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Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew Goes to College

April 16, 1993

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ Nancy Drew, girl sleuth, has solved mysteries for six decades. Now, at a perpetual 18, she’s going to college.

The University of Iowa in Iowa City is holding a conference devoted to Nancy Drew this weekend. Hundreds have signed up, many claiming the clever, titian-haired teen-ager who tooled around in a roadster with her chums, tomboy George and plump, pretty Bess, was the inspiration of their lives.

″Nancy certainly isn’t the only literature for kids where the girl is independent and smart, but she’s the first one who was widely available and widely read,″ said organizer Carolyn Stewart Dyer.

″A lot of people who are coming are in their 40s or 50s or 60s. When they were kids, there weren’t a lot of things that said, ’Women can do things.‴

It was a 1927 University of Iowa graduate, Mildred Augustine Benson, who shaped the title character in the first Nancy Drew mystery, ″The Secret of the Old Clock,″ in 1930.

The plot was furnished by a publishing syndicate, ″but it was a very short, routine type of plot, you know, something hidden in an old clock - that’s an idea as old as the hills,″ Ms. Benson, a newspaper columnist in Toledo, Ohio, said in a radio interview.

″There was no suggestion whatsoever as to the character, so I made Nancy a sort of perfect person, someone who never made any mistakes.″

The publisher wasn’t impressed and didn’t think it would sell. He was wrong.

Ms. Benson, who will attend the conference but who will not divulge her age, wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books, all under the nom de plume Carolyn Keene. Now, there are more than 100 titles such as ″Clue in the Old Album″ and ″The Scarlet Slipper Mystery,″ with more than 80 million copies sold.

″She still sells well. I restock her every weekend,″ said Jody Speer, manager of children’s books for Borders Book Shop in West Des Moines. ″We get a lot of people who come in and tell their kids, ‘I read that, you’ll like it.’ And they do. There aren’t that many strong female characters in literature.″

The formula is the same as that of the Hardy Boys series, Speer said: ″She sees a mystery before anybody else does and has a hard time convincing anyone that there’s something wrong. Kids are smarter than the adults in most of these books; I think that’s part of the appeal.″

Up to now, Nancy Drew, while arguably an American literary icon, hasn’t received much scholarly attention. Dyer said part of that is because Nancy is a girl.

″We talk about baseball cards, Little League history, comic books, ‘Star Trek,’ and some of those things include girls,″ Dyer said. ″But there’s very little attention paid to what it is that girls did, what forms their character.″

The idea for a Nancy Drew conference came about last year when the university’s journalism school named Ms. Benson to its hall of fame.

″We were besieged with calls, cornered at parties; people would tell us their stories about Nancy Drew. They all said they were inspired to be curious and relentless because of her,″ Dyer said.

The three-day convention features Nancy Drew movies, readings, lectures and discussions.

″She never went to college, so to go to the University of Iowa, she would be exhilarated,″ said university spokesman Eric Van Daanen. ″This would be big time for Nancy Drew.″

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