Crime busters Modesty Blaise, Nancy Drew and Kate Fansler are very different kinds of amateur investigators
When the first Miss Marple novel, The Murder at the Vicarage appeared in 1930, on the other side of the Atlantic, another detective made her entry. Nancy Drew, the titian-haired teenager in the fictional town of River Heights made her print debut with The Secret of the Old Clock. With multiple authors writing under the collective pseudonym of Carolyn Keene, Nancy has enthralled readers ever since. While her adventures take her to the four corners of the globe and her appearance, age and behaviour has changed over the last 80 years, Nancy has offered undiluted escapist entertainment and also proved to be a role model for people.
From Old Clock to The Thirteenth Pearl, (the classic 56 novels), Nancy goes about solving mysteries. She drives a dark-blue convertible, lives in a large red-brick house with her father, the famous and successful lawyer Carson Drew and the housekeeper Hannah Gruen who helped raise her after her mother’s death when Nancy was three years old. Nancy’s friend, Helen Corning, who helps in Old Clock is all set to marry by the end of the fourth book, The Mystery at Lilac Inn. The fifth book, The Secret of Shadow Ranch sees the introduction of Nancy’s sidekicks, blonde, plump Bess Marvin and her cousin, the dark haired, tomboyish George Fayne. Nancy’s boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, a student at Emerson College is introduced in the seventh book, The Clue in the Diary. Nancy is quite the super-girl good looking, well dressed and excelling at everything—be it sports, dancing, cooking or problem solving.
Feminists who have an issue with Nancy’s submission to patriarchal rules, would have no problem with Amanda Cross’s Kate Fansler. In a series of 14 novels from 1964 (In the Last Analysis), to 2002 (The Edge of Doom) Kate, a literature professor solves many dastardly literary crimes. Amanda Cross was the pseudonym for Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, who was a professor of Literature in New York. Apart from her Fansler books, Heilbrun has written many learned and well received academic books including a feminist study, Writing a Woman's Life (1988), a collection of essays, Hamlet's Mother and Other Women (1990) and a biography, The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem (1995).
Rereading Cross’ The Players Come Again (1990), one is struck all over again by how she weaves in her concerns into a spellbinding tale. Kate is offered the chance to write a biography of a great writer’s wife, Gabrielle Foxx. The writer’s greatest work, Ariadne is considered a path-breaking work revealing the thoughts, passions and desires of a woman. Later research seems to reveal that Gabrielle might have written Ariadne. Through the novel, as Kate digs deeper into Gabrielle’s life, we see Cross’s position on women in different walks of life from academia and publishing to art and hard labour. There are different views of marriage also presented—from it being a state to be aspired to, to a situation that one needs to escape from. There is also fascinating portraits of pre-war New York with royalty such as Peggy Guggenheim having walk on parts.
Around the time Fansler was unravelling the great mystery of the Last Analysis, a very different feminist icon leapt out of the London Evening Standard, Modesty Blaise. Peter O’Donnell’s comic strip creation debuted in print in 1963. Apart from the comic strips, Modesty also appeared in 11 full length novels and two collections of short stories. In the first comic strip, La Machine, Jack Fraser of the British secret service reading from a dossier reveals Modesty to be 26, 5’6’’, 120 lbs, with black hair and brown eyes. Not much is known of Modesty’s childhood. An orphan, at the end of WWII she escaped a displaced person camp in Greece and wandered all over the Mediterranean, Africa and Middle East. She adopted a refugee, a professor, Loeb who gave her a name and education in return for food and protection. As a teenager, she took over a criminal enterprise in Tangier and created The Network. Willie Garvin, the cockney with fondness for scripture, is her right hand man and the only one allowed to call her Princess. The others call her Mam’selle. After disbanding The Network, with her personal wealth at over half a million sterling, Modesty and Willie retire and settle down in England. However, they are bored of their lives and Sir Gerald Tarrant from the British secret service gives them a chance to live on the edge and that is where the series begins.
Whether it is Kate’s erudite puzzles, Nancy’s well-ordered problem solving or Modesty’s chic capers, these women have helped us spend endless evenings living through their adrenalin charged adventures vicariously.