October 2, 2011

Childhood Classics: Stratemeyer and the Mystery Novel


If you are a mystery novel enthusiast, you probably read the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys novels when you were a child. But you might not have heard of the creator of these series: Edward Stratemeyer. Called “a literary machine,” the “Rockefeller of juvenile fiction,” and the “Henry Ford of fiction,” Stratemeyer was the creator of 125 twentieth-century series for children (Billman 1986, 17; Baxter 2008, 136; Connelly 2008, 24). He conceived the idea of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, drew up plot outlines, and hired a series of ghostwriters to write the novels. Although the names Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon appear on the cover of these books, no such authors ever existed.

Once Stratemeyer created more ideas for children’s books than time to write them, he decided to hire ghostwriters. Hence the Stratemeyer Syndicate began in 1905. The Syndicate was not a publisher; Stratemeyer negotiated with Grosset & Dunlap to publish the novels. He owned the copyright to the Syndicate books and paid his ghostwriters a flat fee. The authors signed away their royalties, a situation many of them later regretted.

Stratemeyer hired talented ghostwriters, many of them authors and newspaper reporters. Mildred Wirt Benson and Leslie McFarlane, the first ghostwriters of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, were accomplished journalists who wrote Syndicate novels in their spare time. Howard and Lilian Garis, Walter Karig, and Andrew Svenson all were noteworthy journalists.

After Stratemeyer’s death in 1930, his daughters took over the Syndicate. It continued until 1985, employing over 100 ghostwriters and producing 1,600 individual titles (Connelly 2008, 23). Of the 125 series which the Syndicate created, 37 included at least several mystery novels (Connelly 2008, 23; Baxter 2008, 142). These series have not only been incredibly popular over the decades (more than 200 million Syndicate books have been sold in 24 languages) but have remained so today.

All Syndicate books follow the same format (25 chapters, 204 to 218 pages), include “hooks” at the end of chapters, refer to a past mystery in the second chapter, and advertise the next one in the final chapter (Greenwald 2004, 21, 42). Although each series is unique, the underlying structure is the same. As Baxter points out: “There is usually a quest that entails the recovery of a stolen item from a crook; this quest is intermittently frustrated by various physically threatening situations” (2008, 139). The mystery series books are fast-paced and action-packed. Andrew Svenson – a Stratemeyer editor, writer, and eventual partner – described the Syndicate formula: “A low death rate but plenty of plot. Verbs of action, and polka-dotted with exclamation points and provocative questions. No use of guns by the hero. No smooching.”

Although Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys have always been the most famous mystery novels of the Syndicate, The Dana Girls, Kay Tracey, The Rover Boys, The X Bar X Boys, and The Doris Force series also focused on mysteries (Baxter 2008, 142; Johnson 1993, 154-55).

Even though Stratemeyer created a series for every imaginable interest, his most successful ones were mystery-related. The genre provided him with numerous advantages. The amateur sleuths
engage in many of the same activities as protagonists from earlier series, such as traveling extensively and using new technology, but the mystery series combine these activities with investigation. Detecting also ensures action and a unified plot, gives protagonists challenging competition, and guarantees them visible success, complete with plentiful accolades. (Johnson 1993, 159)
With writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, S. S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, and Erle Stanley Gardner dominating the 1920s, this decade became a “milestone epoch” in American detective fiction (Billman 1986, 11-12). Stratemeyer capitalized on the success of the genre by adapting it to the juvenile market.

The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books have been so successful because Stratemeyer knew what children wanted in a book. In her New Yorker article, “Nancy Drew’s Father: The Fiction Factory of Edward Stratemeyer,” Meghan O’Rourke observes that
the mystery formula elegantly embodies children’s two conflicting impulses: the search for order and security, and the appetite for novelty and risk-taking. Consider the ritualized cliffhanger at the end of each chapter, which represents order and excitement at the same time.
As Connelly points out, Stratemeyer’s “key strength was his understanding of child psychology and his ability to tap into current events, changing technology, and cultural fads” (2008, 35).

Baxter, Kent. “Teen Reading at the Turn of the Century (Part II): Edward Stratemeyer.” In The Modern Age: Turn-of-the-Century American Culture and the Invention of Adolescence. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008, 136-54.

Billman, Carol. The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and the Million Dollar Fiction Factory. New York: Ungar, 1986.

Connelly, Mark. The Hardy Boys Mysteries, 1927-1979: A Cultural and Literary History. Jefferson, NC: McFarlane, 2008.

Greenwald, S. Marilyn. The Secret of the Hardy Boys: Leslie McFarlane and the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2004.

Johnson, Deidre. Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Svenson, Andrew. “Tom Jr.,” New Yorker. March 20, 1954.