Not a Girl Detective
by Susan Kandel
Published by William Morrow
304 pages, 2005
Confessions of a Teen Sleuth
by Chelsea Cain
Published by Bloomsbury USA
208 pages, 2005
Plot Line to Danger
Reviewed by Cindy Chow
I never much liked "girl sleuth" Nancy Drew. That's blasphemous for a mystery lover to admit, I know. William L. DeAndrea, in his Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994), called Drew "probably the second most influential detective in the history of the genre, behind only Sherlock Holmes." But I always found Nancy to be too prim, too smug and just too damn perfect for my taste.
So, it was with some reservations that I approached a pair of novelistic tributes to this durable literary icon, this seemingly fearless and foibleless daughter of attorney Carson Drew, who made her first appearance more than seven decades ago in The Secret of the Old Clock (1930). What a treat, though, these new novels proved to be! While I may never truly be drawn to the slim, blond, blue-eyed, roadster-driving young detective from River Heights, created by Edward Stratemeyer, I have developed a fresh appreciation for that teenager who introduced so many readers to the world of mystery fiction.
Los Angeles art critic-turned-novelist Susan Kandel follows up her promising series debut from last year, I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason (reviewed in "The Rap Sheet," 6/04), with Not a Girl Detective, her equally entertaining and chockfull-of-trivia second Cece Caruso mystery. Having completed her book about Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner, the almost-40, vintage-fashion-conscious Cece has now undertaken the rather daunting task of composing the biography of another celebrated mystery maker, Nancy Drew series author Carolyn Keene. But of course, Keene was actually the pseudonym employed by a virtual sweatshop of writers (including "intrepid former Toledo Blade reporter" Mildred Wirt Benson), who were under the strict editorial control of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, responsible for churning out the myriad Nancy adventures, as well as dozens of contemporaneous juvenile detective series starring the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden and others. As a way to promote her latest project, and perhaps gain some further insight into the world of "professional virgin" Nancy Drew, Cece agrees to give the keynote address at an annual convention of Nancy fans in Palm Springs, California.
It sounded like a good idea at the time. But the clever Cece should have paid more attention to her vague recollection that "fan is short for fanatic."
Doing a favor for a pair of booksellers (cousins of Cece's "purported boyfriend," Detective Peter Gambino), our hip heroine delivers a perfect, World War II-era edition of Carolyn Keene's The Mystery of the Ivory Charm to the eccentric L.A. collector Edgar Edwards, who owns one of the world's most expansive assortments of Nancy Drew memorabilia. The meeting is kismet; not only does Edwards offer to let Cece bed down in his Palm Springs home during the upcoming convention, but he has recently added to his collection a previously unknown painting of blond, blue-eyed Grace Norton, who modeled for the original Nancy Drew covers, and happens to be the subject of Cece's speech. There's only one problem with this painting, Cece realizes: "Grace Horton -- aka the goddess that is Nancy Drew -- wasn't wearing anything. Except a killer smile."
And the fun keeps right on coming. After finishing their road trip east to Palm Springs, Cece and her two best friends, Lael and Bridget, find that the hotel hosting the Nancy Drew conference is also headquarters for 20,000 lesbians, who have swept into town for the annual Dinah Shore Classic golf tourney. Still, that hardly qualifies as news, compared with the women's discovery of Edgar Edwards -- who wasn't supposed to be anywhere near his Palm Springs house during their stay -- lying dead in one of its bedrooms.
Now something of a murder suspect, Cece does her best to channel the brainy, resourceful Nancy D. in order to draw connections between Edwards' slaying, the suddenly missing Grace Horton nude and the disappearance of Edwards' houseboy. As if that (and dodging the cops) weren't enough to keep her busy, Cece must also contend with Clarissa Olsen, the president of the Nancy Drew Society of Chums, a rabid perfectionist in the area of Drew lore -- and, it so happens, a relative of Grace Horton.
There's a lot of plot going on in Not a Girl Detective, but Kandel manages to tie all the threads together. The one weakness I see is that, by interweaving so many oddball characters into her mystery, she neglects two of the most entertaining ones: the flamboyant Lael and Bridget, who never achieve more than a single dimension here. Bridget, an African-American vintage-clothing store owner with her own boy-toy assistant, and Lael, a pastry chef and mother of four children by four different fathers, both deserve books of their own. Kandel does better at explaining the reasons behind Nancy Drew's widespread appeal and revealing the intricate machinery that first gave the plucky Ms. Drew life on the page. We learn that the identity of Carolyn Keene was a closely held secret until the late Edward Stratemeyer's daughter, Harriet -- in a move designed to give her more control over publication rights and profits -- initiated a lawsuit in 1980 that had the undesired effect of spilling that secret all over a courtroom. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams later revised the early editions, "transform[ing] Nancy into a more passive, traditionally feminine hero, not unlike Barbie," and supposedly removing racist references. Those revisions also put the copyright firmly into Harriet's hands, and made the original books -- the "Blue Nancys" (so nicknamed because of their linen cover color) -- collector's items.
Kandel does a fine and funny job here of contrasting Nancy Drew's "perfection" with Cece Caruso's decidedly imperfect existence. Missing her grown daughter, Annie, and unsure of which direction she should go with the relationship-phobic Gambino, Cece's personal life is filled with chaos. She's behind on sending copy to her editor and unconvinced that she will be able to solve this mystery as capably as Nancy would. At one point, she examines the gulf separating herself from the teen sleuth:
Everything about [Nancy Drew] was inspirational: her bravery, her loyalty, her spirit of adventure. But it was this obliviousness to money and sex that made her an icon, especially to readers too young to have developed much of a taste for either. Then again, maybe that was me, a two-bit beauty queen from the working class who got pregnant and blew her one shot at a serious life.
Of course, it's Cece's multiple neuroses and frenetic ways that make her so very enjoyable to watch. At Kandel's direction, Cece interweaves her love for Nancy Drew with her own investigation, giving readers a witty, fast-paced ride that's both exceedingly entertaining and informative.
Not a Girl Detective serves, too, as a perfect primer to Chelsea Cain's fond parody, Confessions of a Teen Sleuth, which presents a side of Nancy Drew we've certainly never seen before.
Cain -- who writes a weekly humor column for the Portland Oregonian -- builds Confessions around a posthumous manuscript that "reveals" how the Carolyn Keene yarns were based only loosely on the real life of Nancy Drew, as plagiarized by Nancy's jealous college roommate, Carolyn. Now that the genuine Nancy can no longer embarrass her family, she has determined to set the record straight, revealing the truth about her initiation as a teen sleuth, her recruitment by a CIA offshoot known as the Top-secret Education Espionage Network (TEEN), how she reared a family with handsome but bland boyfriend Ned Nickerson, and how she solved the mystery surrounding her ever-absent mother. What Cain imagines in these pages is that the shapely, titian-haired Nancy never outgrew her need to detect, a fact that led to her postpartum depression, her playing "Mystery of the Lost Hamster" with her son, and her eventual abandonment of her family in order to work as a department-store detective.
Told from the first-person point of view of an elderly Ms. Drew, and organized into chapters covering the years 1926 to 1992, Confessions recounts how Carolyn's frequent description of the teen sleuth's friend (and frequent assistant) Bess Marvin as "plump" eventually resulted in Bess becoming anorexic and man-crazy, and ever in need of male assurance; how the tomboyish George Fayne finally came out of the closet about her sexuality; and that the true love of Nancy's life wasn't brave Ned, but instead Frank Hardy of Hardy Boys fame. Illustrations that mimic the simple style of those found in the "real" Nancy Drew series add legitimacy to Cain's satirical interpretation of the spirited crime-fighter's career, and the overly dramatic "cases" that Nancy continues to investigate mock the original stories at the same time as they lay tribute before them.
There's a lot of good-natured fun to be had here, although Confessions can also be heavy-handed. Cain can't avoid taking pokes at some of the stereotypes prevalent in the different decades of her protagonist's life, whether her target is San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in the late 1960s, overly serious feminist academics in the mid-1970s, or Jazzercise and midlife crises in the me-first 80s. But her repetitious descriptions of Nancy as slim, attractive and titian-haired are offered as nods to the original books and play lovingly upon Keene's regimented style. There is a fine line between affectionate parody and the malicious mocking of an icon (a demarcation that was crossed, for example, by Robert Kaplow's The Cat Who Killed Lilian Jackson Braun), and Confessions errs primarily on the side of homage. This should stop touchy Nancy Drew enthusiasts from hurling Cain's book in anger, though eyebrows will surely be raised by a few of the author's plot turns (as when Nancy and Frank Hardy are locked together in a room, and it takes them more than an hour to try escaping).
Longtime fans of children's mysteries will find particular joy here in the regular cameo appearances made by stars of other series -- even if those idols tend to show up in somewhat perverted form. Encyclopedia Brown, now an overweight Dungeons and Dragons fan, who still lives at home and demonstrates an annoying penchant for forcing others to guess at what he's thinking, helps Nancy solve a mystery while on a cruise; Trixie Belden's daughter becomes Nancy's daughter-in-law; and even the Sweet Valley twins make an appearance in Confessions. No Stratemeyer icon is sacred, it seems; Cain turns nurse Cherry Ames into a bloated Teamster, and Donna Parker makes her entrance as a 30-year-old who continues to behave -- and dress -- like a 14-year-old. One-liners fly fast and frequently from Cain's bow, with more hitting the spot than missing.
It's astonishing, really, that Nancy Drew should have enjoyed such a lengthy and favorable run. Creator Edward Stratemeyer originally thought she was much too outrageous to ever be accepted by American readers, but he was soon proved wrong. Through movies, TV series and, of course, books (including an updated new succession of titles, launched last year by Aladdin), this clever, blond Midwestern gumshoe has not only made a name for herself, but has been influential in first attracting such diverse authors as Sara Paretsky and Jane Haddam to the crime-fiction genre. Confessions of a Teen Sleuth and Not a Girl Detective will provide fans and Nancy Drew-phobes alike with the perfect solution to the mystery behind this character's persistent appeal. | June 2005
Cindy Chow is a librarian at Kaneohe Public Library, located on the Windward side of Oahu, Hawaii. She's a regular contributor to "The Rap Sheet," January's crime-fiction newsletter, and also reviews books for The No Name Café site.