Tuesday, August 14, 2007


By Cornelia
A lot of girls who grew up to write mysteries first got hooked on the genre because they loved reading Nancy Drew as children. Nancy held no interest for me. I figured her friend George was entirely too latent, and Bess was just inane. Nancy's beau whatshisface was, meanwhile, a huge drag and lacking even the most slender iota of testosterone. Not to mention that Nancy herself had That Girl hair:

I was more about Harriet the Spy, first, and James Bond shortly thereafter. In my Harriet phase, I wanted friends named Sport and Janie and The Boy with the Purple Socks.

I wanted to live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan...

...instead of boring old and entirely un-ironic Carmel, California.

I kept a spy notebook to fulfill my creative writing requirement in fourth grade at Carmel River School. The notebook is long gone, but I remember writing that Chris Cryns seldom washed his hair, and that another boy "has less personality than a crinkle-cut french fry."

Luckily, unlike Harriet, I never had the misfortune of my classmates perusing the contents of my notebook, or having the slightest inkling of my opinions about them, so I emerged relatively unscathed from the experience.

The year I was twelve, I overheard my mom saying that my father had always liked James Bond books. I subsequently collected all of Ian Fleming's work in paperback, one volume at a time, at garage sales around town--staring with Casino Royale...

...and working my way up through The Man with the Golden Gun.

When I was in sixth grade, my first year at Carmel Middle School, I was told that the following year the school would be starting up an honors language arts class, to be taught by one Dr. Brazell. She called us into her classroom and explained that the class would be funded by a new gifted children's initiative in the state of California, and that before the class was actually organized, she would be traveling to an international symposium on the education of gifted children, and that each of us had a budget of twenty dollars...

... to do some sort of multi-media project which she'd carry with her to display alongside those of other kids from around the world. This was to take place, we were told, at the United Nations in New York City.

She had a list of suggested projects for us to consider... we could record a cassette tape of music, write poetry, build models, make our own film strips, etc., etc.

I went to Longs Drugstore and bought a small black three-ring binder measuring roughly four by six inches, a ream of tiny paper to fit inside it, and a pile of odds and ends--including a nailfile, a small roll of string, and a pair of Dr. Scholl's foam rubber insoles.

I then talked my friend Stephanie Kaku out of a pair of old sneakers, and cut holes inside the existing insoles so that I could tuck the bits and pieces into the shoes, underneath the Dr. Scholl's padding.

Thus equipped, I proceeded to write my first ever stand-alone thriller--Call Me Stringbean, the diary of a child spy.

Imagine if you will the following smippets of text in my sixth-grade cursive handwriting, complete with circles dotting each I:

The man who drove us out to Paradise Island on the launch looked familiar. He only had one arm. Suddenly, there appeared in my mind a picture of the bloody arm after the explosion on Centre Island!

"Sierra Charlie Alpha Lima Delta India Sierra, we request that you phone Mr. William Welsch at 372-6814, room 18-D, it is urgent! Over and out!"

"Then we climb down the trellis (classic Alex, positively classic!) and then we walk down to the dock, take the dinghy, and row out to the cave. We can both only carry 15 kilos at a time, so I'll take the heroine pile, and you take the cornstarch pile." Brilliant plan, Alex, But I want to take the heroine pile. Ah well, I'm getting paid for this, and he isn't.

Alex led us to the 'secret library' and we set fire to it and ran outside. Unfortunately, we were seen!

My protagonist was a twelve-year-old spy named Margaret Welsch, AKA Stringbean. She lived in Manhattan, and had started to work with her CIA-agent father at the age of seven. The bad guys were named Roscoe and Omar. With the equipment hidden in her spy sneakers, Stringbean successfully breaks up a criminal conspiracy to smuggle heroin through Nassau, in the Bahamas.

Dr. Brazell took the notebook and sneakers with her to the U.N. Upon her return, she had another meeting with all the kids to tell us how it went. At the end of the meeting she turned to me and said, "Cornelia, most of the other teachers really liked your project, except for the Soviet delegation. They wanted to know if we brainwash all of our students to believe so fervently in the CIA."

I'm waiting to hear back about the editorial verdict on the next book I'd like to write, a novel based on the life of a real-life World War II spy chick whom think is basically the coolest person that ever lived.

In the words of my mother, who often perkily misquotes Arlo Guthrie, "It all comes around on the guitar...."

I just hope I don't freak out any Soviets this time...

...or maybe I do.


  1. Loved Harriet the Spy -- all that crawling around in dumbwaiters. That was until I found out about "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" and started plotting sneak assaults on the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sadly (or maybe not) neither dumbwaiters nor mammoth art museums on hand in Wilmington, Delaware...

  2. My parents let me read James Bond only because President Kennedy had said he enjoyed the books. Like you I collected and read all of them.

    Were there 13? That's what I remember, but I could be wrong. 1963 was a long time ago.

    I was also a fan of the Matt Helm series.

    I never hid spy items in my shoes and I was discouraged from doing anything that might get me noticed by the Soviets.

  3. Spy sneakers! How cool! I keep seeing the cover art of an old Pointer Sisters album in my head. It had this really great looking high heel sneaker on it. Sort of a black Chuck Taylor with a rubber stiletto heel. I'm sure if Stringbean were still spying, she'd have a pair.

  4. I was a huge Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy fan. My daughter is now reading both, and it's really fun to see her enjoying them as much.

  5. I can see it now.

    "Call Me Stringbean," a major Hollywood film, coming to a theater near you.

  6. I never read a Nancy Drew book until I was an adult and then just to see what all the fuss was about. As you can imagine, it failed to entrall.

    I wanted to be a spy, too, even though I never read about Harriet. Can't remember where I got the idea, but in fifth grade I started memorizing poetry and Shakespeare's sonnets for those long lonely days in captivity. I can still regale you with a few...

  7. I never could get into Nancy Drew either-- I think it was because I didn't come to them until after I had been reading real mysteries (the ones my parents left in the bathroom), and I could never guess who did it because it was always the most obvious person.

  8. Lisa, I am a fan of Mrs. Basil E., too. Also love dumbwaiters.

    David, there were 13, not counting a couple of novellas. And then there was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which I wish someone would remake closer to the original text. I was also taught a Soviet folk song in second grade, told by my teacher that it was so we would know what to sing "come the revolution." Ah, California in the Seventies...

    debbyj, you are right on about the grownup Stringbean's taste if party footwear, I'm sure, and I bet she'd dig the Pointer Sisters too.

    Karen, that's great that your daughter is reading all the books. I might have liked Nancy better if I'd read her younger.

    Paul, oddly enough, I had the Stringbean mini-binder in my bag the one and only time I ever had a "Hollywood lunch," and the producer chick wanted to read it because she felt the film version of Harriet was a bit lacking in oomph. Stranger things have happened. But I didn't let her keep it.

    Patty, I adore you for memorizing poetry for your long days of detention--that is the BEST!

    And Daisy, I'm with you. By the time I found Nancy, I'd already read I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS and stuff, so it just seemed a bit pale by comparison. Not that IKWTCBS is a mystery, but still...

  9. Cornelia, I think Stringbean would be a big hit in the current YA market!

  10. Cornelia, this is downright spooky. Harriet the Spy, the personal spy notebook, the early Ian Fleming addiction leading to the writing of "junior secret agent" stories, trying to cut compartments in the shoes for spy stuff...I went through all that. Although I never almost caused an international incident, and I think my inspiration for the shoe thing was Get Smart reruns. I also totally ruined the shoes.

  11. I'm voting for Stringbean for Book Three too.

    I never had a spy fixation as a kid, but I'll get one now if you'll write it.

  12. Loved this post, Cornelia. I was always into spies as a kid. My favorite game was pretending to be a spy - we had a disused railway line close to where I lived, which was a perfect backdrop to an afternoon of outwitting the Germans, Russians, or whoever might be after ....THE MICRODOT! I seemed to spend a lot of time crawling along grass verges, and shimmying under barbed wire fences while trying not to break my dad's binoculars. Heck, if those binoculars had been scratched, even in the cause of national security, there would have been hell to pay.

    Last week I was in Winchelsea, in Sussex (England) - it's close to where my parents lived - and as I was walking round the sleepy little town, I was thinking about one of my heroines - Vera Atkins (and I know you know who she was), and how it must have been for her, living out her days in such a place after her extraordinary SOE experiences.

    Love the sound of your project - I have something similar (but fortunately, different enough) up my sleeve!

  13. Yeah, I read Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators - but I can't read them as an adult. :-D Too simple. It wasn't long after that that I graduated to Agatha Christie and some thriller novels when I was about 12 yo.

    Didn't get to Harriet the Spy, though. We had to travel a long way for bookstores in our area. The Book Clubs in grade school were my one huge indulgence: the other kids might buy one if any at all, but my pile usually had at least six or more in it. :-D


  14. I talked into my pen a lot and begged my parents for a trenchcoat - which is not exactly summer garb, all thanks to "The Man from U.N.C.L.E".

    i read about oh, maybe 6 Nancy Drews and then quit. Had little patience even then for formula plots (or so I like to think) because I spotted the cliffhanger endings at the end of each chapter. With loads of exclamation points!!!! And thought they were all pretty damn artificial. Nancy and Ned (dear gods, what a wimp - and if the best he could do was State U, hmmmm). I was too young to catch on about George who was so clearly going to come out by the age of 16. My best friend in college championed the Dana Girls because she said they didn't always come in first at everything. I seem to recall her saying sometimes they were second in the tennis tournaments. But the whole lifestyle was mansions and owning fancy cars and tennis/country club memberships and housekeepers and it so seemed so artificial to this kid who lived in Hartford with two working parents and who only went to a country club when invited by the one wealthy relative (it was the Jewish country club, set up in opposition? defiance? whatever because Jews weren't accepted into the other type. And this was late 50s early 60s.)
    I do remember really liking Trixie Belden who, as I recall, had homework and chores and stuff.
    But the arcane language of the ND books that was available in the 50s was a major reason I did not want to read on and that might be what surprises me the most. As well as what I thought of as formula plots ("and behind the wall, there was a secret door!!") what put me off was "roadster" and "frock" and "chums". I just couldn't relate to the language, the 30s-or-whatever style. That didn't seem to irk people the way it did me. But I am constantly surprised to hear how many women writers say that ND was the push they needed to start writing.

    I seem to recall that Laura Lippman ,bless her, once wrote a "how Nancy Drew did NOT do it for me" and I sent her "oh THANK YOU" email because I felt very much alone in that after seeing writer after writer cite those books for inspiring them. I do get that she was a rare character in fiction and I guess she was brave, but I don't get how she was so appealing to people. She had a powerful daddy to bail her out of anything, she had a car (at her age, back then, that was inconceivable) (and spoke of enormous wealth at least in my world) and because she seemed like such a stick figure (and a stick!) to me.

  15. Me and my friend Mandy had a secret society and we kept all these bits and bobs we had acquired along the way in a shortbread tin which had different compartments (Mandy's mum was much more tolerant than mine of that sort of thing and was also very good at creating things. We thought the tins were the coolest thing you'd ever seen).

    Might be a cultural thing, but I never read Nancy Drew. We were brought up on Enid Blyton. The Secret Seven were dead wimpy, but the Famous Five were much cooler.

    James Bond came later after I used to browbeat my dad into getting adult books out of the library for me on his ticket (you couldn't join the big library until you were 14 -- and I'd exhausted the junior one by the time I was about eight!)

  16. I still do all that pretend stuff. It's the only way to stay sane.


  17. Okay guys, I think we all have to start a club called "Adult Former Harriets" or something--this is SO COOL that we were all closet child spies!!! Okay, except for Born who still gets to do cloak-and-dagger stuff as a grownup.

    And Dusty, I wish I could've found a photo of the actual type of sneakers. I think they were navy blue Keds, with white around the bottom and a little red-and-blue chevrony thing in one spot.

    Andi, exactly right with "chums" and "roadster." *And* ND's blithe bougie-ness. Really appalling.

    Jackie, GO YOU with the Vera Atkins reminiscence! I'm swotting up on SOE and WWII stuff, with lots of documentaries and books. Just saw "London's Longest Night" about the Blitz on DVD this week and am even more hoping to get to the Imperial War Museum some day soon...

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  19. Does anyone remember the "spy briefcase" toys that were wildly popular during the Connery James Bond years? Mine had a secret camera that could be operated with the briefcase closed. It actually used 35 MM film, but the optics, of course, were for shit, so you never got a good picture and your dad wouldn't get the film developed after the first batch of pictures of your dog came out completely blurry.

    There was also a "sniper rifle" inside with a barrel extender, scope, and stock that snapped onto a toy pistol (which you could also fire from inside the case with a secret button).

    Best Christmas Gift EVER.

  20. I would've killed for that for Christmas. Reminds me of the time I asked for the Marine Corps dress blues costume out of the FAO Schwartz catalog for my tenth birthday. My mother gave me a tutu.

  21. I may have read ND, but it was always the Three Investigators that challenged and inspired me. But for true writing inspiration, it was Agatha Christie. If I had discovered Ngaio Marsh about then, I wouldn't have looked back. :-D

    As it is, I was always a puzzler and tinkerer. My brother got given a 65 in 1 Electronics Kit/Game when I was about 5-6 years old (1969-70)and I used to play with it and create stuff so much more than he did. Mind you, I would have killed for a science kit or Spy kit. Anyway, I found a dilapidated version of the 65 in 1 Electronics kit at the local Savers (Good Will) last week and bought it - and played with it for two hours after I got home. It was so bemusingly satisfactory in a soul sweetening way. :-D

    I wish I had you guys to play with and write stories with when I was young. Sigh. There was no-one around me at all who liked the things I did. I've still got the 'novel' I wrote back when I was 12 - as well as the 85 page scifi one I wrote when I was 14 (unfinished and with 20 pages of rewrites - long hand on legal sized pages). So now I'm back to writing again. :-D

    Love all of your stories!


  22. Can I live in your head for just one day???

    I'm visiting my parents, who turned me on to both Nancy Drew & Ian Fleming. We've found my first edition Nancy Drew's. In the back, they have the listing of all the ND books, and I've marked quite clearly the ones I DON'T want. My precursor, obviously.

  23. Marianne, I wish I'd known you then too--would have been great fun to write stories with you. And I love the idea of the 65 in 1 kit. That's fantastic that you found another one! I have a very old chemistry set that I think belonged to one of my father's brothers, in a wooden box painted jade green with lots of scary looking chemicals in test tubes. Probably explode if you jostled it, at this point.

    And JT, I would LOVE to have you live in my head for a day, but I'm afraid it's even messier than my living room, which is a scary prospect!