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Nancy Drew in New Orleans 

The girl detective's biggest fans come to town to solve some mysteries of their own.

Many an enterprise begun in innocence will lead to alarming and mysterious consequences. Take the Nancy Drew Sleuths Convention for example. What began as a simple online discussion group has now grown into a group of 350 collectors and scholars, adult fans who fell under the Nancy Drew spell as children, and are still beguiled by the plucky girl detective, whose adventurous pursuit of villains has inspired generations of young girls since the books first appeared in 1930.

This year, the Nancy Drew Sleuths chose New Orleans for their convention. About 20 fans arrived a week and a half ago to prowl the French Quarter in search of clues to the whereabouts of certain sites, such as Antoine's and Jackson Square, which appear in Nancy Drew books. The convention also provides a chance for scholars to present their research on topics such as the complex genealogy of Nancy Drew's friends, Bess Marvin and the tomboy George Fayne, who are cousins. A highlight of the convention is the Nancy Drew Murder Mystery Party in the dining room of the Steamboat Natchez, a stand-in for The Haunted Showboat. Jennifer Fisher, president of the Nancy Drew Sleuths, borrowed details from that story as well as Nightmare in New Orleans and The Ghost of Blackwood Hall to stitch together the "Nancy Drew in New Orleans" party.

It turns out that the dinner party is actually a mystery game for the grown-ups, each of whom plays a character (assigned by Jennifer) from one of the Nancy Drew books. Some of the guests were plucky enough to come in costume -- the party is supposed to be set in the 1930s -- so there are a couple of fur stoles and some vintage hats. A peach-colored feather boa decorates "Bess Marvin" played by Sharon Harris, visiting from Missouri. The true mystery at the heart of the Nancy Drew Sleuths convention this year is who will play the role of the girl detective herself.

"I decided that no one would be Nancy," explains Jennifer. "Because so many people want to be Nancy Drew, and I didn't want to ruffle any feathers."

When she heard that this coveted role would go to no one, Elizabeth Milias was "simply devastated!" But then she decided to just go ahead and costume as her heroine anyway. "Because let's face it: I am Nancy!" she announces, balancing her vodka and cranberry juice in one hand with the grace one would expect from the girl detective herself.

For this party, Elizabeth has pulled together a smart blue cardigan and white blouse with the collar turned slightly up, and a discreet strand of pearls. Her blue wool skirt reaches to a modest mid-calf length, while her old "varsity cheerleader saddle shoes," also blue, complete the ensemble. Her shoulder length blonde hair -- styled into a pert flip at the ends and held in place with a blue headband to match her sweater -- frames her neat WASPy features. She could have just stepped off the cover of The Hidden Staircase.

Elizabeth began her infatuation with the girl detective at age six, when her grandmother gave her the yellow-back editions of the 1970s. Infatuation turned to passion later in her adulthood, when she visited a murky old bookshop on "the wrong side of town" in Salt Lake City, where she discovered a dusty box full of pristine first editions from the 1930s and '40s. "I had my 56 books, drove a convertible, but called it a roadster in my heart and in my head. Not obsessed by any stretch, but a fan." Now, she carries a tote bag decorated with prose samples, such as: "With a hasty goodbye, Nancy dashed from the house and ran to her car;" and "With her lipstick, she wrote an SOS backwards on the pane."

Also in attendance at the mystery party are Frank and Joe Hardy. The historically independent Nancy Drew had joined forces with the Hardy Boys in a later Super Mysteries series, although she really didn't need their help to solve mysteries and more often than not it was Nancy who rescued the boys from perilous predicaments. This evening "Frank" (played by Dean Burcham) is a rather substantial man with a bushy mustache and a toothy smile; he wears Mardi Gras beads and a fedora that is more Frank Sinatra than Frank Hardy. By contrast, his brother "Joe" (played by Garrett Lothe) is a diminutive man who waves his fingertips in the direction of various female characters and tells them they are either "fabulous" or "one hot chick."

There aren't many men at this gathering and half of them were dragged here either by their wives or sisters. The others are mostly Hardy Boys enthusiasts, who could attend a convention of their own, but as Dean puts it, "The Nancy Drew group is more fun and more civil."

Todd Latoski preferred to read Nancy Drew books rather than the Hardy Boys when he was a kid. "You know, the Hardy Boys &138; they were more technical," he says with a shrug and makes a disdainful noise through his nose. "To me, Nancy was great because she lived by her wits."

"It's a cliche to say that Nancy was a feminist role model, but she was," says Susan Roman, who credits Nancy with inspiring her to become the independent woman she is today. As scholars and enthusiasts often point out, Nancy Drew came into existence just ten years after women got the right to vote. And she was an unusual children's book heroine for her time. She didn't wait for instructions or permission to do the things she wanted to do. She frequently went places she wasn't supposed to go, and obeyed her own judgment even when it was risky. She was talented, intelligent, and in the end she had always figured out the answer.

"I loved that she could do everything, play piano, golf," says Susan.

"She could fly a plane, tap dance. Nancy was perfect," agrees Todd.

"She could chase villains in her car and if it went into a ditch she could change the tire herself," says Susan.

"She spoke Old English" says Sharon.

"She spoke all languages," adds Todd. "Except Greek. Remember in The Greek Symbol Mystery, number 60? She had to have an interpreter read Greek for her."

Sharon points out that Nancy didn't have a mother, who might have imposed restrictive feminine stereotypes on her. "Instead she had a father, who really respected her and told her she was smart. And he gave her a great car, which was the key to her freedom."

The author's name on the books was Carolyn Keene, but all the books were ghostwritten. The first writer often credited for creating this icon of independence was Mildred Wirt Benson, or Millie to the fans. By all accounts Millie modeled Nancy after her own irascible, go-getter spirit, and she'd probably loathe the word "feminist." The first woman to receive a graduate degree in journalism from the University of Iowa, Millie not only wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books, but then she also worked as a newspaper columnist until her death at the age of 96. A man, Walter Karig, wrote volumes 8-10, but the next writer, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, wrote the books up to volume 56. For volumes 57-175, the identities of the ghostwriters behind the name Carolyn Keene have remained a mystery. (A new Nancy Drew series will begin this spring with volume 176, Without a Trace.)

Harriet inherited from her father the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which had created and owned Nancy Drew as a product, and so she was able to take complete creative control over the books. Not only did Harriet become the new ghostwriter, but she also took it upon herself to re-write Millie's books. The ostensible purpose of the revision was to remove the dated material, such as references to an "electric refrigerator," and Nancy's blue roadster became a convertible. Harriet also removed offensive descriptions of minorities or "foreigners" that would have been commonplace in books written in the 1930s. Some say Harriet also removed the more descriptive writing in an effort to shorten and "dumb down" the books for the new TV generation.

Whether loyal to the original or the later versions, the fans still read their vintage Nancy Drew books even though they are valuable collector's items. Some readers get lost in the stories more than others. Sharon flips her peach-colored feather boa as she admits she has a crush on Nancy's father, Carson Drew, which she takes as a sign she is getting older. "Because I used to have a crush on Ned," she says, referring to Ned Nickerson, Nancy's boyfriend with whom the girl detective shares a chaste teen romance for all eternity.

"I once voted for someone in Student Senate in college simply because her name was Nancy Nickerson," offers Susan. "That was before I had my feminist awakening and realized that Nancy would have never changed her name had she married Ned."

"Oh, Nancy would have definitely hyphenated," countered Sharon. "She would keep Drew for professional reasons."

After some backing and forthing, the two women, who represent different Nancy generations, agree to disagree. Susan holds that the Nancy written during the Millie era was braver and more likely to challenge authority than the Nancy revised by Harriet, when the girl detective tended toward a slight passivity. Though she grew up with the revised books, Sharon concedes that in these later stories Nancy would sometimes ask Ned to go first when they were about to enter a haunted house.

Garrett, who is Joe Hardy this evening, joins the discussion, which has now drifted toward what would Nancy Drew do in her adult life. "Oh, she was very career-oriented," he says.

"I think she would be an investigative journalist," says Sharon, who has her master's in journalism and teaches writing.

"Or she would have gone to law school," adds Susan, an attorney.

"Whatever she did, if Ned got a job in another town, she would not just blindly follow him," asserts Garrett.

"Ned would never ask her to do that," says Sharon.

Whether it's her car or her boyfriend or her talent for always having the solution to the mystery, Nancy's perfection is her overriding characteristic. Some people find it irritating; others love her for it. In either case, "it's probably for the best that none of us are playing the role of Nancy," observes Todd. "Because she was perfect and we're not."

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