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For 75 years, a teen titan

Girl Sleuth Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her Melanie Rehak Harcourt: 364 pp., $25

October 02, 2005|Jan Burke | Jan Burke is the Edgar-winning author of numerous crime novels, the latest of which is "Bloodlines."

MELANIE REHAK, author of "Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her," has taken on a feat of daring worthy of Nancy herself. Writing about the teenage detective of River Heights and her creators is akin to writing about the historical Jesus. The eyewitnesses are gone and the documentation open to interpretation. Nancy's most devoted followers worship her and defend her from any perceived slight. Her detractors don't find her appealing in the first place. Most of the great group in the middle would rather do without the history lesson. Rehak may change their minds, though, because the tale of Nancy's creators has as many false trails and secret compartments as any story told by the series' pseudonymous author, Carolyn Keene, whoever she may be at the moment.

The mystery of Nancy Drew's popularity adds another layer of intrigue, a puzzle that Rehak is far from the first to try to solve. In the post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, era, why is this 75-year-old series about a girl who drives a blue roadster still selling so well? Why do parents still give Nancy Drew books to their daughters?

After all, Nancy Drew isn't the only detective designed for children. She's outlasted a lot of her competitors, some with more to recommend them. For example, Walter R. Brooks (who later created the talking horse, Mister Ed) dreamed up a porcine detective, Freddy the Pig, who appeared in 26 novels in a series that ran from 1927 until 1958. Freddy arguably has more personality and a better sense of humor than Nancy. Freddy is intelligent and sensitive; he's a poet as well as a sleuth. Thrown into one adventure after another, he does the job without being knocked unconscious very often, whereas Nancy Drew ought to be the poster child for Head Injury Prevention Week.

Although the girl with the titanium cranium is still going strong these days, it's easier to find truffles than new adventures of Freddy the Pig; moreover, the series was out of print for 30 years. Even if he had been Frederica the Pig, I suspect matters would be the same. After all, there haven't been several generations of mama pigs who have needed books to teach their piglets to have faith in their own piggy intelligence and not give it all up to the first handsome hog that snuffles near their trotters. As it turns out, all pigs, even girl pigs, are allowed to shove at the trough, and this is encouraged rather than frowned on. Some of the information human girls need, pigs already know. Human mothers must manage their teaching more subtly, so they've been handing a set of secret-code books to their daughters over the last 75 years, and Nancy Drew has carried the messages.

What messages? Aren't the books just fun?

The messages: A girl doesn't have to stay home while the boys have adventures. A girl doesn't have to be the detective's helper; she can be the detective. A girl can be in all sorts of trouble and danger and find her way out of it by using her head, even if it's throbbing. A girl can take risks to do the right thing. A girl can be smart and active and have a boyfriend who isn't threatened by her intelligence and independence. She can even find a guy who likes that about her and believes in her worth.

The fun: Nancy is rich, attractive and athletic; she has her own car; she has a devoted boyfriend and sidekick cousins to do the boring stuff. Her father dotes on her, and although Nancy's mother died when she was young, housekeeper Hannah makes the meals, cleans the house and worries as needed, without the maternal "Oh no you don't, young lady!" Nancy gets away with being a bit bossy herself. "Keep Out" signs mean nothing to her.

In other words, teen paradise.

You may suspect Nancy of being a feminist. (Annoyingly, Rehak often uses the pejorative "women's libber" to mean "feminist," apparently believing the terms equivalent.) Rehak sees Nancy as a "guide for the ages" and a role model for the "fighting days still ahead of us." Yet she believes that you'd never find Nancy Drew marching for women's rights, and she's doubtless correct. Nancy isn't given to political statements, or even to noticing things like World War II. She's too busy finding clues and enjoying her privileges. If she seems to embody conflicting traits, "Girl Sleuth" may help you to understand why.

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