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From Chapter One: Whodunit?
When Edward Stratemeyer set the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series in motion, he was well aware of changes going on in American culture, including the nation's growing obsession with crime. Newspaper headlines and talking-picture newsreels screamed about sensational crimes, bloody rubouts, and organized evildoings. Prohibition had turned drinking a casual cocktail into a federal offense. Real hoodlums, like Chicago's Al Capone and John Dillinger, and fictional ones, like Edward G. Robinson's Rico in Little Caesar (1930) and Paul Muni's Scarface (1932), were transformed by the media into insolent super-heroes. A golden age of detective and crime fiction dawned, featuring books like Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon (1930) and cheap pulp-fiction magazines such as the Black Mask that titillated readers, mostly men, with lurid, stylish stories about private eyes, gun molls, and corrupt cops. Ever shrewd, Stratemeyer took the public's fascination with crime and repackaged it for an underage audience, melding the beloved, old-fashioned adventure tradition with the heat generated by gritty tales of modern crime. What Stratemeyer couldn't have predicted was how keenly Frank and Joe Hardy and Nancy Drew would touch another nerve in young audiences of ten- to fifteen-year-olds, kids who were just as eager to test out their new identities as "teenagers" as the breakthrough teen detectives were to tackle a new crime.
Adolescents are the perfect audience for books in which slightly older teen characters have one close call after another and rise above challenges that come their way. Frank, Joe, and Nancy are fictionale staved off the aging process for seventy years by living in a time warp that rejuvenates them with fast-paced investigative action. Their mother, Laura -- who's seldom seen and, when she is, mostly worries about her sons or packs them lunches -- once had other plans for Frank and Joe, nudging them to become lawyers and doctors. But, after they helped their dad crack several tough cases and racked up some impressive rewards, the boys were encouraged to follow in private investigator Fenton Hardy's footsteps. Like other Stratemeyer Syndicate boys -- the Rover Boys, Tom Swift, the Speedwell Boys, the Radio Boys, the Moving Picture Boys, the X Bar X Boys -- Frank and Joe are adventurous and virtuous lads.
The Hardys' love of adventure and keen sense of justice is in their blood. Their father, a retired New York City detective, though just over forty, is youthful and strapping, with graying hair, a stentorian voice, chiseled features, and blue eyes. A firm disciplinarian when the boys were younger, Fenton Hardy now sits back to see how their confidence and self-esteem mirror his own celebrated talents and unerring professionalism. Even though he's often called away on investigations -- to solve crimes for corporations and government agencies as well as private individuals -- the spirit of tall, dark, handsome Fenton sets the standards and the masculine tone for the Hardy household.
Whether picking up Dad's slack or investigating cases of their own, Frank and Joe are inseparable. They're together almost all of the time and are so close that they can read each other's thoughts. Best of all, they always have someone to talk to. Although separated in age by a year -- in the earliest books in the series Frank is sixteen, Joe fifteen -- in many ways the boys are twins, equals who live for each other. In looks and spirit Frank is dark, Joe is light. Frank's the logical thinker; Joe's the hotheaded, impetuous one. But if one of them is knocked for a loop in a fistfight or dangling perilously from a trapeze, his brother is there to rescue him. Neither Frank nor Joe needs to be perfect as an individual, because together, as a team, they are perfect.
The Hardy Boys have each other, their father, and a colorful gang of pals, all ready to sign on for adventure and, when necessary, to play rough, even though they're the kind of boys who wash their hands before dinner. They're men's men, untroubled by women who, if they were part of the action, would only slow it down because they would demand an emotional involvement the Hardys are not ready to explore. With no girls to worry about, they're free to be action heroes, never in doubt about their ability to perform. Girls make the boys nervous, especially Joe, because their feelings toward the opposite sex are confused. In The Missing Chums (1928) Joe's flustered, and it shows:
"Oh, do come in," said Iola coaxingly....
"Let's go," muttered Joe, tugging at Frank's sleeve. He was incurably shy in the presence of girls, especially Iola....
Iola tried to make conversation with Joe, whose answers were mumbled and muttered....
"Why, what's the matter? I thought you liked Iola Morton."
"That's just the trouble -- I do, " answered Joe mysteriously, and Frank wisely forbore further inquiry.
The Hardys are boy-sized teens who routinely overcome grown crooks, thugs, and other big lugs because they are so adept at boxing and jujitsu. They understand the superiority of strategy over brute strength. It's the scientifically planned trajectory of a well-placed punch that knocks out the bad guys.
Two bantamweight bundles of young manhood, Frank and Joe drive matching black-and-silver motorcycles. They are sharpshooters, expert drivers and divers; they ride horses, ice fish, and pilot airplanes. They're good auto mechanics who have mastered Latin, sign language, and various secret codes. Together, they're a dream team, but it's Frank, the older brother, who's usually mentioned first and who does most of the driving. He has most of the ideas and acts as the master planner and leader. Frank's quick, razor-sharp mind reasons things out before he makes a move. Though he has a tendency to be modest and cautious, to keep things to himself, when this Hardy lad springs into action, he's worked out all the angles down to the tiniest details. A Scorpio with a clever mind and a good-natured face, Frank may have small feet (he wears a size-eight shoe), but he's tall and handsome and is blessed with straight, black hair and deep, dark eyes. Frank balances his brains with brawn. He's captain and quarterback of the football team, a pitcher on the baseball team, and is a member of the gymnasium club. Off the playing field, he can throw his voice, play the ukulele, administer first aid, and twirl a mean lasso. He's a natural actor who gets the boys out of danger in The Secret Panel (1946) by passing himself off as a moron and by dressing up as a woman named Professor Ima Dodo in The Secret Warning (1938). He's been an honor student at Bayport High since 1927, except for the year that he dropped out because of a mysterious illness. And when he was well enough to go back to school, he luckily landed in the same class with his younger brother.
Impulsive Joe is a bashful hunk, a 125-pound, good-hearted Aries who has a special interest in ornithology. Among the Hardy Boys gang, Joe's known for his sleight-of-hand feats and card tricks, for being the guy with a cool sense of humor, pink cheeks, curly blond hair, and his mother's sparkling blue eyes. Quick on his tiny, size-six feet, Joe, too, is celebrated for his athletic prowess; he plays shortstop for the Bayport High baseball team and holds the record for the longest run in the history of the football team. He's the brother most likely to take chances, so he's the one most likely to be bopped on the head or to unwittingly lead someone else into danger. In general, Joe defers to Frank's better judgment, but in times of trouble, he's the better shot. When the Hardy Boys cruise Barmet Bay in their boat, the Sleuth (which they bought with reward money), Frank counts on Joe, the better pilot, to know every inch of the tricky coastline. Same goes for when they have to deal with fires in Bayport; in his brief life, Joe has memorized the location of every fire alarm box in town.
"I am Nancy Drew, " said the girl quietly.
"I know you are Nancy Drew," mimicked the stranger. "I've seen you go flibberty-jibbet in your auto many a time. When I was a girl, girls stayed home and learned to cook and sew and mind their own business, not to go gallivantin' around in swell autos and waited on hand and foot. I declare I don't know what the world is coming to."
"If you have come here to lecture me, would you mind waiting until I hav e finished my luncheon?" Nancy asked.
Nancy's Mysterious Letter (1932)
Teen detective Nancy Drew is nothing like most young girls -- boy-crazy, always on the phone, morbid, mooning over unicorns, or subject to fits of uncontrollable giggles. This lithe, Wasp supergirl is under control, a plucky and fearless, humble and generous, charming young lady who never fails at what she sets out to do. Nancy's not quite a knockout, but she's attractive for sure, with a crown of blonde hair framing her heart-shaped face and sparkling blue eyes. Her cheeks are rosy and her complexion fair, except when she's blushing from praise for her accomplishments.
A clotheshorse with an ever-expanding wardrobe, Nancy acts out every girl's desire for material goods -- she has everything, from berets to strapped stiletto heels. With a hefty allowance and charge cards at River Heights's finer emporiums (Burk's Department Store, and Taylor's, too), Nancy can find a snappy outfit for every occasion. If there's diving to be done, count on Nancy to have the perfect rubber suit, flippers, and Aqua-Lung. She looks ultrachic no matter what she puts on: three-quarter-length tailored dresses, flowered crepe gowns, long scarves, pastel frocks for afternoon teas, red slickers, and, by the 1980s, designer jeans.
Everyone loves Nancy -- girls, boys, the cops in River Heights, down-on-their-heels spinsters, even the hardened criminals she hunts down grudgingly come to respect her. Nancy's a celebrity who gets invited to a luncheon in her honor at the White House in The Mystery of the Ivory Charm (1936), but fame never goes to her head. Nancy's ruled by her brain and rock-solid values.
Like Sleeping Beauty and other classic fairytale heroines, Nancy is motherless, and has been since the age of three. But she has not only learned to take care of herself and her dad; she also plays parent to hapless victims of misfortune. Many girls secretly entertain fantasies of rescuing people in need and making their lives happy -- Nancy does it daily. Righting wrongs, allaying fears, and specializing in restoring wealth to its rightful claimants, she willingly suffers physical pain in the cause of righteousness, though she's no martyr. A courageous girl, she'll never give in to anger, fear, despair, or a moment of moral doubt.
Nancy is unflappable and observant. Yet, at the same time, she's always running, darting, bolting, springing, bounding, a symbol of energy and freedom. Long before Filofaxes and Day Runners, Nancy organized more in a day than most people manage to cram into a week. It's no surprise that she has trouble falling asleep at night. She's efficient and always prepared, not like the proverbial Girl Scout, but just like a successful, sophisticated girl detective needs to be. She tucks a neatly packed overnight case in the trunk of her car, with two changes of clothes, pajamas, a robe, toiletries, and, in summer, a bathing suit. And Nancy always carries her birth certificate; she's a sixteen-year-old going on forty.
Some people think she's sexless, but virginal Nancy is simply innocent of lust or any notion that men have an upper hand. She has no romantic fantasies, and after her first flirtation with Ned Nickerson, no tingling sensations when they twirl around the dance floor. "Someday," she muses from time to time, but Nancy's clearly not ready to make a commitment to her "speci al friend." She might love fixing up other people and reuniting separated couples, but she'd rather solve a mystery than waste time on a date. Nancy's been raised to take men for what they are in her world -- sometimes helpful, sometimes troublesome, but more often than not, criminals. She's usually more capable than they are; no wonder they tie her up, gag her, lock her in closets, and knock her unconscious.
Nancy may be a threat to some men's masculinity, but not Carson Drew's. A wealthy, world-famous criminal lawyer, Carson Drew is the perfect dad. He's a tall, dark, and handsome widower with a few hobbies -- bowling, collecting antique firearms, growing roses and radishes -- and no social life. Carson lavishes Nancy with ego-boosting praise to encourage her precocious independence and proffers professional feedback and advice. There's no need for Nancy to succumb to girly whining; she's got her father's ear and trust, a set of car keys, and an ego so strong she can afford to worry about other people in need rather than get lost in self-absorption. That's why Nancy can come home late (as long as she calls) and, even in the earliest of her cases, could head out of town as long as a chaperone tagged along. Mr. Drew, secure in his single-parenting skills, learned a long time ago to support Nancy's addiction to detection.
Out in the "real world," Nancy fiercely protects her father's name as much as she takes advantage of it, and she doesn't hesitate to volunteer his high-priced services gratis to deserving people. Nancy turns defensive when someone says something bad about her dad, and is stricken with terror when she fears that his life is in peril. The father-daughter bond is strong; Car son has no wife, Nancy has no mother. In fact, the two of them seem more like husband and wife than parent and child -- Carson doesn't flinch when his attractive daughter playfully runs her hands through his wavy hair. When the two Drews flirt shamelessly, which they often do, they're unaware of the dark psychological undercurrents that kept twentieth-century shrinks' couches warm. Without Nancy, Carson would be a boring lawyer counting his billable hours. With her, though, he is half of Drew & Drew, and no generation gap can rend their partnership.
Nancy's hard to top, a goddess in disguise, a girl whose talents are legendary. With a precision and elegance that defies most teens, Nancy can whip up a dress or interpret a Chopin étude with subtle understanding. She can repair a damaged painting so perfectly that an expert can barely detect it, and she learns to fly so well that she awes her instructor. Maybe it's Nancy's photographic memory that makes quoting Archimedes second nature. And while she never spends a day studying in a classroom, she passes an exam in archaeology after one night's cramming, gets the lead in many school plays, and even graduates from high school in the series' third book, The Bungalow Mystery. A self-starter, Nancy loves to learn on her own, to bone up on psychology, underwater photography, auto mechanics, and art, becoming adept enough, to everyone's amazement, to render a crook's face perfectly for the cops.
Nancy's no tomboy, but she loves all sports, too. She's great at golf, excels at tennis, is a sure shot with a gun, and is a Ping-Pong champ. She's mastered ocean fishing, bobsledding, and water ballet. With not an awkward bone in her body, she dives like a swan and swims superbly. Her superior athletic abilities identify her as a twentieth-century woman who knows both the benefits of physical fitness and the thrill of competition.
In fact, Nancy's whole world is bathed in a blue aura. It's her signature color; her eyes are blue, she's decked out in blue clothes when she first appears, her garden is filled with blue flowers, and her shiny roadster is blue. It's not the blue that stands for boys or sadness -- Nancy's blue is the cool blue blood of American aristocracy. She's a member of the River Heights Country Club. When she's not traveling the world and checking into first-class hotels, or when she's in between cases, Nancy Drew does her share of charity work. When she lunches at fancy restaurants and quaint local inns, she's quick to pick up the check, never making anyone less fortunate feel uncomfortable. True to her class, she's conservative, apt to get smug from time to time, to look askance at lower-class, exotic, or ethnic people -- until she reminds herself it's wrong to jump to conclusions. And for all her upper-class advantages, Nancy never dreams of abusing privileges or taking a dime for her sleuthing work.
If Nancy weren't free to dart around the River Heights hills and dales in her trademark cars, she'd be a lot less astonishing. Early on, she's in command of a blue roadster -- later, it's a convertible, sometimes yellow, sometimes maroon -- and she can park in any tight spot. She inspires admiration, not jealousy, because she's been packaged with a split personality meant to spur young girls to independence while reminding them of some of their traditional female roles. Sure, Nancy can fix a car or a boat's motor with a bobby pin; she can roll herself down the side of a mountain without getting a scratch, wrangle free of bondage ropes, and dominate every man on every page. But Nancy still relishes her cup of tea with tasty watercress sandwiches, and looks smashing in an evening dress.
Dusted with privilege and blessed with a strong will, Nancy thrives on breaking rules. She fascinates most girls (and some boys) because she's not like them at all. Nancy lives free of doubt because she's got power. No worries about not having breasts, no fears of getting pregnant, no embarrassment about being too tall or too thin, no anxiety over not having dates. No competition, no fighting, no cutting school; no eating disorders, no jealousy.
A working girl who excels at doing a man's job, Nancy has none of the restrictions, conflicts, or doubts that come with a dynamic, committed life. In a world where everything, including perfection, is possible, Nancy thrives in a whirlwind of society dances, luxury travel, fraternity parties, and terrifying encounters with the scummiest of thugs. Nancy herself is full of dichotomies. A feminist who's ruled by conventional propriety, she's assertive but reasonable, self-centered but altruistic, purposeful and respectful.
Maybe it's because she didn't have a mother to hold her back, maybe it's because she's a born overachiever, or maybe it's because she likes the company of adults more than kids her own age, but Nancy's not impressed or intimidated by grown-ups. It never occurs to her that adults might have an upper hand. She chases after them with no regard for her own vulnerabilities. She grills adults relentlessly, feeling no awkwardness at being a kid. Nancy Drew -- obsessed truthseeker and straightshooter who's smarter than most grown-ups around her -- exudes authority. And that's what makes her magical, an irresistible character for young readers.
Nancy's more mature and complicated than the Hardy Boys, who hold on to their readers' short attention spans because, like nineteenth-century frontiersmen, they are ever on the alert for danger. The Hardy Boys are always on the lookout, ready to protect their family, friends, and hometown of Bayport from whatever threatens their way of life. What a huge responsibility, what a piece of luck, what a kick for these two boys. Every cliff-hanging chapter presents Frank and Joe with excitement and another chance to show off in a world where men prove their manhood by measuring themselves against other men, over and over and over again.
Frank and Joe thrive as heroic characters for boys because they continually live on the edge. They throw powerful punches when they have to, make the most of their common sense, have access to the newest technological toys of their trade, pat each other on the back, and, because they lead a life of obsessive action, have no need to reflect on their emotions. They simply affirm their loyalties, believe in their own invulnerability and unwavering moral strength, and act out their version of masculinity in a timeless, endless loop of thrilling excitements. The Hardy Boys never stop and, like most men who are married to their jobs, can't imagine retiring.
On the other hand, unlike Frank and Joe Hardy, who join the line in the literary pantheon of male adventurers, Nancy Drew bears a special responsibility: she stakes out new territory by showing girls how to take action, how to set their sights beyond what conve ntion expects of them. Nancy was, and remains, an original in kids' literature; she still teaches girls that it's OK to be smarter than anyone else around, that success is the appropriate reward for being an independent, curious risk-taker who knows when to persevere and when to ask for help. Nancy, always open to life's mysteries, invites her readers to seek nothing less for themselves.
The yin and yang of juvenile detectives, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are alike in some important ways and opposite in others. It's a given that they're dedicated to fighting crime, doing good, and being responsible, civil citizens. But when they were created in the late twenties and their characters took shape -- good boys and a good girl -- for all their spirited independence, the teen sleuths had to reflect what society assumed and expected of boys and girls. The boys are fun-loving; Nancy's a more serious girl. She's emotional; Frank and Joe have no time for such sissy stuff. The three teen sleuths are equally smart, but the Hardys, because they're boys, are goal-oriented and punch their way through plots, while Nancy moves purposefully from one clue to the next, excited by every intuitive step of the process.
Fictional beacons of light in the darkness of teenage turmoil, Frank and Joe Hardy and Nancy Drew are inspirational characters who have influenced four generations of young teens, for whom the unstable, shifting ground of adolescence makes walking a straight line nearly impossible. Frank and Joe and Nancy face life head-on. Frozen in time as teenagers, their identities are firmly locked in place; their courses clear. What they do is more important than how they feel. What they fear they conquer; whate ver is in their way is overcome. And because crime and evil are always with us, the three teen detectives teach kids life's most important lessons: how to have the courage to face the problems life serves up regularly, and to believe that life is worth living in a world that is worth protecting. For embedded in every one of the Hardy Boys' and Nancy Drew's relentlessly optimistic stories is a can-do, how-to message that encourages teens to persevere, reminding them that just as good triumphs over evil, youth triumphs over age.
Copyright © 1998 by Simon & Schuster
Posted May 8, 2003
This book is fun to look at. Dozens of photos, large and small, pay tribute to the most popular series characters in English-language children's fiction. As a child I used to stand in front of rows of these books in bookstores, poring over the covers, for hours at a time. The covers have a talismanic quality this book neatly captures. Interior line drawings (including the 'frontispiece' illustrations in each book) also appear throughout this large-format book. But none of the Hardy/Drew pictures are labelled, so unless you know the originals you can't pair them to the book. The potted history of the Stratemeyer syndicate is clearly if breezily presented, with excerpts from letters indicating the tensions behind the scenes between publishers and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, who assumed control of the empire after her father died in 1930, just as the Drew series was about to start (three years after the Hardy series had taken off). The authors document almost nothing, though, so you can't easily use the book for research purposes (and they repeat some erroneous information from other books on the Stratemeyer syndicate). Still, these authors condescend to Hardy/Drew far less than many other critics have -- it's nice to read complimentary things about the power of the books on kids who have literally read them to pieces. The main problem with this book is that it goes far afield to encompass a general social history of the last century. We get inset mini-essays on adolescence, 'model dads' (from FDR to MLK), juvenile delinquents, 'Seventeen' magazine, the influence of TV, etc. The inset coverage is superficial, reading like canned newsmagazine features, and it isn't directly related to Hardy/Drew. Fortunately, there is still plenty about the junior detectives, with generous quotes from both the original books and updated rewrites of the Grosset & Dunlap series. The authors treat each series as one long book, looking for trends in plots and characterizations -- Nancy is 'locked in closets, attics, gymnasiums, cisterns, caves, and submarines,' they note. They're also good on the media and pop culture variations of the characters, from feature film and TV adaptations to board games and dolls. The paperback watering-down of the characters in the 1980s gets softer treatment than it deserves, since this book's publisher (Simon and Schuster) now owns the Stratemeyer Syndicate and published them. The book is worth reading, as long as readers know it lacks full focus on Drew/Hardy, and often doesn't reveal its sources. Anyone who doesn't want to get bogged down in the social history might still enjoy just looking through the book for its pictures.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.