Jim Huang & Austin Lugar (editors): Mystery Muses

This is the third volume in Crum Creek’s – and Jim Huang’s – very successful succession of books focusing on mystery as a genre. The first one, The 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century, was a compilation of booksellers’ recommendations of favorite mysteries written between 1900-2000. The second volume, They Died in Vain, was a collection of essays by booksellers about books that were unfairly overlooked. And this volume goes right to the source – the authors – to ask them who was an influence on their writing. Contributors Sandy Balzo (Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters), Terence Faherty (Margery Allingham), Sharon Fiffer (Dorothy L. Sayers), as well as editor Jim Huang, will all be visiting Aunt Agatha’s to help launch this unique and entertaining volume. Below is an essay from the book, reprinted here with permission from Elaine Viets and the Crum Creek Press. I felt especially strongly about this one not only because it’s really funny, but also because Nancy Drew started so many mystery readers on a lifelong, enjoyable path. Thanks, Nancy!

Elaine Viets on The Sign of the Twisted Candles by Carolyn Keene (1933)

When I was nine, my mother gave me her Nancy Drew mysteries from the 1930s. She thought they were sweet, safe books. I thought they were like handing a bomb to an anarchist. They blew apart my ordinary life in Florissant, Missouri.

Parents never understand that Nancy was subversive. She had everything we wanted. Her cool dad bought her a car. Her mother was delightfully and distantly dead. She never said “You’re not going out in that getup, young lady!” Instead, Nancy had a motherly housekeeper who gave her good meals, good advice, and no criticism. Her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, was there when she wanted him, but never tried to guilt her into giving it up on the family room couch.

Nancy and her “chums” were exotic. They used words like “quaint” and “ruse”. A dinner started with “jellied consomme” and ended with “nut bread, ice cream, chocolate layer cake”.

I had no idea what jellied consomme was, but I knew it wasn’t served in Florissant. Chums who ate three desserts knew how to live.

While I was in college, Nancy Drew disappeared from my bookshelf. I forgot about the titian haired sleuth – or thought I did. Years later, after I’d written my ninth mystery, I reread Nancy’s ninth mystery, The Sign of the Twisted Candles. I realized that Nancy was still with me.

I write chicklit mysteries. That’s a marketing label for women’s crime fiction. Whatever you call it, Nancy was the forerunner of chicklit. Consider these elements in Twisted:

~ Shopping. A man may blurt out a clue over a beer, but when a woman tries on a dress, she bares all. Shopping is not frivolous. It’s a female bonding ritual. Nancy invites the orphaned Carol into her world with, “Let’s go downtown on a shopping spree!”

~Interrogation Technique. Nancy does her questioning over tea. This cozy approach seems more sensible than the hardboiled method of beating and bullying.

~Women friends. Nancy goes everywhere with her female friends, Bess and George. They give her a mystery, then become part of the problem. They may lose an inheritance if Nancy continues her investigation. Nancy doesn’t abandon her friends in the name of misplaced honor. Chicklit women know men may leave them, but female friendship is forever.

~Cars. Hot cars are a chicklit staple. Nancy drove a roadster first, then late a convertible. Like many chicklit heroines, she has a heavy foot, but she can handle her iron – and change the tires.

~Attitude. Nancy is fearless. She orders around the “suave, sleek” crook Jemitt and attacks his abusive wife “with the speed of a panther”. Critics snicker because the police and other important adults listen to Nancy. But it makes sense. Nancy says at least five times, “My father is Carson Drew, the attorney.” That’s code for “We have money and influence.” Chicklit women know their own power.

~Men. Both Nancy’s father and her boyfriend are supportive. Chicklit women wouldn’t have it any other way. After a night with kidnappers and crooks, Ned says, “One thing that makes you so interesting, Nancy, is that I never know, when I ask you out, what mystery will come our way!”

There’s more – enough to fill a novel, or in my case, nine novels. And it’s not just me. In women’s crime fiction, a sarcastic male always asks the heroine, “Who do you think you are, Nancy Drew?”

The answer is yes.

Reprinted with permission of Elaine Viets and the Crum Creek Press.