The Way They Were : Publisher Hopes to Recapture Audience With Original Nancy Drew Books


Nancy Drew was blond and pretty, also smart and independent--a teen-ager who had her own car and solved mysteries with her girlfriends, George and Bess, and her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson. She had a perfect dad, the distinguished attorney Carson Drew, who discussed his cases with her, encouraged her and never interfered.

As for Frank and Joe--the Hardy Boys--they were high school guys who loved baseball and motorcycles. They were loyal and respectful and they liked their parents. Who could blame them? Their father was the “internationally famous detective” Fenton Hardy. Their mother was a “petite, pretty” homemaker.

First released in the 1920s, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books became a publishing industry phenomenon. Although both series were radically changed in 1959--some fans say gutted--to modernize them, the books continued to do fabulously well. The Drew mysteries have sold 80 million copies since Nancy first drove her sporty blue roadster around River Heights. Simon & Schuster, which bought the rights to the two series in 1984, is still churning out new tales, with the Hardy Boys books numbering 108 mysteries and Nancy Drew 101.


Still, the books written after 1959 don’t evoke the same sense of nostalgia in people of a certain age. Hoping to cash in on that, Applewood Books, a tiny reprint house in Boston, is reissuing the original versions of the first three books of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series.

“The Tower Treasure,” the reprint of the first Hardy Boys book, will appear this week. “The Secret of the Old Clock,” the first Nancy Drew mystery, will be out Sept. 15. Each is $12.95. (The originals reportedly sold for 50 cents.)

The 1959 modernization resulted in strikingly different versions of the books. Some changes were minor, even silly (Nancy’s hair color went from blond to titian; her roadster became a convertible. The Hardy Boys play tennis instead of baseball; their roadster became a jalopy). But the overall result is a simplification of the language and condensation of the plots. Out went the big words, along with any semblance of detail and emotional depth.

Applewood publisher Phil Zuckerman has two young sons, and he says it was while reading a Hardy Boys book with 6-year-old Andy that he came up with idea of reissuing the originals. Compared to his own memory of the series, he says, “something seemed very vapid about this book.”

Zuckerman says he believes the changes came about because Grosset & Dunlap, for years the publisher for both series, was afraid that it was losing its place in the market. The Stratemeyer Syndicate, which was responsible for writing and editing the books, agreed to revamp them.

“By creating a new product, they also made the other books out of date,” Zuckerman says. “It was a great marketing strategy, because it really revitalized the series.”

Zuckerman is betting that the same strategy--in reverse--can work again. Given a choice, he says, people will want the real thing.

However, bringing back the stories in their original form is not all sweet nostalgia. The Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys stories of recent years have been purged of sexual and racial stereotypes. The Applewood versions will contain the early text--complete with the sometimes-offensive racial language of their time.

For instance, in “The Secret of the Old Clock,” Nancy has been locked inside a closet by robbers. She is desperately trying to escape, when a heavy body suddenly hurls itself against the door. It’s Jeff Tucker, the family’s “colored caretaker,” who speaks in dialect and, the passage observes, has had “a bit too much to drink.”

Although there has been no public outcry, Zuckerman says he has been taking considerable heat from people he knows over the books’ treatment of minorities. Even the librarian in his small, liberal hometown of Bedford, Mass., has demanded to know why he is bringing the books back.

A soft-spoken man of 40, Zuckerman says he is sensitive to the concerns. Nonetheless, he strongly believes that the literary superiority of the old books far outweighs their disturbing stereotypes. In his view, the incidents aren’t pervasive, and books should not be altered to be politically correct.

“There are times when you read along and sort of wince; it seems so out of character with what somebody would say today,” he says. “But this is really a reflection of popular culture in its time.”

Hoping to head off criticism, Applewood is including an introductory note in the books explaining why the stereotypes and dialect were preserved.

“Our intention,” Zuckerman emphasizes, “is not to proliferate something that is evil.”

Controversy notwithstanding, Applewood expects the books to be a hit. The company is targeting adults in its ad campaign, hoping to capture the huge market of baby boomers who fondly remember the series and now have children of their own.

“Our program is really based on people’s longings for the past,” Zuckerman says. “They’re very comfortable books; they really do pull on the heartstrings in setting the scenery of long ago. In some ways they’re examples of what people mean about returning to the past.”

Then and Now

Comparing the first lines of Nancy Drew’s “The Secret of the Old Clock”:

“It would be a shame if all that money went to the Tophams! They will fly higher than ever!”

Nancy Drew, a pretty girl of sixteen, leaned over the library table and addressed her father who sat reading a newspaper by the study lamp.

“I beg your pardon, Nancy. What were you saying about the Tophams?”

Carson Drew, a noted criminal and mystery-case lawyer, known far and wide for his work as a former district attorney, looked up from his evening paper and smiled indulgently upon his only daughter . . . .

--from the 1930 copyright version

Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible. She had just delivered some legal papers for her father.

“It was sweet of Dad to give me this car for my birthday,” she thought. “And it’s fun to help him in his work.”

Her father, Carson Drew, a well-known lawyer in their home town of River Heights, frequently discussed puzzling aspects of cases with his blond, blue-eyed daughter.

Smiling, Nancy said to herself, “Dad depends on my intuition . . . .

--from the 1987 copyright version