Ask any little girl (or big girl for that matter!) what literary heroine had titian hair and drove a blue roadster, and we’ll all answer immediately — Nancy Drew.
I can still remember the first time I drove full speed into the town of River Heights, USA. I was in the fifth grade, and standing on a chair in my school library, and I chose which Nancy Drew book to begin with based on two things: The title and the cover image.
The school library had a little less than half of Nancy’s original 56 titles, but the beauty of this series is that you can pick up any book, at any time. Reading them out of order, you won’t miss anything in terms of continuity. Each book stands alone on its own two feet. Only the main character relationships and a few random references to past mysteries carry over from book to book.
At the time, I was no stranger to mysteries. I’d been vicariously sleuthing with Scooby and the gang since I was a wee lass. My mom had the entire Nancy Drew series when she was young (sadly lost in a flooded basement when she was a teen), and she encouraged me to start reading them. And like any really good thing, once you start, you just can’t stop. But seriously, who would want to?
Nancy Drew is the brain child of publisher Edward Stratemeyer, and was brought to life by Carolyn Keene — the penname of a number of ghost writers, most notably Mildred Wirt Bensen. Our favourite sleuth is now 85 years young and shows no signs of slowing down. She’s the Betty White of the book world in terms of longevity. Only with much less crass and way more class.
The first book I read was #25, “The Ghost of Blackwood Hall”. Why was that the first one? Well, for starters, it had the word “ghost” in the title. That was enough to sell me. Then there was the cover art.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover”? Yeah, sorry, don’t tell that to an artist, even when she’s only 10 years old.
If a book has a fabulous cover, I’m going to pick it up. If the cover is blah, chances are I won’t. Because for me it’s simple: If you go to the trouble of writing an outstanding manuscript, then why would you not want to showcase it in the most incredibly eye-catching way possible? Hey, to each his own, but if I see extra design effort, I’m going to be at least a little impressed and more inclined to show interest in what you’ve written.
As any Nancy Drew collector knows, there are alternate covers depending on which edition you find (#11 “The Clue of the Broken Locket” has four different versions!). The above #25 cover was illustrated by Rudy Nappi, and I absolutely love his work. The original illustrated cover for “The Ghost of Blackwood Hall” (below) was by artist Russell Tandy. While their styles are very different, I certainly appreciate them both and between them, I wouldn’t be able to pick a favourite.
The second book I read, like the first, was chosen by title and cover. How could I resist this intriguing image of “The Mysterious Mannequin”?
And this method is how I continued to work my way through all the Nancy Drew books that my public school had. It was many years later (after I graduated high school) that I decided I needed to read every last one of these yellow-spined treasures, and check that off my bucket list.
And it was after I’d finally read them all that I was bitten by the collecting bug. “I want to have the entire collection!” I had already amassed a number of Nancy Drews over the years, but this was a mission. A mission that would continue to evolve over the years, and into a task that I have yet to complete.
It was a happy day when I slid that final volume onto the book shelf. I took in this glorious site, #1-#56, breathed a sigh of supreme satisfaction… and then realized that the OCD vintage book lover in me would never be truly satisfied until I had replaced every single “new” issue with a vintage, shelf-worn, yet hopefully not TOO dog-eared original copy.
As you can see, I’m only seven books away from my goal of having a complete set of vintage editions. I’ve come to loathe the sight of those shiny spines mixed into the group, what with their blue flashlight symbols and lack of the familiar Nancy’s head logo.
Not that I’d ever throw them away! No, I’ll also have a decent sized collection of those 1986+ editions by the time I’ve completed my vintage shelf. Such a giddy feeling though every time I pick up a vintage copy and the newer one gets relegated to this second-class bookshelf/pile in my spare room.
You’ll note the two sore thumbs in the first image above. A lot of Nancy Drew collectors like those old blue-spined copies (probably because without checking the copyright date, they assume that those are the earliest editions, but they’re not. These editions are from the ’50s, not the ’30s). But 75% of what I love about Nancy Drew is those amazing covers. These blue guys are almost always missing their dust jackets, so I never cared too much for them. Plus, every woman worth her salt can spot a row of Nancy’s distinctive yellow spines from 1000 yards away. Yellow not blue=Nancy Drew.
And these days, vintage Nancy Drews can be pricey. For me, part of the fun of collecting is getting them cheap. I’m a woman, I want a deal! The second I step foot in a flea market or antique store, my sleuthing eyes are peeled for little patches of yellow on the bookshelves. The most I’ve ever paid for a Nancy Drew book is $9, and it was for which ones? Yep, those two 1950s blue suckers in the first photo. The only book I’d be willing to really pay up on would be an original copy of “The Ghost of Blackwood Hall” that features Tandy’s cover art. But even then, if it’s more than $25, I’ll make due without it!
But Nancy’s adventures don’t end with “The Thirteenth Pearl” in #56. Over the years, the girl detective has solved more mysteries than I would even venture to count!
More hardcover-style books were still to come, including the only one that I have: #75 “The Emerald-Eyed Cat Mystery” (1984).
Nancy would eventually sleuth her way into the world of paperback books too. And once there, the series branched off in a number of different directions over the years.
One of my favourite Nancy Drew incarnations was the “Nancy Drew Notebooks”, which were published from 1994 through 2005. They were geared to a younger group of readers and featured Nancy in grade school. I can still remember very excited trips to the bookstore with my mom to buy these.
The only bit of Nancy Drew memorabilia that I have is this Carlton Cards ornament from 2005, celebrating Nancy’s 75th birthday.
Of all the fictional characters in the world, either in literature or on film, Nancy Drew is one of the few that deserves her longevity and is worthy of praise. Sure, the books were just meant to be fun and intriguing, but you could also learn something from them. Nancy Drew is the forever-18-year-old who was so polite that even the chief of police would back her up if she got herself into trouble. What drove Nancy to solve mysteries was her desire to help people in need. She was always there for her friends, and she took her responsibilities seriously. She’s honest, generous, and dependable to a fault. And good Lord, was she handy! Always prepared for whatever situation she might fall into, Nancy was smart, capable and efficient. In short, Nancy Drew is the kind of lady that every girl (and woman!) should strive to be like.
So if you ever see a pretty girl with strawberry blonde hair pulled over on the side of an old country road, changing a flat tire on her blue roadster? Why don’t you go ahead and stop to help? Not because she can’t change the tire on her own — she can! — but just because it’s the right thing to do. It’s what Nancy would do if it were YOU stranded on the side of that road. She’s probably on her way to meet her best friends Bess and George for lunch after delivering some legal papers for her lawyer father. Or perhaps Mrs. Putney is waiting for her. Someone stole her jewels, you know. But not to worry, Nancy Drew is on the case. And Nancy Drew always gets her man.
Oh, and be sure to wish her a happy birthday! She looks pretty good for 85, don’t you think? Eat your heart out, Betty White.