THE DAY after Christmas, feeling a gray shade of blue in a world full of fear, I reached for the book that was my favorite present.
Not the elegant memoirs of a former Smith College president. Not the new Philip Roth novel. Not even the indictment of the media in Marvin Kalb's better-than-fiction One Scandalous Story. No, what arrested my attention was the seventh in the multi-volume series of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories: The Clue in the Diary.
So I spent the afternoon absorbed in the company of Nancy and her chums: tomboy George and plump Bess.
The story begins in the idyllic setting of a picnic under a maple tree after a carnival, where the three befriend a small girl named Honey. With no talk of going to the gym, they are eating deviled eggs on the edge of Nancy's next mystery. On the way home, it had to happen: A sudden fire in a large white house leads Nancy to discover a man fleeing the scene and dropping a book that, next thing you know, is the diary containing the clues.
This rosy River Heights scenario - what with Nancy's blue roadster, her housekeeper Hannah Gruen, her distinguished father, Carson Drew, a lawyer who aids and abets her sleuthing - is repeated in about 50 books, beginning with The Secret of the Old Clock. They never grew old to me as a girl growing up; they were practically a rite of passage. As a woman of 40, though, I have some explaining to do.
Let's just say that, even now, Nancy inspires the imagination with her ingenuity and independence. She outwits criminals; she doesn't overpower them. She dares to go anywhere in pursuit of the truth, whether it's Scotland or South America, a circus or a ski jump. She spies and hides in unlikely places and, when things look dark, when she's tied or locked up, Nancy never loses her nerve.
This vision of young American womanhood was a lot to look forward to. It's no accident they were written (under the pen name Carolyn Keene) starting in 1930, for the Roaring '20s were simply the best decade yet for young women. They could vote, they could wear their hair short, they could enter the work force and they could drive. The '20s meant more than dancing the Charleston. They meant the sweet oxygen of freedom.
The Clue in the Diary is of special interest to Drewophiles because it tells of Nancy meeting handsome and tall Ned Nickerson, who becomes her best beau. Ned declares, "You girls haven't seen the last of me." Sure enough, he comes over to visit Nancy. The moment Ned meets her father: "She could tell that Mr. Drew liked Ned by the hearty way in which he shook hands."
The gracious tone in that passage is what got lost in the dust of 2001. It's therapeutic because it helps put things together after a terrible fall. Bad guys aren't wielding box-cutters and hijacking planes to crash into symbolic skyscrapers and the national defense fortress. Villains in Nancy Drew's world rarely have knives and never have guns. And they never kill anyone. The word "terrorism" had yet to enter the American lexicon. The sights that shattered our hearts Sept. 11 had not yet invaded the gates of our consciousness. Maybe that's why there's such demand for this book. My professor mother, my teacher and screenwriter sisters, not to mention two strangers in a coffee shop - one in her 50s, the other in her 20s - lighted up at the sight of my treasured gift and wanted to read it next.
Originally invented to divert readers during the Depression, Nancy's still doing a mighty fine job. As a detective, she's anything but clueless. She remains a reassuring presence, holding a candle, magnifying glass or flashlight as she makes the world a safer place.
Jamie Stiehm is a reporter for The Sun.