Last week I read my first-ever Nancy Drew mystery. It seemed time to meet the girl whose courage and wits had influenced countless women I admire. Though I heard of her in my teens, I was a Sherlock Holmes snob; why bother with lesser sleuths?
The authors I relished back then, like Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder, transported my imagination into a different time or place. Only later did I get hooked on murder mysteries as a genre. Along with the fun of solving a puzzle, many took me to unfamiliar worlds like Tony Hillerman’s Navajo country or Dana Stabenow’s Alaskan Bush.
My advisor at Oberlin College, Marcia Colish, told me mystery novels were favorite leisure reading among her historian friends. It’s no coincidence. Like mysteries, historical research is a process of finding and assembling seemingly disparate clues into a coherent narrative.
Smart, brave women detectives with a passion for justice abound on library shelves today. I may not devour the rest of the 56 Nancy Drew titles, churned out between 1930 and 1979 by a series of ghostwriters for the same publisher as gave us the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and the Bobbsey Twins. The writing can grate. (“I’ve found it at last!” she thought excitedly.) But no matter. In a culture that taught girls to be timid and hide their brains, Nancy Drew showed a generation of young readers another possibility.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.