The Hidden Staircase
Back before cell phones existed and women were apt to sit anxiously at home by the phone waiting for news, Nancy Drew went zipping through her Midwestern town in her sporty blue convertible – from the scene of a burglary or a supposedly haunted house to the local police station – to deliver the evidence she had found in person. Refreshingly, the police appreciated her independent, take-charge nature: “The way you’re building up clues, if you were on my force, I’d recommend a citation for you!” Captain Rossland of Cliffwood tells her in The Hidden Staircase.
And though at the beginning of the mystery, he is apt to tell Nancy things like, “I doubt that there is anything you can do. You’d better leave it to the police,” Captain Rossland soon learns to take advantage of Nancy’s many talents, imploring the “girl detective” to question the suspects that the police have been able to break. “You may not know it, but you’re a very persuasive lady young lady. I believe that you might be able to get information out of both Harry and Greenman, where we have failed,” he tells her.
Of course, Nancy responds with modesty but agrees to try – and succeeds in obtaining a confession from each of the suspects within minutes. She’s both humble and shrewd – both a proper lady and a feminist, in other words. The popular concept of feminism today would consider that to be a bit of a paradox, but I don’t see why intelligence and heroism can’t be paired with good fashion sense and a “feminine” appreciation of beauty. If Nancy Drew (and Buffy Summers, of Vampire Slayer fame) can be both a hero and a traditional “girl,” why can’t we all?
And this is one of the reasons that I love Nancy Drew novels – because somehow, Nancy manages to be it all and makes it look easy. Of course, the ease with which Miss Drew stumbles upon clues, receives the indulgence of the police, and obtains confessions is a bit difficult to swallow if you’re older than ten or eleven. When I reread the Nancy Drew novels now, I have to adopt a determination to ignore all the unlikely scenarios and plot holes, not to mention a willingness to accept all the one-dimensional characters. But when I’ve had a hard couple of weeks and I need a break from “real literature” – stories about people living in poverty-stricken parts of the world or dealing with heartbreak of one kind or another – I pick up a Nancy Drew. She’s at least as good as a super-hero, and maybe even better – she has time to don a gay party frock and attend sorority dances and other high society events in between excursions to haunted mansions and exotic locations. She’s Bruce Wayne (Batman) for the feminists out there who are looking for a good time.
In The Hidden Staircase, which is the second Nancy Drew mystery story and was published in its original form in 1930 but rewritten in the 1950s, Nancy even gets to solve a case for her father. Mr. Drew is a prominent lawyer, but Nancy has to rescue him after he has been kidnapped by his enemies. After she traipses all over an American Colonial estate, searching for hidden passages and burglars, she discovers where the swindlers have hidden her father. And after he recovers from being drugged and held prisoner, the supportive Carson Drew isn’t embarrassed that his daughter has had to save his skin: “It’s a real victory for you!” Nancy’s father praised his daughter proudly. So you can see that Nancy is lucky enough to live in a world where men respect her and acquiesce to her higher intelligence and innate capabilities. Forget romance stories – this is my kind of wish fulfillment novel. In my opinion, we should all be raising our daughters on a steady reading diet of Nancy Drew.