When I was about 10 years old, my aunt Margi sent me four Nancy Drew mysteries for Christmas or my birthday. Although my mom’s relic of a Nancy Drew book (Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock, I think) was somewhere on my bookshelves, I had never picked it up. But I couldn’t resist the shiny, sophisticated-seeming books that had arrived from Ohio. So I delved into mystery #99, or something like that, and was hooked. I read my mom’s old book — notable mostly because Nancy used to be 16 but jumped to 18, and she used to drive a robin’s egg blue Roadster convertible, whereas she ultimately upgraded to a Mustang. But her noble widower father-attorney, Carson Drew, hovered in the background like a less activist version of Atticus Finch. Bess and George, Nancy’s best friends, and her beau Ned Nickerson remained constant throughout the series, as well as a housekeeper whose name I’ve long forgotten.
I plowed through as many Nancy Drew mysteries as I could before jumping on The Nancy Drew Files, which were slightly more compact in their physical format but no less exciting. I don’t think I was especially bothered that such a young woman would constantly be stumbling across dead bodies and usurp the authorities of whatever exotic locale. I wondered, sometimes, why Nancy never went to school. But it was kind of like questioning the logic of the never-aging characters of Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts. Not everybody has to grow up.
A couple of summers ago, I went to Carmel, California, with my parents. We drove along 17 Mile Drive, which was a centerpiece of one of the Nancy Drew Files books. It was one of those great moments where fiction and reality coincide, although thankfully we were not pressed into investigatory service.
Now I read grislier, more profane murder mysteries, thanks to Bill, my stepdad. (It was his sister who sent me the Nancy Drew, so go figure.) I’ve read all but one of the Prey mystery novels by John Sandford, a writer based in the Twin Cities who has made his swarthy, dangerous, sexy, heartfelt protagonist Lucas Davenport into someone I wonder if I’ll run across as I drive the interstates of Minnesota.
To be honest, sometimes these books scare the crap out of me, particularly the ones set in the Twin Cities rather than in the north woods of Wisconsin or in Greater Minnesota, as the rest of the state is known. My favorite is still the first I read, Mortal Prey, which is about two-thirds through the chronological sweep of the Prey series. It’s great because it features a lady assassin (hitwoman?) who has to take out the St. Louis mob before they take her out, and Lucas Davenport is called in by the FBI to track her down, as they faced off two books previously, in Certain Prey. I prefer the novels where the killer (either a psychopathic serial killer or a killer on a mission with a big body count) is named and identified from the start. This gives the reader the delicious sense of dramatic irony, and you wonder what will make Davenport and the killer cross paths, and what sneaky detective work will track down or ensnare the killer. Davenport narrowly escapes again and again, but Sandford is not so kind to ancillary characters, who become world weary, see their loved ones maimed or killed, or who get injured in the line of duty themselves.
I like being familiar enough with the Twin Cities to recognize the interstate paths and locations described in the books. When I went to Minneapolis City Hall a few weeks ago, I was actually kind of thrilled. Here was the “liverish pile of granite” so derisively characterized in many a Sandford novel. Would I run into Davenport or Sloan or the hysterically named Del Capslock? I know they’re fictional — but surely they have real life counterparts. Probably without the Porsche, though.
I haven’t gotten into any of the other big, popular mystery/detective series, like those by Sue Grafton, James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell (evidently Angelina Jolie is bringing to life her Kay Scarpetta), etc. The gruff, masculine ways of Davenport are, at some level, repulsive to me, but he’s such a well-written, wholly conceived character who assembles a family life along the way that I just want more. Fortunately, there’s a new Prey novel out next month, evidently about the 2008 Republican National Convention, so I don’t have to wait long. I’ve long left Nancy behind, but I’m glad I have my new friend Lucas.
Who are the serial characters you live with and love? Have you been to a place described in a novel and felt wham?