Nancy Drew: Curious, Independent and Usually Right She was born in 1930, but she's perpetually 18 — and always one step ahead of the adults. For NPR's In Character series, Renee Montagne delivers the scoop on the iconic American girl sleuth: Nancy Drew.
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Nancy Drew: Curious, Independent and Usually Right

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Nancy Drew: Curious, Independent and Usually Right

Nancy Drew: Curious, Independent and Usually Right

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And now the secret of how a girl detective who first appeared in 1930 still endures today.

(Soundbite of movie, "Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BONITA GRANVILLE (Actor): (as Nancy Drew) Hello, Captain Tweedy.

Mr. FRANK ORTH (Actor): (as Captain Tweedy) How did you get in here, Ms. Drew?

Ms. GRANVILLE: (as Nancy Drew) Oh, the Turnbulls are friends of mine.

Mr. ORTH: (as Captain Tweedy) How is it every time there's trouble, you turn up? What do you want?

Ms. GRANVILLE: (as Nancy Drew) We just wondered if you'd solved the case.

MONTAGNE: The long-suffering police chief of River Heights, USA, thought he had, but once again, it was Nancy Drew who would solve "The Secret of the Hidden Staircase." And she would follow the clue in the old album, decipher "The Password to Larkspur Lane" and crack "The mystery of the Moss-Covered Mansion."

This morning, in the latest installment of our series In Character, we're hot on the trail of Nancy Drew.

Ms. LAURA LIPPMAN (Crime Writer): I'm pretty sure I started at the beginning, "The Secret of the Old Clock."

MONTAGNE: That's the first of dozens of Nancy Drew mysteries, and crime writer Laura Lippman's love of the girl sleuth put her on the path to creating her own best-selling series featuring gal detective Tess Monaghan. Tess is a lot tougher, but she inherited Nancy Drew's need to find out.

Ms. LIPPMAN: One of the nice things about Nancy Drew books is that it validates curiosity as a virtue, which was not always the message in a lot of things that little girls were told.

(Soundbite of movie, "Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase")

Ms. GRANVILLE: (as Nancy Drew) Look. Whoever's been getting into this house hasn't been coming through the doors or windows, so it must be through this basement - how, I don't know, and that's why somebody has to be there.

Mr. FRANKIE THOMAS (Actor): (as Ted Nickerson) Why can't that somebody be somebody else?

MONTAGNE: She does things she's not supposed to do. For instance, her father is very often saying: Nancy, this has nothing to do with you. You can just stop now. And, then of course, at least in the movies, she stands with her fingers crossed behind her back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LIPPMAN: I'd forgotten that. Well, you know, her father does encourage her to be adult-like and to use her mind. You know, it's interesting if you go back and look at children's literature, how many of the really popular books are designed so that the parent figures are off stage.

So Nancy begins without a mother at all, just this kindly housekeeper. She's really a free agent, and she's very much an autonomous person at the age of 16. and when you're a little girl of 10 or 11, that's just thrilling.

(Soundbite of film, "Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase")

Ms. GRANVILLE: (as Nancy Drew) It's a secret door, that's what it is.

Mr. THOMAS: (as Ted Nickerson) Look, there's no mortar in that crack. I think we're getting hot.

Ms. GRANVILLE: This is it, all right. The dust has been tracked away. Come on, start pushing.

Ms. FRAN LEBOWITZ (Writer): I don't think there is a casual reader of Nancy Drew. There may be casual readers of Proust, but not of Nancy Drew.

MONTAGNE: Humorist Fran Lebowitz remembers she was obsessed with Nancy Drew and the entire cast of characters: Ned Nickerson, the sometimes useful kind-of boyfriend, Hannah the housekeeper, father Carson Drew and Nancy's adoring girlfriends Bess and George.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: When I was a very - maybe, I think, 7 or 8 years old, I had an operation on my eyes, and my eyes were blindfolded for two weeks, which compelled my mother to sit by my bedside and read me Nancy Drew books all day long, because I couldn't read myself. So even blindness did not stop me.

MONTAGNE: The appeal?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: She was a fantasy figure for girls, you know, because she had this independent life, which, to me, at that age primarily meant being a detective. But being a detective seemed to me like an excellent job. It still seems like a pretty good job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Oh, yeah?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: And I still would like to have a roadster, a blue roadster. I still have not acquired one.

MONTAGNE: That blue roadster. Think about how liberating it was eight decades ago: a girl in possession of her own car, the wind in her hair. Nancy Drew drove it everywhere, often recklessly, so focused was she on the mystery at hand, here in "The Secret of the Old Clock."

Unidentified Woman: (Reading) The blue convertible sped along the country road. Nancy smiled grimly. I'm afraid I'm exceeding the speed limit, she thought, but I almost wish a trooper would stop me. Then I could tell him what happened to the poor Turner sisters.

MONTAGNE: Over the years, Nancy Drew has shown up on TV, in the movies, comic books, and most recently, video games. Her roadster has been updated to a hybrid. Gone are the cloche hats and gloves from the '30s, but young readers, like fifth-grader Michaela Brown, do appreciate the classic touches in Nancy's always-adorable outfits.

Ms. MICHAELA BROWN: In the newer books, she kind of wears more modern clothes, but she always has, like, a hint of vintage. There are pictures, of course, in the comic books, you know, because it's a comic book, and she was wearing this headband that was - you could totally tell it was the '50s. You know, she always has like a hint of something else, which is kind of cool.

MONTAGNE: I don't know if she really ever carried a magnifying glass, but that was the idea.

Ms. BROWN: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: You know, does she have ways of carrying things that only a detective would have on them?

Ms. BROWN: In the newer books, she has a Swiss army knife, and then she also has a keychain with a flashlight. I don't think anybody really carries around a Swiss army knife.

MONTAGNE: Another fifth-grader, Zoe Dutton, remembers how she was introduced to Nancy Drew. It was a hot day in the summer before she started second grade, and her mother handed Zoe a childhood favorite of her own, "The Bungalow Mystery."

Did you ever, maybe even when you were, you know, younger, actually try and solve a mystery?


MONTAGNE: Kind of hard to come by.

Ms. DUTTON: Yeah. I mean, she's constantly stumbling on, like, smugglers and criminals and forgeries, and it's slightly unrealistic. But, I mean, only Nancy Drew can do this because she can sniff out a mystery like a bloodhound.

MONTAGNE: In fact, neither Zoe Dutton nor Michaela Brown want to be Nancy Drew. They'd rather have her as a friend - partly, says Zoe, because she's a little too perfect, which can be a little boring.

Ms. DUTTON: Her car is always fixed perfect. She's always nice to everybody. She's even polite to the criminals after she catches them and knocks them out. I mean, it's slightly ridiculous, but it's nice if you're her friend.

(Soundbite of movie clip)

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As Nancy Drew) An empty shell I found yesterday was four-and-a-quarter belt-lengths from the window where Phillips was discovered. If he'd committed suicide, the shell would've fallen beside him. That proves he was shot from across the room.

MONTAGNE: As to why I love Nancy Drew, here's a clue from one of the old movies called "Nancy Drew…Reporter." Nancy is figuring out how she and Ned can sneak into a house that's a crime scene.

(Soundbite of film, "Nancy Drew…Reporter")

Mr. THOMAS: (as Ted Nickerson) But what if you can get in? It's still illegal.

Ms. GRANVILLE: (As Nancy Drew) Not to a reporter. A reporter has the right to do things an ordinary person shouldn't.

Mr. THOMAS: (as Ted Nickerson) Ah, phooey.

Ms. GRANVILLE: (As Nancy Drew) Now go ahead and do just exactly as I told you.

MONTAGNE: So, there - curiosity, a fascination with assembling clues or facts into a story, even a certain recklessness. For me, those qualities add up what it takes to be a reporter.

I didn't know that when I was 9 years old. I never imagined I would become a journalist. I only knew that the moment I finished one Nancy Drew mystery, I couldn't wait to plunge into another.

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