The New Nancy Drew… Really? by Heather Haven

Like a lot of mystery writers, I tend to read and view tons of other mysteries, just to see what’s happening and to learn a thing or two. Call it the tools of the trade. Recently, I stumbled across yet another new television series based on the world famous Nancy Drew Series by Carolyn Keene. And there the resemblance ends. I don’t mean to be rude…well, yes, I do… but this is soooooo not Nancy Drew. At least, not the Nancy Drew I grew up with.

As everyone knows, the Nancy Drew of the past is a spirited young woman who lives with her widowed father, Carson Drew, a lawyer, and their trusted housekeeper, Hannah Gruen. These three, despite the generation gap, have a warm and loving relationship. Nancy’s two best friends, George and Bess, as well as her quasi-boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, solve crimes warm and fuzzy. Nancy is a young lady who is strong and self-reliant, with a feel-good crew to back her up. That’s the gal detective I know.

Enter Nancy Drew 2020-21, where these kids look around 26 and act a bad 40. The opening scene of the new television series has her sitting astride her convicted felon boyfriend, Nick, whose real name is Ned Nickerson. They are having sex. Excuse me? After the shock of that, we move onto George. She is supposedly Nancy’s best friend. This George is a belligerent young woman who has just ended the affair she started at 17 years old with a 30-something married man. By the way, she does not like Nancy. They never got along.

Then Bess Marvin shows up. She ‘s in love with a woman posing as a chauffeur who is actually a policewoman. Bess is also a rich family’s poor cousin, literally, but is dying to be a part of this obviously questionable clan. Marvin skeletons are in every closet but they take Bess into the family on the proviso she rat on her new girlfriend. She does.

And these are the lighthearted parts.

Let’s get heavier. Carson Drew, Nancy’s father-knows-best dad, is a dysfunctional man involved in the town’s evil doings and has been for decades. If there’s a murder or dead body, odds are Carson Drew had something to do with it. Just when you hope you might be able to root for him it turns out he’s not Nancy’s real father, but has lied to her about her parentage every step of the way. Add in the paranormal, seances, and some supernatural thing called the Aglaeca, and this storyline gets darker with every episode.

As a writer, I can see how the scriptwriters sought out any idea the protagonist, Nancy Drew, would find challenging. Then they threw it into the story and doubled-down on it. She is betrayed by her father, her lovers, and her friends continually. Even her roadster does her dirty. But to be fair, Nancy may be tortured every step of the way but so is everyone else. They only pause long enough to find a new lover, change partners, or have a séance. Then its off on the next soul-ripping escapade. There is no joy in River Heights, which by the way, has been relocated to Horseshoe Bay… because.

But here’s the kicker. Even though this new series is NOTHING like any Nancy Drew book I’ve ever read, the producers put into the credits the phrase “Based on the Nancy Drew Series by Carolyn Keene.” That started me thinking. What would I do if the producers take the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, currently under option, and make them into a television series nothing like the books? They have already told me if the projects goes, the movies will be a little different. But what is a “little?” And will I care? Can I do anything about it if I did care? The answer to that question is a resounding no. I signed certain rights away to see my stories come alive in another media. And I would probably do it again.

But this may be why Sue Grafton said she would never sell the television or movie rights to her books, I’m thinking. It comes down to the written word versus other media forms. The iconic Nancy Drew series is decades old and has been loved for generations. But that makes it vulnerable. Or is it so endeared by all of us, we don’t give a hoot what anyone tries to do to it? We know the truth. And the truth will set us free.

There’s another truth. Once you put your work out there, out there it is. An offshoot of Jane Austen’s Emma turned into the movie Clueless came off charming. But it might not have. The movie based on Janet Evanovich’s book, One for the Money, was a real dud. And nothing like the book. But the end result is rarely up to the author, alive or dead. You are completely at the mercy of a whole other entity. Maybe the Aglaeca. It’s no wonder so many of us writers have a reputation for drinking. I get it now. Pass the vodka.

Unsolved Crimes and Cold Cases

For a writer, there’s something compelling about a crime that’s never been solved, a case that’s still out there waiting for a solution. Since I write fiction, I can resolve the plot myself. Or at least use those old crimes to add mystery to my own writing.

Take the case of the Zodiac Killer. I’m working on a Jeri Howard book, called The Things We Keep. As things are wont to do when you write mystery fiction, a real-life case collides with Jeri’s fictional investigation.

Type “Zodiac Killer” into your search engine and you’ll get millions of hits.

Zodiac Killer Wanted Poster and Cryptograms

Seven known victims, two of whom survived, are attributed to the Zodiac. The murders occurred between December 1968 and October, 1969. Surviving witnesses described the killer as a man in his 30s.

I say known victims, because there are other murders and disappearances attributed to Zodiac, some going back as far as the early 1960s, others in the early 1970s. However, evidence of his involvement in these murders is sketchy and inconclusive.

The killer sent letters to Bay Area newspaper, taunting the police. Some of the letters included cryptograms. One was solved in 1969. One was solved just last year, after 51 years.

After December 1969, communications from Zodiac were sporadic and sometimes considered spurious. Did the killer stop killing, go somewhere else, or die? The police had a suspect but not enough evidence to charge anyone. That person died in 1992.

The case is still open in San Francisco, as well as the other locations where the Zodiac struck. And the California Department of Justice file is also open.

Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac, the source of the 2007 movie of the same name, is considered the definitive account of the investigations into the murders.

I’m not going to solve this particular puzzle in my novel, but the Zodiac Killer is certainly a looming presence in Jeri’s fictional case.

There’s another unsolved mystery that has fascinated me for decades. From the same era, as it happens.

On March 18, 1969, Thomas Riha vanished. An immigrant from Czechoslovakia, he was an associate professor of Russian history at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He and his wife Hana were in the process of divorcing. She had recently fled their home, claiming that someone was trying to kill her. When Riha disappeared, the house was full of furniture and the table was set for breakfast.

Thomas Riha

The authorities supposedly received assurances that Riha was alive and that he’d left of his own accord. Some people claimed to have seen him in the early 1970s, in Czechoslovakia.

But no one really knows what happened to Thomas Riha, with the possible exception of the CIA, the FBI. And maybe a woman who called herself Galya Tannenbaum.

Galya spun many yarns, claiming to be a secret service agent. She also claimed to know where Riha was. She disposed of his house, car and statuary collection. She was also the beneficiary in the wills of two Denver residents. Both the decedents had died of potassium cyanide poisoning.

District attorneys in Denver and Boulder filed criminal charges against her for forgery. When they searched her Denver house, they found a pound of potassium cyanide—and Thomas Riha’s driver’s license and passport.

Galya had several other names, a prior criminal record for forgery and theft, and a long record of mental instability. In June 1970 a judge found her incompetent to stand trial. She was sent to the state hospital in Pueblo, Colorado.

Eight months later, on March 7, 1971, Galya Tannenbaum committed suicide, using potassium cyanide.

For a mystery writer, this is catnip.

I used a variation of the Riha case in my second Jeri Howard novel, Till The Old Men Die. In that book, a professor at Cal State is definitely dead and Jeri gets involved in finding out who killed him.

Of course, I had to have a mystery woman.

Writing that book scratched the itch, but not entirely. It wasn’t the Riha case, with its echoes of Cold War intrigue and the strange woman who used potassium cyanide. It wasn’t the novel I wanted to write at the time. Real life is messy and sometimes it doesn’t have endings, as a good mystery novel should.

The itch is still there. Thomas Riha and the case of the vanishing professor will figure into a novel sometime in my writing future. I’ve already got a plot in mind!

After publishing the first four Anita Ray mysteries, my publisher ended its mystery line. For many writers the transition to being a hybrid author was easy, but for me it was fraught with frustrations. I moved on to writing another series based in the US and not South India, and limited my work on the India series to putting the first three books into trade paperbacks. That’s about to change.

The fifth Anita Ray has been sitting on my desk (almost literally) for over a year while I focus on other stories (short and novel length), but the time has come. In Sita’s Shadow continues the story of Anita and her Auntie Meena and their hotel guests, who arrive as a large tour (large for Hotel Delite) and take over the little converted home.

Anita Ray and her aunt have a small group of devoted followers who occasionally ask me about the next book. I reply as any ambivalent writer might, mentioning a work in progress, other demands, and lots of mumbling. But the time has come and my ambivalence is once again being challenged.

I am not Indian. My love affair with Asia, and India in particular, began when I was young, a preteen, and continued through high school, college, and into graduate school. I was fortunate enough to live there for a year in 1976 and again in 1981-1982, while writing my dissertation and later doing research. With a PhD in Sanskrit and Indian studies, I’m always eager to learn ore. I’ve returned for monthlong visits almost every year since 1999, but that stopped in 2014 for family medical reasons. 

In the advancing twenty-first century, writers are less likely to tell a story through the mind and heart of a character outside their own personal history and ethnic experience. This is unfortunate because the imagination opens doors—it doesn’t close them—to our understanding of the human experience, and the more we stretch ourselves, the more we grow and the more we have to share with others. When I’m reading a well-written and well-thought-out mystery, I never think about who the author is in relation to the cultural identity of the protagonist or any other character in the story. The story is all that matters to me.

By this spring Anita Ray will once again be chasing down a murderer at Hotel Delite (really, it’s a wonder they still have any business at all, considering the body count) and coping with Auntie Meena’s anxieties over her niece’s unmarried state and shameful obsession with murder. 

As the TV announcer used to say, Stay tuned. There’s more to come.

Weather or not?

D. Z. Church

My father, a flight instructor at the time, decided eight was the perfect age to teach his eager daughter to fly. I had a logbook, and we had a plan that I would solo as soon as I could, which was at 16. Never mind that the plan went horribly awry when my father decided to become a Meteorological Research Pilot and famously fly through hailstorms, erupting volcanoes, and hurricanes.*

When we started, I couldn’t see out of the cockpit (too short), so I learned to fly by instrument. Yes, this is the wrong way round. Usually, you start by using the actual horizon to keep your wings even, your nose up or down as the earth passes quickly below. Some would argue that nothing passes quickly below a Piper Cub. Once, in a Lake Michigan gale, my father flew a Cub halfway across the state backward.

There are very few instruments in a Cub, altimeter (how high), airspeed indicator (how fast), compass (where), oil gauge (obvious). After one lesson in a Piper Cub, with me unable to see out and fly level, Dad stepped me up to a Cessna 150 equipped with an attitude indicator. The attitude indicator provides information such as up, down, level via an artificial horizon, in short, the plane’s general relationship to the earth and air. Attitude is everything, or so Bernoulli and guidance counselors advise us.

So, I learned to trust my instruments before I trusted my eyes. One of the greatest mistakes that pilots make in bad weather, especially new ones, is mistrusting their instruments, think John F. Kennedy Jr.. Dad warned me to trust science over intuition when the horizon was obscured, meaning in the air and in life. I thank him for that and this; once you’ve navigated through bumptious clouds at the controls of a light plane reading the wind, clouds, and sun to stay up and on course, you never take the earth or the sky for granted again.*

Gust Front outside Miles City, MT (L. M. Zinser)

Or the adventures! My husband and I were shrink-wrapped in a tent by a tornado once (once was enough). I was in a one-hole tin outhouse as it was struck by lightning and watched St. Elmo’s Fire flow down the metal walls. A hurricane made landfall while I was on Assateague Island visiting the Chincoteague ponies. I outran it to safety, the rain hitting the car on the way down and back up. I’ve tried to sleep through a hundred mile an hour winds ripping shingles off the roof, watched drenching rain turn into a muddy flood, seen twin tornadoes dance, and lost a dinghy while sailing in a squall and dove in after it. And that’s not all the sky has tossed my way.

Now, when I write, the cast of the sun, the thunder of rain, and the howl of the wind sit on my shoulders, waiting a chance to cause havoc in a thriller. They know I can’t help myself. Head First, the second book in the Cooper Quartet, is set in Central California in the winter of 1972-73 during an El Nino that changed the entrance to Big Sur State Park forever. Pay Back, the third book in the Quartet, takes place during the Fall of Saigon. Late April 1975, the monsoons started early, drubbing Saigon the day before the North Vietnamese stormed the city. Perfidia is set on a Caribbean island given to sparkling sun and afternoon squalls while Saving Calypso unfolds in the Sierra Nevada’s wind and fire zone. Booth Island (just released) is in a lake in Canada given to late spring rains and rough water. Like I said, I can’t help myself.

I blame Dad; he gave me the sky. And the Navy. I ended up at a Meteorology and Oceanography Command (not much of a stretch) though I joined hoping to become one of the first female attack pilots (taller but still too short).

Postscript: It is no accident that Byron Cooper is a Navy attack pilot in the first two books of the Cooper Quartet. I may have been writing vicariously.

*If you want to know more about the adventures of a Meteorological Research Pilot, you might look into the memoir Pilot Log Book Lies and More by Lester M. Zinser. Warning, it is a bit technical.

*If you haven’t read The Cloudspotter’s Guide (Gavin Pretor-Pinney) yet, run out and get a copy. Besides being a terrific read, it is a good resource for all things cloud.

The Dilemma of the Little-Known Author

Note: This a pre-Covid memory, so don’t be alarmed at the close proximity of strangers mentioned in this post. Remember those days when we weren’t afraid of breathing the same air?

“Hi, I’m Rae Ellen Lee, an internationally unknown author,” my friend says to the bicycle rider who has stopped to chat with us in a Utah canyon.

Rae Ellen Lee is a fellow author and artist, and she’s more forward and much funnier than I am, and I love this line. It cuts through the embarrassing back-and-forth that, for me, usually goes something like this:

Me: “I’m an author. I write mysteries and romantic suspense.”

Polite Stranger: “That’s great!” Then, peering at me with curiosity, “Would I have heard of you?”

Me (mortified): “Probably not. My publisher never promoted my books.” (Unsaid: And I’m obviously a total nincompoop when it comes to marketing, still true now even after I took back my rights and self-published.) “But here’s a card describing my books.” (Nervous laugh.) “Do me a favor and leave it in a public place.”

Sigh. It’s such a dilemma. How and when does a clueless introvert author make herself known to new readers? Personally, I avoid anyone who constantly hawks herself or her products; why would anyone appreciate that? But I don’t have a big family-and-friends network out there supporting me, and I can’t afford to advertise in expensive venues. I write outdoorsy animal lover mysteries and although many hikers and nature enthusiasts are big readers like me, we outdoorsy animal lover types don’t tend to sit around chatting on social media.

So when I pass up the opportunity to tell a friendly stranger that I’m an author, I never know whether to feel like I’m being just a nice normal person or some sort of expert self-defeating anti-preneur. So I generally say something only half the time and almost always end up feeling like a complete loser.

A couple of days after meeting the bicyclist, as I ride the shuttle from St. George to the Las Vegas airport, I chat with my very nice seatmate. We talk about Utah and other places we have visited, and after a while, she mentions that she reads constantly. Aha-an opening! I tell her I am a voracious reader, too. And then she says she likes mysteries. Feeling like a hunter with a deer in the crosshairs, I tell her I am a mystery author, pull out my card that describes my books, and hand it over. She says she’ll definitely look for my books.

Later, at the airport, I share a restaurant table with an interesting man from Germany who has been visiting all the western parks. I love Germans; they are such adventurers, and like me, many are enthusiastic about the American West, its culture and its beautiful wild places. We talk about places he visited on this trip (he flew to the Cook Islands, too!) and a bit about how Americans and Cook Islanders eat unhealthy diets and will pay for that in the long run, and briefly agree on how politics need to move away from the current all-about-the-profit mode to the work-for-the-common-good mode.

Close-up of magnifying glass focusing on two people

Of course, while we talk, I’m thinking, do I tell him I’m an author and three of my books are published in Germany? Would that be a typical it’s-all-about-me American move? Besides, he’d probably ask me the name of my books there, and my cards are all in English. I can’t even spell the German titles, let alone pronounce them. Nor could I cough up the name of the German publisher. So we part politely without exchanging names and wander off to catch our separate flights back home.

From now on, I’m borrowing Rae Ellen’s line: “Hi, I’m Pamela Beason, an internationally unknown author.”

And I’ll keep using it until a stranger says, “Oh, I know that name! I love your books!”

I really am an author! This is me signing books at Seattle Mystery Bookshop
I’m not lying. Really, I am an author. Here I am years ago, signing books at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, which, sadly, no longer exists. I have 13 novels in print and ebook forms today. Really!