he never seems to graduate.

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Book 52: The Secret of the Forgotten City

In this installment, Nancy and her friends join an archaeological dig and, along the way, attempt to find the missing gold tablets that were stolen from a local woman. A student believes that the tablets could help prove her theory that an underground river once flowed at the site of the dig. The villain reveals himself early on, so there is really nothing for Nancy to do but look around the desert for the tables and, mostly, enjoy herself at the dig site. As usual, Nancy and her friends are somehow experts at everything, and everyone trusts them to not only conduct a dig but also glue together artifacts and re-assemble skeletons without any professional input or assistance.

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Book 53: The Sky Phantom

The Sky Phantom Book Cover

The Sky Phantom combines Nancy’s adventures as a pilot with the ranch adventures of some of her earlier books. She stays at a ranch with Bess and George, but takes lessons at a nearby flight school. Along the way, she becomes entangled in a mystery involving a missing pilot, a stolen horse, and a strange magnetic cloud. The mystery proved more intriguing than others in the series because, for a long time, it is not quite clear what exactly the mystery is. Just that strange things are happening. And, as usual, a dash of romance is added, though things get alarmingly serious between Bess and a cowboy…. One of the stronger installments in these later books.

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Book 54: The Strange Message in the Parchment

The Strange Message in the Parchment Book Cover

In this bizarre case, Nancy visits a sheep farm to uncover the mystery behind a parchment bearing four illustrations that an unknown caller has said could right a great wrong. Along the way, she becomes involved in a potential kidnapping case. And she suddenly gets involved in what appears to be a scheme to organize a fake union. Nancy makes a lot of wild assumptions based on slim evidence to solve this case, and it is not very satisfying to watch her solve it. The most interesting part is probably the thinly-veiled anti-union sentiment displayed by the author, as well as the author’s unsolicited opinion that everyone in America ought to speak English.

Ned Note: Ned does nothing of note.

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Book 55: Mystery of Crocodile Island

Mystery of Crocodile Island Book Cover

This story starts out strong, with Nancy, Bess, and George receiving multiple threats, getting kidnapped, and finding themselves repeatedly foiled by the villains. What the villains are doing on Crocodile Island is a complete mystery, which adds to the interest. Nancy has no way onto the island, and the workers on the island are forbidden from leaving. She subsequently spends a lot of time boating and learning about the local wildlife. Unfortunately, the plot falters at the end, when Nancy and her friends arrive at Crocodile Island just in time to find the police rounding everyone up. In other words, she does not really solve the case. It’s a letdown.

As a side note, I really love how the cover shows a random man holding a baby crocodile in his fist. Because, why not?

Ned Note: Ned shows up in the last ten pages or so. I’m not sure why he bothered.

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Book 56: The Thirteenth Pearl

The Thirteenth Pearl Book Cover

In this book, Nancy disguises herself as a Japanese girl as part of her attempt to investigate a multinational organization suspected of stealing jewels. She also gets involved with a pearl cult at the end. And, yet, this is not the worst Nancy Drew mystery. In fact, this final installment brings together some of the more familiar elements of the series, even ending with Nancy and Ned knocked unconscious and imprisoned in an empty building–a trope that appeared in nearly every one of the earlier books, but that has since been missing. I wish I could say that this book somehow feels special, as the last of the original 56, but it is just business as usual for Nancy Drew!

Ned Note: Ned depressingly ends this book with a hope that Nancy will find another case to solve, as if she did not just solve 56 mysteries in the same year. The previous books all name drop the next, upcoming title, so this is the real sign that it is, indeed, the end. (For now.)

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Read the Rest of this Series

What You Didn’t Know About Nancy Drew

Nancy Drew is an icon of American culture, a symbol of female independence and wit since she first appeared in 1930. But do you know all about the famous girl sleuth? Below are a few fun facts about Nancy Drew that you might not be familiar with.

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Nancy Drew was the inspiration of Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a company that would hire ghostwriters to author books based on outlines they were provided with. Stratemeyer wanted a girls’ series featuring a teenage detective as a counterpart to his popular Hardy Boys series, launched in 1927.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate was what is called a book packaging company. It oversaw the writing of its series (including the Bobbsey Twins, the Dana Girls, and the Tom Swift books) by paying freelance authors a flat rate to write a book to order. The syndicate kept the copyright to the books. It then had the books published by Grosset & Dunlap (and later Simon & Schuster).

Mildred Wirt Benson was the first ghostwriter for the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, writing under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. She would receive outlines written by Edward Stratemeyer or, after his death, his daughters Edna Stratemeyer Squier or Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, and write a book according to the syndicate’s formula.

Though other ghostwriters would also work on the Nancy Drew books, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams became the main ghostwriter after Benson.

Eventually, Adams began rewriting some of the earlier Nancy Drew mysteries. Some critics see Adams’ revisions as creating a more polished and feminine Nancy, one who adhered most closely to ideals of the domestic. Adams’ revisions were also meant to remove some of the books’ racist elements–though she was not always successful. The revisions also sometimes tried to deal with the problem of racist elements by simply removing characters of color altogether.

For a time, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams was highly invested in keeping the true identify of Carolyn Keene (and other pseudonyms belonging to the syndicate) secret, even creating fake letterheads for the company’s various “authors.” To this day, many readers still believe that Carolyn Keene is a real person, and not the product of many ghostwriters.

The “true” creator of Nancy Drew would eventually become a contentious issue as the girl sleuth’s popularity grew. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams would drop the pretense that Keene was a real person, and try to take the credit for Nancy herself, erasing the fact that Mildred Wirt Benson had, in many ways, originated the character and that others, including Adams’ father and sister, had also influenced Nancy’s creation.

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Publication History

The original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories are considered to be books 1-56, which were first published by Grosset & Dunlap. Many of the earlier titles were later revised and the revised editions are what readers can buy in the yellow spine format today. However, Applewood Books printed facsimile editions of some of the unrevised original Nancy Drews between 1998 and 2010.

Simon & Schuster began publishing the Nancy Drew books with volume 57. They still used the title Nancy Drew Mystery Stories for the books. The final book in this series was published in 2003.

The next iteration of Nancy Drew, which ran from 1986 to 1997, is called the Nancy Drew Files. There are 127 volumes.

The Nancy Drew: Girl Detective series ran from 2008-2012. Written in first person, the series made George tech savvy and Bess mechanically minded. Ned works for a newspaper.

The Nancy Drew Diaries is the currently running series, begun in 2013. It continues the Nancy Drew: Girl Detective series and, like that one, is written in first person from Nancy’s perspective.

Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew series, featuring an eight-year-old Nancy started in 2007 and ran to 2015, releasing 40 volumes. It was rebooted as the Nancy Drew Clue Book series in 2015 and this series is ongoing.

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Other Media

Nancy Drew currently stars in 33 video games released by the company HerInteractive. The games (mostly for PC) take place in the modern day. Players play from the viewpoint of Nancy, so the girl sleuth is never seen onscreen.

In 2005, Grosset & Dunlap released a Nancy Drew cookbook.

Nancy has also appeared in other media such as board games, TV shows, and movies.

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I relied on Melanie Rehak’s Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her (2005) for the historical information. To try to make sense of Nancy’s convoluted publication history, I crosschecked Wikipedia and Goodreads. If there are nuances to Nancy’s publication history that I missed, let me know in the comments!

Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 41-50)

Reading Through Nancy Drew Books 41-50

I have loved Nancy Drew for years, but will rereading the original 56 yellow spine books hold up to my memories? Join me as I find out! Read part one, part two, part three, and part four.

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Book 41: The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes

Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes Book Cover

In this book, readers learn for the first time that Nancy has a wealthy great-grandmother living on an estate in the Scottish Highlands–and she needs Nancy to find a missing family heirloom. Along the way, Nancy encounters a group of sheep thieves. The two mysteries are desperately linked together by the author, along with the usual near death experiences: car run off the road, explosive in mailbox, etc. As usual, the ghostwriter seems more interested in writing a travelogue than an actual mystery. Not one of the strongest in the series.

Ned Note: Wow, Ned does something useful! While Nancy travels to Scotland, he stays in River Heights to track down clues by using handwriting analysis. An obviously very scientific and accurate process that would never lead him astray.

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Book 42: The Phantom of Pine Hill

Phantom of Pine Hill

Nancy, Bess, and George arrive at Emerson College to attend a week of festivities with their “special friends” Ned, Dave, and Burt. They then find themselves in the middle of a mystery involving a phantom who seemingly walks through walls and locked doors to rifle through the contents of a library located in a local mansion. Nancy Drew mysteries typically shine when the girl sleuth must investigate haunted houses. However, a river pageant including the depiction of a Native American war band is dated, to say the least. And then Nancy and her friends go to dig up the site of a former Native American village. They find a skeleton, which they donate to the local museum, and they are lauded by an archaeologist who meant to get around to the site, but who apparently thinks random young women with shovels are just as qualified as he is to do a dig. The strongest point of this book is when Bess, instead of cowering, saves the day.

Ned Note: That Native American character on the cover? That’s actually Ned. I think you know everything you need to know about this book.

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Book 43: The Mystery of the 99 Steps

Mystery of the 99 Steps

Nancy heads to France, along with Bess and George, to uncover the significance of woman’s dream about falling down a flight of 99 steps. Her case intertwines with one of her father’s–a French banker is selling large amounts of securities and no one can figure out why. As usual, Nancy and her friends spend a lot of the book visiting tourist sites and eating at local restaurants, so the ghostwriter can make readers feel educated about another culture. The mystery itself is a bit unusual, but still somehow the story is not very memorable. Except for the part where George gets hooked around the neck by a cane, dragged into a locked museum, and then left on a king’s antique bed. Weird.

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Book 44: The Clue in the Crossword Cipher

Clue in the Crossword Cipher

In this mystery, Nancy, Bess, and George are invited by beautiful Carla Ponce to return with her to her home in Peru and work on the mystery surrounding a family heirloom–a wooden plaque bearing a carving of a monkey and some words worn away by time. Usually, Nancy Drew books are culturally insensitive to anyone who is not white (and upper class, or at least genteelly impoverished), so this book came as a shock. Nancy learns about the Inca Empire and most of it comes across as generally positive and like the author at least tried to be somewhat accurate for once. Nancy even learns about the harm caused by Spanish conquistadors. There is, as usual, a mystery to be solved in here, as well, but most of the book is an excuse for Nancy to travel. And there’s that ridiculous scene where a door falls off Nancy’s airplane and she almost plummets to her death.

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Book 45: The Spider Sapphire Mystery

Spider Sapphire Mystery

Initially hired to clear one of her father’s clients from accusations that he stole a famous sapphire embedded with a spider, Nancy goes on an African safari with Emerson College. While abroad, she also works on a missing person case. A lot of action occurs: a baboon steals someone’s wig, Nancy’s luggage gets acid on it, all of Nancy’s clothes are thrown into a fireplace, and more. But none of this could cover up the fact that the mystery is not very interesting.

Ned Note: It was interesting seeing Ned kidnapped in this book instead of Nancy. Strangely, however, this will happen immediately again in the next book.

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Book 46: The Invisible Intruder

Invisible Intruder

Nancy, Bess, George, and their three “special friends” are invited by Helen Corning Archer (who has disappeared from this series ever since the books were still numbered in the single digits, I believe) to go on a tour of haunted locations in the vicinity of River Heights. Since Nancy never ages, Helen is still conveniently just recently married and now she and her new husband are gathering a group together to take on five supernatural mysteries at once. Conveniently, the ghostly mysteries are all being perpetrated by the same villains, so the bulk of the book is simply Nancy chasing the crooks from location to location in an effort to catch them. Why Bess and another (unnecessary) character called Rita have to be convinced every time that the ghost is really a human is beyond me. Also beyond me is why the villains in a Nancy Drew book always have several, unrelated rackets going on. This time, it’s scaring people away so they can buy real estate cheap, but also stealing shell collections. This is not the best Nancy Drew mystery, but it’s also not the worst.

Ned Note: Ned conveniently provides the muscle in this book, as always. But he also gets a turn being kidnapped (usually it’s Nancy).

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Book 47: The Mysterious Mannequin

Mysterious Mannequin

A rug arrives at the Drew residence, and hidden in the border are clues that lead Nancy on an international mystery. Her father’s client, a young Turkish man, disappeared a few years ago, and the rug seems to contain instructions to finding him. This mystery is pretty straight-forward, with Nancy wandering around town to visit shops and ask people if they know the suspects she’s after. It’s probably most notable for having Nancy jump into the water to save someone from drowning, as she eats lunch at an outdoor restaurant–for the second time in this series. Apparently people just love falling off cliffs when Nancy is trying to eat.

Ned Note: Ned provides the humor in this book when he is asked to hold a baby and does not know what to do. It’s not actually that funny, but maybe it was supposed to be funny in the 70s?

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Book 48: The Crooked Banister

Crooked Bannister

Nancy Drew experiments with turning from the mystery genre to sci-fi in this weird installment featuring a crooked house filled with poisoned paintings and guarded by a dangerous robot. None of it makes sense, but this book does seem like the primary inspiration for many of the Nancy Drew video games, which heavily rely on the conceit of an eccentric inventor leaving a household full of secret passages and strange puzzles for Nancy to solve. Unfortunately, however, this story fails to impress. Nancy should stick to investigating haunted houses, and forget the robots.

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Book 49: The Secret of Mirror Bay

Secret of Mirror Bay

These later books were going downhill in quality fast, but The Secret of Mirror Bay recaptures some of the magic of the earlier stories. Nancy, Bess, and George join Aunt Eloise for a vacation in Cooperstown, New York, but end up involved in two mysteries–that of a woman seen walking on the lake, and that of a “green man” who scares away tourists who try to climb the mountain. Nancy and her friends have a lot of fun not only trying to solve the mysteries, but also swimming, sailing, and visiting the local museums. There is a humorous moment, though, when one of the boys introduces his uncle as, “B.S., MA, Ph.D.” Most people will assume all those degrees if you just say, “Ph.D!”

Ned Note: Poor Yo, a local boy in Cooperstown, New York, keeps trying to entertain the tourists with ghost stories from the area. But Ned feels the need to break in every time to finish the story and show Yo he’s not all that smart because, he, Ned, already knows the endings thanks to his super impressive psychology course at Emerson College. Just let the guy tell a fun story, Ned! You don’t have to prove you’re better than he is! What a low point for Ned.

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Book 50: The Double Jinx Mystery

Double Jinx

Well, this installment is not the strongest in the Nancy Drew series, but it could be worse. Nancy finds a stuffed bird on her lawn, indicating that she has been jinxed. The threat seems to be related to a high rise development project that wants to displace a humble farmer and his exotic birds. Nancy and her friends band together to help the little guy stand up to corporate greed. Lots of people exclaim over random “jinxes” and other superstitions I have never heard of. Somehow ballet dances get involved, so Nancy can once again prove she could go professional, if she wanted. It’s really a bit of a yawn.

Ned Note: Ned gets sick and Hannah nurses him back to health. And that is the most interesting thing Ned does.