Childhood Classics: Nancy Drew Mystery Novels

From its inception in 1930, the Nancy Drew series has been a resounding success. For the first time in history, a girls' series was able to outsell its male competitors. “The women’s movement of the time,” observes Meghan O’Rourke in The New Yorker, “had energized girls’ fiction, creating an audience for female characters with spunk.” What is even more astounding is that the series continues to attract new readers with each new generation. In USA Today, Gary Strauss points out that more than 200 million Nancy Drew books have been sold as of 2004. The first book in the series, The Secret of the Old Clock (1930), is one of the 50 most popular children’s books, according to Publishers Weekly children’s books editor, Diane Roback.

A writer named Edward Stratemeyer thought of the idea for the series (see my blog on Stratemeyer and the mystery novel). He wrote the outline for the first three books, hired a ghostwriter to flesh out his sketches, and edited the drafts himself. It was Stratemeyer who decided on the pseudonym, Carolyn Keene, and who created the successful Stratemeyer Syndicate in order to publish children’s series books. He died after the publication of the first Nancy Drew novel; his two daughters took over the Syndicate, running it for another 55 years.

From the beginning, the books were created as a collaborative process. Who specifically created the ideas for the books, composed the outlines, and wrote the novels? Two women were largely responsible for the series. After her father died, Harriet Stratemeyer conceived the ideas and wrote the outlines for most of the books. She jealousy guarded the series, overseeing every detail of the books from Nancy’s clothes to her physical appearance. Harriet increasingly saw herself as Nancy’s sole creator (Rehak 2005, 250).

Although Harriet wrote a number of the later books, she took over from Mildred Wirt Benson, a talented writer who set the benchmark for the series. Twenty-three of the first 30 Nancy Drews were written by Benson, the first woman to receive a Masters degree in Journalism from the University of Iowa. Walter Karig (a journalist who later became the editor of the Washington Post and Times-Herald) wrote the early books that Benson declined. Because all Syndicate writers signed confidentially agreements, it is still not definitively known who wrote each of the post-Benson volumes.

If the Hardy Boys books combine mystery and adventure (see my post on the series), the Nancy Drew novels intertwine mystery with Gothic and supernatural elements (see my post on the Gothic influence on the mystery novel). Typical Nancy Drew settings include features such as “the cobwebbed attic, the dank cellar, the castle tower, the secret chamber, the hidden staircase, the locked closet.” The Gothic-like structure of “pursuit, confinement, and release” is also characteristic of these novels (Billman 1986, 116). The supernatural/ghostly elements that dominate many of the books turn out to have rational explanations (Johnson 1993, 150), but their inclusion heightens the mystery and suspense.

As a 16-year-old amateur detective (18-year-old once the books were rewritten), Nancy has many advantages over girls her age. Her lawyer father provides her with the connections, knowledge, status, and authority she needs to solve cases. The fact that her mother passed away and her father makes few demands on his teenage daughter is also helpful to Nancy’s role as sleuth. As Mula observes:
Nancy’s mother died when the girl detective was 3, which was convenient because presumably a mother would have discouraged her daughter from rooting around old houses, faithful flashlight in hand as she hunted for hidden staircases and rooms, uncovered dangerous secrets in old clocks, and engaged in all sorts of other potentially hazardous and unladylike undertakings. Incredibly, her doting father, a successful lawyer, never seemed to question her questionable activities – or ask, “How come you’re not in college?” or “Isn’t it time you got a job?” or even insist that she be home by 10 p.m. (2010, 50)
Nancy Drew has always fulfilled young readers’ expectations and wishes. Nancy’s life is exciting, adventurous, and dangerous. Although the books were first published during the Depression, they remained “hermetically sealed off” from it (Rehak 2005,117). Nancy wears beautiful clothes and enjoys extraordinary opportunities. But more than that, she reveals gutsy determination, inevitably rising to the occasion and inspiring young readers to do the same. No case is ever too difficult, no mystery too daunting.

Nancy Drew is a peacemaking detective – a sleuth who rights the wrongs of a soft-boiled world:
Unlike the hardboiled private investigator or the cerebral Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew engages her inquiries as a form of peacemaking. The crime that has been perpetrated has disturbed the balance of the world, at least as it is known in the microcosm of River Heights. Nancy Drew’s benevolence toward the circle of victims leads her to unravel the mystery through the providence of Good Deeds, the knight errant of midwestern law and order, with its concomitant rewards and punishments. (Lundin 2003, 124)
The early Nancy Drew novels were rewritten over a 20 year period, starting in 1959. Nancy was modernized, the plots tightened, descriptions streamlined, and racial stereotyping removed. After Simon & Schuster bought the Syndicate in 1984, they launched a number of variations of the series (Nancy Drew Files, Nancy Drew Notebooks, Nancy Drew Girl Detective, Nancy Drew on Campus) but none have remained as popular as the original books.

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

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

Lundin, Anne. “Everygirl’s Good Deeds: The Heroics of Nancy Drew.” The Lion and the Unicorn 27, no. 1 (2003): 120–30.

Mula, Rose Madeline. “Nancy Drew and Me: The Unflappable Heroine Continues to Entertain Generations as the Smart, Gutsy, and Ageless Teen Detective.” Saturday Evening Post 282, no. 4 (2010): 50-51.

Rehak, Melanie. Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005.