Slick new image for good old Nancy Drew. Old-fashioned girl sleuth gets a trendy makeover

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

``The attraction between them crackled like electricity.'' Attraction? Electricity? Between Nancy Drew and a guy she meets on a case? It took 30 years for Nancy to kiss her longtime beau, Ned Nickerson. Now, she daydreams about Ned's ``gently curving mouth,'' and (gasp!) falls for this new guy.

What is this?

It's Nancy Drew circa 1986.

Recommended: 3 noteworthy new young adult books

The new Nancy Drew uses credit cards, goes to rock concerts, and says things like, ``Let's go pig out,'' and ``Be cool.'' Her frock has been replaced by a short, ``electric'' blue skirt and ankle boots; her trusty roadster by a snazzy Mustang GT convertable. Instead of seeing what's behind hidden staircases, she's now getting blackmail messages on videotape and tackling record piracy in Manhattan.

Once America's favorite girl sleuth, Nancy Drew starred in the juvenile book series that enthralled girl readers from the 1930s through at least the 1950s with her independence, forthrightness, clear thinking under pressure, and ability to serve justice in a multitude of wild plots.

She has, however, been found a little tame and out of date for modern teen readers more accustomed to ``Sweet Valley High,'' according to publisher Simon & Schuster's juvenile division. So she's being refitted for the '80s.

This is a new Nancy Drew. Not just a revision, it's a whole new series, aimed at 11- to 14-year-olds. It's called the Nancy Drew Files, to avoid confusion with the original series for 8- to 11-year-olds which the company will also continue to publish in paperback. So far, the company has issued Nancy Drew Files Cases 1 and 2, and will continue to crank out one a month.

More romance, more action, more emphasis on the characters, contemporary settings, and up-to-date language is what Simon & Schuster is going for, says senior editor Ann Greenberg.

The basics are still there: Nancy still lives in tony River Heights, with her widowed father, ``the noted lawyer,'' Carson Drew, and faithful housekeeper Hannah Gruen. She still pals around with her friends George and Bess, and dates stalwart Ned Nickerson. But much else has been changed to reflect '80s concerns. Formerly ``tomboyish'' George is now ``into fitness.'' Perenially weight-conscious Bess eats frozen yogurt. Nancy's father, who used to have a cane, now jogs and dates.

The changes are more than cosmetic updating. This Nancy is more sexually aware, as the aforementioned ``electric'' attraction indicates. Which leads one to ask a question that never would have shadowed the reputuation of the earlier Miss Drew: How far will Nancy go?

``Not very far,'' says Ms. Greenberg. ``Nancy was created moral, honest, trustworthy, and law-abiding. I don't think we've changed that.''

``She's still pure as gold,'' says Ron Buehl, publisher of Simon & Schuster's juvenile division. ``She's still a good role model. But now the reader is far more sophisticated, and romance plays a bigger role.''

Nancy also has some other new feelings: anger, jealousy, and insecurity. In Case 1 of the new series, ``Secrets Can Kill,'' for example, ``Nancy felt like throwing the last slice of pizza at her and watching the tomato sauce ooze down Brenda's black suede boots, but she held herself back.'' In ``Deadly Intent'' (Case 2), Nancy accuses Bess's rocker boyfriend of lying before she ever hears his side of the story. And in that one she pleads for her life, something new for the usually confident detective.

``Instead of Nancy knowing all the time what has to be done, she experiences doubts, mulls things over,'' Greenberg says. ``We've taken a little bit of perfection away to give her more dimensions and make her more human.''

But so far, the emphasis on character relationships seems more important than intricately designed plots and escapes. The first two books have nothing nearly as satisfying as Nancy's escape in the ``The Silver Cobweb,'' (No. 71), where she gets herself out of a locked warehouse. She focuses the magnifying glass (that she just happened to be carrying in her purse) on a sunbeam which ignites a crumpled piece of paper. That sets off the fire alarm, which brings the firemen and rescue. Books later in the series promise more hair-raising escapes, says Greenberg; The Nancy Drew Files number 8 will have an ingenious escape from a sauna.

There's more emphasis on violence in the new series: The first four books have murder, killing, or deadly in the title, something rarely if ever seen in the old titles. ``There's definitely more menace in the new series,'' Greenberg says. ``Since the old ones came out, so many things have been done on TV and in movies, I don't think we'd be convincing if these books were as tame as they used to be.''

The girl who can pull a plane out of a spin, (``The Sky Phantom'') follow a trail into a slimy, spider-infested celler, (``The Secret in the Old Attic'') and climb the face of a rock (``Broken Anchor'') -- tame?

Well, sometimes, yes. The scary stuff was often too easily explainable, the language stilted. No one ever said the series was great literature; libraries looked down on the books, considering their plots formulaic and mediocre. The New York Public Library didn't even carry them until the mid-70s.

The mysteries were churned out by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a kind of fiction factory run by prolific writer Edward Stratemeyer, who created 70 different series, including ``The Hardy Boys,'' the ``Bobbsey Twins,'' and ``Tom Swift.''

Under various pseudonyms, (Carolyn Keene, for the Nancy Drew books), he would create the plot outline and farm out the fleshing out to a stable of writers. Upon his death, his daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams continued the Nancy Drew series until her death in 1982.

The Nancy Drew series was written to a precise formula: Grab 'em on the first page (``Bang!'') keep the middle a mixture of suspense, adventure, and humor, and make the chapter endings cliff-hangers (``Hannah Gruen was lying motionless on the floor!'').

Mr. Stratemeyer's quoted motto was, ``I've found out what my audience likes, and I'm going to give it to them.'' The result -- more than 60 million books sold in 56 years -- was a series that attempted to reflect its times and audience.

The current changes are nothing new; the series has been updated all along. Dialogue, hairstyles, and fashions have been updated periodically, and anti-Semitic and racist stereotypes have been removed. In the late '50s, Adams and gang began to rewrite the earlier books, bringing them up to date, so much so that sometimes only the title was the same as the original.

The new series employs all new writers. Simon & Schuster, which had the paperback rights to the series since 1979, bought the entire Stratemeyer Syndicate operation in 1984.

``The Nancy Drew marketing campaign is just beginning,'' says Buehl. ``It's a big market. Young adult books account for millions and millions of copies in paper backs.''

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