In 1993, San Francisco visual artist Mabel Maney published the first of three books in her “Nancy Clue” series, The Case of the Not-So-Nice Nurse, which tells the story of how wide-eyed heroine Nurse Cherry Aimless meets and solves mysteries with famous girl detective Nancy Clue.
The series parodies the “Nancy Drew” juvenile detective stories, written by various authors using the pen-name, “Carolyn Keene”, and similar fiction for girls involving Cherry Ames, a character created in the early 1940s, to encourage young women to become nurses and go to work during World War II. (The Cherry Ames series comprises twenty-seven books written by Helen Wells and Julie Tatham between 1943 and 1968, and published by Grosset & Dunlap, about a dedicated, quick-witted and annoyingly nice nurse with black hair and eyes, and cherry-red cheeks.)
Mabel Maney became fixated on nurse heroine Cherry Ames as she lay rereading the series of books while recovering from a back injury:
And I noticed that the subtext of Cherry was very homoerotic - the world of women, the uniform fetish, all the nurses. Cherry is written for girls, yet they always describe them in this luscious detail like, “her curvy figure, her starched uniform, her glossy hair.”1
The books began as a graduate art project. Maney created a Nancy Drew parody for an art-book for a MFA project at San Francisco State:
We had our graduate show coming up, so I boiled the essence of the book down into 14 one-page chapters and blew them up to these giant linen panels. They're bordered by '50s curtains, so they're very '50s kitsch, and fabric and female. They hang from the ceiling and you walk through them. 2
Smaller, hand-bound copies sold well at a local bookstore, until Cleis Press bought the manuscript of what would become The Case of the Not-So-Nice Nurse (1993). Subsequently, Cleis published The Case of the Good-For-Nothing Girlfriend (1994) and a gay “Hardy Boys” parody, The Hardly Boys and the Ghost in the Closet (1995).
The books rely on several quirks of mid-20th Century juvenile fiction for comedic effect, including the aforementioned homoerotic content, the propensity to use “gay” and “queer” with the frequency that stereotypical stoners use the terms “cool” and “bogus”, and a camp obsession with describing clothes and food. According Mabel Maney, a good girl-detective book must include:
- “The bad guy always confesses in full”
- “Careful descriptions of clothing”
- Highly nutritious food
The following book excerpt from The Good-for-Nothing Girlfriend illustrates the formula:
Cherry dropped a quarter into the metal box at the head of the bed, lay back, and let the vibrating motion soothe her tired muscles. Cherry suddenly had a grand thought. What if they put vibrating motors on the nurses’ beds? “It would be soothing after a long day at work.” She made a mental note to suggest just that once she got back to the hospital.
The bathroom door flew open and Nancy emerged, wrapped in a bath towel that left her lovely legs and shapely shoulders bare for all to see.
Cherry thought she had never seen anything so fetching as Nancy standing there in the doorway with the mist from the steamy room swirling about her, her cheeks all rosy, and her damp, trademark titian hair curling softly around her flushed face.
“Golly, she’s the most beautiful girl ever,” Cherry thought breathlessly. She slipped a quarter into the metal box, and, ever so slowly, the bed started to move…
Since she is parodying a series written under a psuedonym, it is logical to expect that “Mabel Maney” is one as well. The “About the Author” page in her books tends to support this assumption:
After her parents were lost at sea, Mabel took up residence with her Great Aunts Maude and Mavis Maney, who had as young women earned their living as bareback riders in a traveling circus before settling in the farm town of Appleton, Wisconsin to write their memoirs, Circus Queens.
Some sources3 confirm, however, that Maney actually was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1958, and grew up in Ohio. Maney received a Bachelor in Fine Arts from Ohio State University in 1985, and a Masters in Fine Arts from San Francisco State University, with an emphasis in book arts, in 1991.
My art pieces all have that same relationship to the formation of a book, although they may take completely different forms. Essentially, the works are mixed-media pieces combining image and text, and occasionally they end up looking like real, honest-to-goodness, bookshelf books.4
At book readings, gay male fans were surprised to find that she was a lesbian --all the loving descriptions of clothing led them to expect a gay male author. "I was really flattered," Mabel says of their error. What to her fans is camp, however, to Maney is an extension of her artistic interest in the home-world of women in the 1950’s:
Fabric reads as female no matter who works it. And a lot of the undercurrents in my work are about the undercurrents of terror in the home. In that piece, the fabric page symbolized the home, and the story between the lines of the text placed upon the fabric points to the there.5
In 2001, Mabel Maney’s Kiss the Girls and Make them Spy (a “Jane Bond” parody) was released, in a Harper-Collins imprint.
After a hot, nutritious breakfast of instant oatmeal, the author sat down at his flat-panel iMac wearing brown corduoroys and a comfortably worn, white, button-down shirt, and made this writeup, relying on the following, intriguing sources:
1, 2 Suzanne Rush, “Mabel Maney: Past Imperfect”, SF Weekly (December 14, 1994) http://www.suzannerush.com/maney.html
3, 4, 5 Penny Perkins, “Meet Mabel Maney: Alternative Author Veers Toward Mainstream Success”, Gay Today at Bad Puppy (January 12, 1998);
Michelle Gibson and Deborah T. Meem (University of Cincinnati)
“The Case of the Lovely Lesbian: Mabel Maney’s Queering of Nancy Drew”
Studies in Popular Culture, 19.3, (1997)
Katy Lain articles:
The Cherry Ames Page
Cleis Press websites (with book covers):