The Nancy Drew books are set in the town of River Heights, which in the 1930 edition of The Secret of the Old Clock was described as being in the Midwest. In subsequent books, however, River Heights seems to be located in the East, only a few hours' drive from New York City.
The lack of change in River Heights gives the books an essentially timeless quality. Nancy encounters modern problems such as the escape of refugees from Warsaw Pact countries, but enemy spies seem no more sinister than the local thieves of earlier books. In fact, Adams revised the entire series in 1959, removing language that might make the books dated or offensive.
The Nancy Drew series' greatest strength is its use of varied and exotic settings. Because of the limited possibilities for unusual criminal activity in a town the size of River Heights, Nancy ends up on cases in places like New York, Brazil, Austria, and Greece. Even when the locale is a small town in the United States, the characters are likely to be involved in scientific experimentation or in some unusual occupation such as china-making. In each case the narrative provides enough background information to make the setting or the occupation interesting.
Although conventional, the plots are exciting and filled with fast-paced action. In the opening pages of the book, the problem is described, and Nancy's client is introduced. Tension builds as Nancy follows the successive clues to discover the identity of the criminals or the location of a missing item. At the book's conclusion the mystery is solved, and the criminals apprehended. Throughout, the reader remains totally involved in the action.
The weakest point in a Nancy Drew book is the excessive use of coincidence. Nancy always manages to be in the right place or to meet the right people to discover the information needed to solve the mystery.
Generally, the characters are not fully individualized. Sometimes Nancy's client or even one of the criminals is given one distinctive personality trait; but usually the client will be confused or fearful, and the criminal will be surly or devious. Nancy herself is a multifaceted character, but from the beginning she possesses so many talents and so much knowledge that change in her attitudes is virtually impossible. Because she is so clever and resourceful, some critics consider her less than believable. If Nancy Drew and her adventures are considered as fantasy, however, she still may be representative of the American teenager's idealized self-image.
(The entire section is 870 words.)