Heirloom Histories: Sharing A Good Mystery

Story and Photos by C.L. Shoemaker

I don’t remember the exact day or month I came across the old, yellow hard covered books in my search for something to read. Perhaps I was looking through a box in my mother’s closet or came across the books after a move, but their old, worn spines intrigued me. I knew they were vintage and that was enough to pique my interest. Titles with mysterious names graced the faded yellow spines and the front covers sported beautiful old-fashioned images of a blond girl in a dress, shadowy figures and mysterious locked boxes.

I looked over a few of them, flipping through the yellowed pages and eventually searched out my mom to ask about the strange box of books.

Author’s collection.

“They’re mysteries honey,” she replied. When I pressed for details, my mom glanced up from where she was prepping dinner in the kitchen. She smiled and walked over to inspect the rediscovered treasures. “They’re the Nancy Drew series,” she explained.

“Nancy? Hey mom, that’s your name.”

My mom chuckled. “Yes. It is. Those were my books when I was little.”

That was the only invitation I required to pepper my mother with question: what was she like when she was my age, what was her favourite Nancy book, when had she purchased her books and could I read them? It was also the beginning of a lifelong love of Nancy Drew and all things mystery.

At the end of the day, my mom and I would often curl up in what we called “the big bed” (my parents’ bed) and read Nancy Drew. I knew once I was washed and in my pjs a chapter, or two or three awaited. I think it was my mother’s genius way to get her night owl of a daughter into bed. Only once I was washed, brushed and ready for sleep could we crack open the old spines and delve into a mystery filled with car chases, lock picking, old houses, secret passageways and missing family treasures.

Hand-made candle by the author.

Through the pages of Nancy Drew, I was introduced to an intelligent sleuth who was loyal to her friends, unwavering in the face of danger, helpful to others and who loved her sporty blue roadster. As I grew, I continued to read with my mother, collecting more of the vintage hard cover yellow book to complete her collection. We poured over the different storylines, examined the beautiful ink sketches inside the books and admired the lovely painted covers. As we collected more of the classic books, we discovered altered prints and re-prints, different art designs from the 30s, 50s and 70s, and learned more about the series’ history.

The Nancy Drew series was created by Edward Stratemeyer and crafted for girls. A formulaic mystery series about a teenage sleuth, the first book, The Secret of the Old Clock, was originally published in April of 1930. The original seven books were written by Mildred A. Wirt under the pen name Carolyn Keene. She would later return to the series to pen books eleven The Clue of the Broken Locket through to twenty-five The Ghost of Blackwood Hall and her last book, number thirty, The Clue of the Velvet Mask. Additional ghost writers included Walter Karig (books 8-10), George Waller Jr. (26), Margaret Scherf (27), Wilhelmina Rankin (28), Alma Sasse (29), Harriot S. Adams (31, 33-56) and Charles Strong (32). Nancy Drew has never been out of print since her conception in 1930 although her books were updated in the late 50s and 60s for the reading public.

Katie Photo3
Original 1936 (Russell Tandy) The Mystery of the Ivory Charm. Photo credit: Katie Zwart

With over eighty years in print the books have gone through different publications and art designs. The earlier mysteries usually have three art prints from the 30s, 50s and late 60s. Whereas books from the late 40s onwards tend to have only two cover prints from the 40s and 60s or the 60s and 70s depending on the book’s original publication date. From book 35 The Haunted Showboat onwards there appears to be only one cover art print per book painted by Rudy Nappi. Russell Tandy created the beautiful original cover art for the first twenty-six books from 1930-1949. His successor Bill Gillies updated Tandy’s original covers for 1950s re-prints and provided original covers from 1950-1952 for books 27-29. Following Gillies, Rudy Nappi took over, finishing the remainder of the fifty-six book series.

Rudy Nappi is responsible for the gorgeous 60s and 70s artwork displayed on the books from number eleven Nancy’s Mysterious Letter (1968) until the last classic book number fifty-six The Thirteenth Pearl. With the early book covers Nappi provided updated designs generally for covers from the 40s-50s that he would redesign for a 60s or 70s re-print (e.g. Bill Gillies 1950s Sign of the Twisted Candle was updated by Nappi in 1968). To my knowledge the only book that has four unique pieces of cover art is The Clue of the Broken Locket with four covers by Russell Tandy (1934), Bill Gillies (1950), Rudy Nappi (1962) and again Rudy Nappi (1965). I’m still searching out books with original Russell Tandy artwork for my collection.

In my search into all things Nancy I discovered the Nancy Drew computer games by Her Interactive (32 to date), the 1970s TV series starring Pamela Sue Martin and started collecting other items pertaining to the teenage sleuth. Regardless of how old I became, Nancy Drew always brought my mom and I together. We bonded over our love of an intrepid teenage detective created at a time when female heroines weren’t generally daring, independent or well versed in martial arts. Through Nancy we were able to share an adventure, use our brains to untangle a mystery, and determine who did it before the last chapter.

During middle school I put my Nancy Drew sleuthing skills to the test when I came across a coat in the lost and found. Inside the pocket was a gold bracelet with two engraved initials. Using my detective prowess, I combed the school directory and tracked down a girl with the same initials. I called her and confirmed that she was missing a forest green coat. She had graduated and moved to the high school building which explained why her item went unclaimed. The family was happy to have the coat and bracelet returned. I was proud of using my sleuthing skills for the greater good.

Clues for Real Life (Editor Stephanie Karpinsky), The Secret of the Old Clock (1959, Missing cover)

Years later, on my mother’s birthday, my dad called us out to the front driveway for a surprise. Mom and I were greeted by the sight of a navy blue 1984 Mercedes convertible, a vehicle similar to the convertible Nancy drives in the updated books. My mom was touched by the gift and we discussed having the license plate personalized to NCY DREW. Mom even let me take a girlfriend for a spin in the vintage vehicle. I certainly felt ready to solve a mystery buzzing down the highway in that beauty.

Years have passed, the convertible has since been sold and sadly, my mother passed away during my second year of university. Yet, I still have her Nancy Drew books and the memories of countless hours spent curled up reading a thrilling story together and laughing. My collection which spans two generations and multiple items (books, games and DVDs) constantly reminds me of the most important Nancy in my life, my mother. I hope to pass on my love of this intrepid sleuth and the lessons of my mother to my future children. Until that day, I’ll share my love of Nancy with everyone I meet and encourage people to read a good mystery. It could change your life. At the very least it will encourage you to seek out the mysterious and the wonderful every day. As famous scientist Mr. Albert Einstein notes,

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.”

Author’s mother Nancy, who introduced her to Nancy Drew books and shared her own vintage books.

Sources: The Nancy Drew Unofficial Homepage “The Original Nancy Drew Series” 

Her Interactive

Title Images: The Clue in the Jewel Box ( 1943 Russell Tandy), The Secret in the Old Attic (1944 Tandy)

Corrie Shoemaker is a lecturer and author (historical fiction, mystery, children’s lit and poetry) with a love for all things mystery. She was thrilled to work with the Stratford Festival of Canada and Bard on the Beach (Vancouver) when researching Canadian identity on the Shakespeare stage for her PhD. Corrie has written articles for The Stratford Festival Reviews, Vocamus Press, Guelph Mercury Tribune and Marjorie Magazine. Her children’s fairy tale “Penelope Aurora and the Enchanted Map of Parma” was published with MacroMicrocosm (2014) and her sci-fi story “Operation Reflection” received honours mentioned with the Writers of The Future Contest (2018). Her poetry has been showcased on Canadian radio. Her upcoming novel “The Frenchman’s Daughter” is a historical mystery set in 1890s France and England. You can follow all Corrie’s writing adventures at her website The Write Stuff: Literature with Charm or on Facebook at C.L.Shoemaker.

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