Well, well, well, even at my time in life there’s still much to be learned. For instance, I did not know that Carolyn Keene, author of the Nancy Drew mysteries, wasn’t an actual person but instead a syndicate a la the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators authors (the key difference being that they never put any author name on the cover).
Additionally, I did not know that the first 34 Nancy Drew books, published between 1930 and 1956, were revised by other ghostwriters from 1959 in order to amend the characters and adjust their attitudes perhaps a little more sympathetically. Much like Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947) by Freeman Wills Crofts, this bespeaks of a growing sense of what was to be achieved in the writing of novels for readers in the age group now generally categorised as either YA or MG depending on which side of the Atlantic you hail from (editor’s note: other countries are available).
So before we even get to the book itself there’s already a lot to unpack.
The Secret of the Old Clock (1930) is, then, the first ever Nancy Drew mystery, written by Mildred Wirt Benson who — much like Robert Arthur with the Three Investigators — was responsible for the first slew of Drews. My edition pictured above is the Grosset & Dunlap 1998 printing of a text revised by Harriet Adams in 1959 and so it is this later version of the book that is the focus of today’s post. For the curious, a rundown of the differences of the two editions can be found at Wikipedia.
As with Crofts’ novel, this edition contains several original drawings that I’ll use to illustrate this post, and there’s the additional similarity that once again the artist is uncredited (and the pictures unsigned), so I’d value any insight anyone can offer. I doubt these pictures were the from the original 1930 edition because some of them feature aspects of the plot which seem to have been added by Adams, and to me there’s something indefinably 1950s rather than 1930s about them — the clothes and the haircuts all feel to my mind more aptly placed in that later decade — though, as ever, I’d love to be corrected if this surmise is in error.
As for the plot…well, there we come down to one’s definition of ‘plot’. A series of events happen to a cast of characters who crop up one more than one occasion, but really that’s only the basest attempt at plotting anything. This is really rather more of an aimless meander through a set of closely-packed happenings that steer Nancy towards a conclusion that she’d never otherwise reach, plotting by deus ex machina, even if the “young sleuth” does come out of it rather better than that description would imply. We’ll not kid ourselves that this is some sort of pre-feminist tract but, once you take away the elements of this book which have not made their presence felt as positively as they might, its portrayal of Nancy actually gives us a young, proactive woman who would have probably been something of a progressive idea at the time.
It all starts when Nancy, driving “her new, dark blue convertible” sees a young girl wander out into the road ahead of a truck. The girl is miraculously unharmed, and Nancy intervenes long enough to return her to her guardians — a pair of elderly sisters who realise the truck drivers have robbed them under the guise of buying some furniture. The sisters, see, are hard up, having expected a windfall from an elderly relative in his will only for his estate to be revealed as left to the wealthy (and, by implication, less deserving) relatives with who he lived for the final few years of his life. Nancy is intrigued, and proceeds to run into just about everyone in the world who knows this story and has an opinion on the will and its validity.
As a mystery, it falls rather flat, since Nancy is so gosh-darned privileged and self-righteous that everything simply bends before her when it’s not busy falling in her path. Case in point: chapter 3 is called An Unpleasant Meeting, and in it we know Nancy and her legal eagle father have conspired to meet with another lawyer who it is rumoured might know something about this will and the family behind it. The unpleasantness of this meeting, then, should come when Mr. Drew asks his fellow professional to divulge legally-privileged information about the existence and contents of a rumoured later will that would see the money go to other people and this second legal gentleman rebukes him for making unethical demands, and refuses to help. Not so. Instead he looks around the restaurant, leans in and goes “Well, Roger, just between me, you, and your highly-inquisitive eighteen year-old daughter, here is the exact information you want…”. Then Nancy bumps into the snotty teenagers who are due to inherit the money and they rip a dress in a shop that Nancy is able to then purchase at a knock-down price — and that is the unpleasant meeting.
This sort of thing pays off time and again: upon learning that she needs an excuse to go out to the isolated location where the family in question have a holiday home, she is immediately invited in the next paragraph to a summer camp that’s literally on the opposite shore of the lake she wants to visit. And the mystery reaches fever pitch about a third of the way in when an elderly lady who thinks she might remember something about another will is suddenly caught transfixed — in the middle of talking about how the will could be hidden somewhere — by the sight of an old clock, but then can’t think why this might be relevant. And the book is called The Secret of the Old Clock. Hmmm, what do we think, gang? “There must be some clue I’ve overlooked” Nancy thinks to herself at some point…and, well, for the frank defamation of the word “clue” I may never forgive this series.
Part of the difficulty I have, too, is that the people Nancy is acting for — the good folk who just want to money for decent reasons, rather than the bad folk who want to money simply to have more money to buy dresses and shoes — want the money for things like singing lessons from a world-famous vocal coach and to go on round the world cruises. Mary and Edna Turner wanting financial security to provide for young Judy is laudable, but the others are as avaricious in their own way as the people we’re meant to root against. And, yes, it’s a book for young ‘uns, I know, but what to them is future financial security? The one motive herein that encourages any sympathy will be lost on anyone who thinks being taught to sing is laudable as a reason for need lots and lots of ready lucre.
Much woolgathering ensues, with everyone imagining how wonderful life would be if they had money and Nancy feeling it oh-so-keenly despite her huge house, loving father who is able to give her a car, attentive and caring housekeeper who loves her like a daughter, and middle class friends who can invite her at no cost to stay at their conveniently-located summer retreat. YA fiction from this era was certainly not a champion of the underdog, it has to be said: it was a few years yet before the comfortably-off children of middle class families stopped being the child protagonist of choice. There’s a point of sociological perception to be made here and, even though this is not the blog to make it, it’s a fascinating study to consider how many adventures in books seemed to be the preserve of the what-ho jolly rowing and Cook has made us all some sandwiches crowd. Identity and representation gets less necessary in reading as one ages, but it’s easy to believe that — for all the efforts made with these early YA books — a lack of relatability in this era put more than a few youger readers off.
Nancy, though, is actually quite likeable. Oh, sure, others may complain she’s rather too much of a Mary-Sue, but I admire the unshowy practicality with which she replaces car tyres, fixes boat motors, pursues lorrys down dirt tracks, and throws herself into said lorry for a spot of felonious search-and-pilfer while the men who are responsible for the initial theft eat nearby. The slightly more thrillerish elements of this work very well, in fact: Nancy confronting thieves only to be locked in a wardrobe (attempting to pick the lock with a bobby pin being about the only thing she fails to do successfully in the entire narrative…) and then escape, rush to the police, and give chase. It’s a great little sequence which brings the determination of the character to the fore and at least partially vindicates the interest that was shown in these books — I can’t believe there was much like this around in 1930, children (and particularly girls, if Enid Blyton and her peers are anything to go by) typically seen and not heard when this sort of endeavour came a-calling.
This is another wonderful glimpse into the origins of this sort of undertaking, however, and all the more fascinating for the chimerical way it was then reworked so as to better fit (one presumes) the expectations of the young boys and girls whose needs had become more keenly understood in the years between Nancy’s genesis and rebranding. If she was yuppified slightly to raise her appeal above that of the rabble, the nevertheless remains the core principle of helping others in a selfless way (however misguidedly that principle emerges in the text), and in going about this in an independently-minded, determined, and rigorous way I can well believe the character will have paved a lot of roads for much that was to follow.