Book review: ‘The Mystery of Nancy Drew, Girl Sleuth on the Couch’

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By Sally Carpenter

What does Nancy Drew have in common with fairy tales, virgin goddess and Jungian psychology? Quite a lot, actually.

I found this book by a happy accident years before I began writing mysteries. I wasn’t even a Nancy Drew devotee. I saw the book on a shelf when I was browsing in Catholic bookstore in Chicago and on a whim bought the book.

The author is Betsy Caprio, a Jungian psychologist. In an engaging manner she examines the psyche of the girl sleuth. Despite Nancy’ constant upbeat manner, she has a dark side that craves adventure and danger. In fact, according to Caprio, Nancy displays many characteristics of an adult child of an alcoholic!

The Drew books play out several universal archetypes: the virgin goddess comprised of strong feminine energy and who is complete without a man; the fairytale princess who is always young, beautiful, and dresses in lovely clothes; the eternal teenager who never ages and is free of the responsibilities of school, job and family; and the paradise setting of River Heights, squeaky clean on the surface but possessing a dark underworld of crime.

Caprio gives a brief history of Nancy’s creation in 1930 by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the publishing firm that also produced the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift Jr. and more than a hundred wildly popular juvenile adventure series. Over the decades the Drew books have gone through numerous ghostwriters, changes in Nancy’s character and story elements, various cover designs and even complete revisions of the older titles.

Caprio demonstrates how the Drew stories follow the “hero’s journey/quest,” a storytelling format dating back to ancient epics and legends. Simply put, the journey has: Invitation to the Quest (Nancy is asked to solve a mystery); Road of Trials with warnings, foes and helpers; “Death” Experience (Nancy is tied up, imprisoned or stranded), and Rebirth with order restored, a reward/gift for Nancy and glorification of the heroine.

Caprio ends her book by showing readers how they can be a “detective” and search for “clues” in understanding their own life’s journey using Jungian psycho-spiritual development.

The book is full of illustrations from Drew books through the years, showing how the girl sleuth has changed in appearance.

Some fans may not appreciate the negative aspects of Nancy’s personality, but to me this helps to balance the girl’s annoying cheerfulness and incessant do-gooding.

The book is full of insights into the elements that comprise a good mystery and a multi-layered heroine. I plan to reread the book soon to find tidbits I can add to my own writing.

Caprio’s book is out of print, but used and new copies can be found on Amazon and possibly in used book stores.

8 thoughts on “Book review: ‘The Mystery of Nancy Drew, Girl Sleuth on the Couch’

  1. Loved this, Sally. Way back when I read Nancy Drew (eons ago) I just read them for fun. Isn’t it interesting how something so simple can be analyzed like this? (Guess the books weren’t so simple after all.)


  2. Great post, Sally, and a terrific follow-up to yesterday’s Sisters in Crime/LA meeting which featured James Keeline, an expert on the Stratemeyer Syndicate. I was always a Nancy Drew fan, but as a kid I never thought about the stories being other than good entertainment. I suppose, in a way, all mysteries are versions of the hero’s quest, especially those with a hero or heroine seeking to find a holy grail, the answer to a mystery, and/or the defeat of the forces of evil.


    1. The meeting was great, wasn’t it? The hero’s quest works because it provides suspense (how with the hero reach the goal) and provides a satisfying conclusion (hero achieves goal).


  3. I love the idea of a Jungian analysis of a fictional character. I suppose the author is really the one on the sofa though. I’m curious, does Caprio see the use of the quest as intentional or not?


    1. Good question, Jane. I haven’t read the book in a while so I’m not sure what Caprio thought about the quest, but my guess is the writers didn’t deliberately think about it; they probably just knew the quest instinctively from other books they had read or written. Hero’s quest is so common one can find it in many types of writing and even TV shows/movies.


  4. That’s interesting information about Nancy! I loved the books as a kid and think it is what started my love of mysteries. Good post, Sally!


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