The Nouveau Nancy Drew is not the one you loved

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If you grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries, your pulse may quicken to hear that Simon and Schuster is publishing a new, updated series.

Thumbing through the new books will awaken fond memories. Bess Marvin and George Fayne are still Nancy's close chums. Ned Nickerson remains her "special friend," although his extracurricular activities include reading books at Emerson College rather than quarterbacking the football team. Nancy's father, Carson Drew, is still a hot-shot local lawyer, and Hannah Gruen -- the Drews' housekeeper -- continues to fret over Nancy's safety (albeit with considerably less cause in the modern books). Even the new covers are similar. They are canary-yellow. Carolyn Keene remains the pseudonymous author's moniker.

These familiar names will transport fans back to their childhood. After all, throngs of little girls -- myself included -- stayed up well past their bedtimes reading the books with flashlights under the covers. The first book was published in 1930, and additional volumes have been rolling off the presses at a steady rate since then.

Brush aside the misty nostalgia. What do you really remember about the classic teen-girl sleuth?

She was hit on the head more times than a prizefighter. Bad guys -- and they were usually guys -- were forever gagging her and tying her up. She regularly took the law into her own hands rather than going to the proper authorities. She sped around town in a little blue roadster. At the tender age of 16 (and later 18) she roamed around the country with hopelessly incompetent chaperones. And the spunky little terrorist even used dynamite to destroy property. Volume after volume contained frightening images, unsafe adventures and dicey characters.

Is this the kind of literature you want to invade the impressionable brains of young children?

If you worry about that, there is some good news -- and splendid news.

First the good news. The classic books are effectively are out of circulation. There aren't any at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in downtown Baltimore. However, the computer system there indicated some may lurk in branch libraries. And -- for research purposes only -- I was able to pick up a 1935 volume for $10 on eBay. It arrived wrapped in brown paper. But -- unless they're stashed in boxes in your basement -- be heartened that it takes some work to get hold of this potentially traumatic material.

Now the splendid news. The new volumes, the ones sitting on bookstore shelves today, have been stripped of most of the aforementioned perils. Cliffhangers, tension and suspense that kept children reading -- and, er, undoubtedly steering them into unspeakable mischief -- have been replaced with low-carb modern slop.

Kids can't possibly get into trouble reading this stuff. Unless, of course, they fall into a fatal coma from utter and complete boredom. Or, more likely, they plod through a few chapters, then scrap reading altogether in favor of a gunslinging, soft-porn, video-game-inspired action flick. But the few kids who can stick it out -- they'll be kept safely in a literary padded playpen.

Consider this: In Without a Trace (Simon and Schuster, 150 pages, 99 cents), the first book in the new series, the Nouveau Nancy is charged with uncovering the identity of a mysterious person who tramples neighborhood zucchini patches. Nancy's friends are slow to get with the new program: "Are you really so desperate for a mystery that you're going to investigate this?" asks longtime chum George Fayne. But in the end, George goes along.

Later in the story, a Faberge egg disappears and Nancy is back on familiar ground -- searching for a missing valuable item. Only, in the old days she'd start receiving scary and threatening messages from people telling her to drop the hunt. Now, the most uncomfortable situation she runs into is when she commits a social gaffe -- falsely accusing a suspect at a party.

She stays close to her hometown of River Heights, preferring local mysteries to far-flung adventures. (Maybe the Department of Homeland Security won't let her out of the country -- what with her checkered past.)

Nancy never gets tied up as she did so often in the older volumes. In four new books, Nancy's life is threatened only once -- and this is due to her own clumsiness. In High Risk (Simon and Schuster, 146 pages, $4.99), she accidentally knocks out the pilot of a plane she's flying in.

How could the original series have been so -- rough?

Keep in mind that the first Nancy Drew book was published in 1930 -- a scant 10 years after women had received the right to vote. Our country was going haywire. The nation was beset by a deep depression. Financiers weren't regulated. Politicians weren't regulated. With all this craziness going on, what could anyone expect from Nancy Drew?

Since then, our culture has developed new rules. Companies publish ethics policies and provide employees with hours of sensitivity training. Members of Congress answer to ethics committees. They even fly economy class and vote against increasing their own salaries -- just so they look good to the voters, who still seem to despise them. And, just like the leaders of our society, the Nouveau Nancy Drew is keeping up appearances. Now she knows not to do anything too scary or shocking.

In the Nouveau series, new characters are introduced. There is a black family, an ostensibly gay man (an "eccentric" single man living alone who owns a cheese shop, likes sunsets and Broadway musicals), and even a French woman. Nancy's hometown is a Noah's Ark of political correctness. Nancy fits right in. She's dumped the hot roadster for a hybrid car.

The updated books are now written in first person so readers know how Nancy feels during the course of the mystery. She sometimes gets annoyed with her friends. She can be catty. She can be impatient. Nice, safe, boring stuff.

Nancy Drew has been spiffed up a number of times -- first 1959 when editor Harriet Abrams began revising the first 34 volumes to remove racist language and modernize the plots. Later updates tweaked Nancy's hair color, her wardrobe, her car and other details.

After 175 Nancy Drew books -- and this number does not include spin-off series -- it is fair to wonder why there is even a need for new volumes. The answer is financial. There has been more interest in her as a brand, according to publisher Simon and Schuster. And next year is Nancy's 75th anniversary, which, if her 50th anniversary was any guide, will generate considerable media attention.

As it stands, there are Nancy Drew wall calendars, Nancy Drew tote bags, Nancy Drew video games, and for adults, there is even an annual Nancy Drew convention. The goal of the new books is to expand Nancy's fan base, Simon and Schuster says. And it seems it has made the correct calculations. High Risk made it to the The New York Times' children's best-seller list -- undoubtedly preying on parental nostalgia.

But, Nancy Drew has always been a cash heifer. When turn-of-the-last-century publishing baron Edward Stratemeyer created the series, he wanted money -- not fame. In fact, he was not a fan of Nancy Drew. After reading the original manuscript, he "expressed bitter disappointment ... saying the heroine was much too flip, and would never be well received," according to Mildred Wirt Benson, the first of a long series of Nancy Drew authors.

So, at the time, Nancy Drew occupied a lonely place in the literary world. "The plots provided me were brief, yet certain hackneyed names and situations could not be bypassed," said Benson in a biographical essay quoted in The New York Times. "I concentrated upon Nancy, trying to make her a departure from the stereotyped heroine commonly encountered in the series books of the day."

Ironically, the same can be said of the new books. It is just the stereotype that has been advanced. Now, the female action figure is a cliche. And Nancy is a safe distance away from the real action.

Annie Linskey is the assistant to the Sun's books editor. She graduated from Wellesley College has read almost every Nancy Drew book ever published.

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