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Friday, October 22, 2010

Ms. Drew, the Sleuth of my youth

A friend and fellow book amasser recently asked me for a recommendation for her husband and wondered whether there were any books that I had read more than once. A good question, since both of our homes are filled with them. The book I have read more frequently than any other and now given away 4 copies of, is Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. It was published in 1992, translated from the original Danish, to great fanfare. I began to reflect on that choice later that evening and realized that part of the reason I am so enamored of Smilla, is that she, the protagonist of this wonderful novel, is much like my childhood heroine: the resourceful, clever, and always attractive Nancy Drew.

With her friends chubby Bess and tomboy George and blond boyfriend Ned standing in the background, no mystery remained unsolved for Nancy. I spent many childhood nights under the covers with a flashlight, long after my sister in the next bed was fast asleep, reliving those adventures again and again. I never tired of those stories and I have never outgrown admiring the clever, fearless, limitless-possibilities heroine. So I dedicate this blog to her, Ms. Drew, who put into motion a life long devotion to searching for, finding, and following this wonderful literary creature.

After Nancy, I found Miss Marple from Agatha Christie but she didn’t capture my imagination. She was an old nosy busybody and I found the writing stilted. I yearned for role models I could relate to. It wasn’t until the early 1980’s that I discovered them.

It began with An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, a novel published in 1972 by the amazing P.D. James. I actually first saw the 1982 British Film. It recounts the story of young courageous Cordelia Gray, the surviving partner in a detective agency who gets her first case after her (male) partner’s suicide. Then came The Skull beneath the Skin,  Cordelia's next adventure and a delightfully gruesome and compelling one. James then went on to write her most celebrated series of literate detective novels starring policeman and poet Adam Dalgliesh. I’ve read them all but really loved Cordelia.

One of over 200
I had also learned in the intervening years that Carolyn Keene, author of the Nancy Drew series, was in fact one Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate book packaging* firm. Stratemeyer was the first book packager to create books for the children’s market and his work included The Hardy Boys and The Bobbsey Twins books – Nan, Bert, Flossie and Freddie! These books were a huge financial success. I felt rather betrayed by this since I had imagined and dreamt of Carolyn as sweet old clever witty doyen. I began to look more carefully for real women mystery writers.

* These are different from book publishers. Book-packaging companies act as a liaison between a publishing company and the writers, researchers, editors, and printers that design and produce the book, combining the roles of agent, editor, and publisher. Book-packaging is common today in books aimed at pre-teens and teenagers. The Goosebumps series is a great example.

After P.D. James, came Ruth Rendell and Ngaio Marsh. Ngaio’s detective, Roderick Alleyn appears in all 34 of her books but it wasn’t until he marries the painter Agatha Troy that I got hooked. She helps Roderick solve crimes and many stories revolve around the theatre. Ruth Rendell’s stories often revolve around women’s issues and how women’s roles have changed in society.

Magnificent Mirren 
On television I soaked up Honey West and her beauty mark, Cagney and Lacey, the great lioness Jane Tennison on The Prime Suspect Series, and skeptical Dana Scully on the X Files-- all modern versions of Nancy and friends.

Today we have female detectives and mystery writers everywhere from all walks of life. There’s Sara Paretsky’s Chicago-based V.I. Warshawski who jogs, has a dog, revels in her Polish working-class roots and succeeds in unearthing corporate corruption usually at some physical peril. These are well written tales as are Batya Gur’s Israeli based stores. Her tales are full of Jews but unlike Faye Kellerman’s Murder in the Mikvah series – as I call them, her detective studied history and literature at Cambridge and his unfinished doctoral dissertation on Medieval guilds remains on his introspective and cerebral mind. Faye’s work is fluff, Batya’s is meaningful literature, but there clearly is room for both.

Is there a 4th one?

Nick, Nora & Asta

There’s Sue Grafton’s spunky Kinsey Milhone, memorialized in the ABC series beginning with A is for Alibi. (I made it to P and got bored.)  Patricia Cornwell introduced me to Virginia’s Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta who manages to solve the unsolvable in her series.  Steig Larson's gave us the painful and unforgettable Lisbeth Salander in a posthumous series that has captivated the world. I must include Precious Ramotse, a rather large, jovial lady who runs a private detective agency in the Botswanan town of Gaborone using her common sense and strong judge of character, in an absolutely charming series by Alexander McCall Smith. I would be remiss if I didn’t include Anne Perry who writes these wonderfully atmospheric Victorian era mystery novels with detective William Monk and his cynical companion Nurse Hester Latterly or the series with Policeman Thomas Pitt and his wealthy wife Charlotte, the Victorian equivalent of Nick and Nora Charles  -- my absolute favorite duo of dissolute detectives.  

Then there’s Laura Childs and her Chef -- and Sunny Frazier and her Astrologist and for pure cartoon heroism it’s Velma Dinky, the brains behind crew Scooby Doo.  

And of course there is Smilla, my grown up, independent, uncompromising, brilliant and difficult Greenlander with whom I started this journey.  While they all have their place in this pantheon of detection, none rises so high or reaches as deep as my darling Nancy. Ms. Drew was oh-so-resourceful, believed in herself and was my companion under the covers every night, at a time when my world needed to find a girl like me to love. 

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