The All-American Girl—and Detective

The All-American Girl—and Detective

Eighty-seven years ago, on April 28, 1930, most of the country was mired in unhappiness and worry. The stock market had crashed just six months before, and the Great Depression was only just beginning. But one American entered this uncertain time with unflappable pluck: Nancy Drew.

Nancy was not a child of the Depression. A pretty 16-year-old from River Heights, a lovely town that happened to have an unusually high crime rate, she existed in a realm outside of ordinary worries like unemployment and bank failures. She had her own sporty roadster, a wealthy father, and a doting housekeeper, and she lived in a world where fortunes could be restored through dogged sleuthing and lunch was always waiting at home. Nancy Drew, girl detective, was the creation of a rich man, Edward Stratemeyer, and later, his daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, two people who went through the Depression without any serious concessions in their lifestyle. But Nancy’s fortunate circumstances don’t explain how and why she outlasted the Depression and kept generations of fans in her thrall.

The first and latest book in the series.
The first and latest book in the series.

Edward Stratemeyer, book packager extraordinaire, was the mind behind some of the biggest publishing successes in twentieth-century America. He achieved his powerful position by combining an intuitive understanding of what young readers wanted with effective marketing strategies. Before he created Nancy Drew, he had already launched a number of popular careers, including those of Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, and the Hardy Boys, contracting out the writing of the individual books to freelance writers across the country, each always following a detailed outline written by Stratemeyer himself.

But it was Stratemeyer’s marketing tricks that cemented the success of his young heroes and heroines. He invented the breeder set, a collection of three introductory books that hooked his readers into wanting more (the tactic remains popular for marketing children’s books) and made sure each book ended with a teaser description of the next. The price of the books—50 cents—was low enough for children to earn by themselves or to wheedle out of an indulgent parent. He bought mailing lists of children’s names and addresses from youth organizations, and he sent the children catalogs, knowing that one child with a catalog could spark desire in a whole neighborhood.

One of his gifts was being able to identify an adult publishing trend and adapt it for young readers. When Nancy Drew made her debut, the country was already mad for mysteries. Agatha Christie had been writing her Hercule Poirot books for a decade, and pulp magazines would soon be churning out their issues weekly, with stories by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Stratemeyer’s first teen sleuths, the Hardy Boys, were a big success, and a female counterpart was the logical next step.

But Nancy Drew, the linchpin of the Stratemeyer Syndicate for the next 54 years, would be Edward Stratemeyer’s last hurrah. Twelve days after the first Nancy Drew book was published, he died of pneumonia. As Melanie Rehak details in her book Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, Nancy now became the work of two separate women: Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, the new head of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and Mildred Wirt Benson, the ghostwriter behind most of the early mysteries. Together, Adams and Benson were Carolyn Keene, the author listed in the Library of Congress as Nancy Drew’s author. Their differing visions of Nancy would eventually be reflected in two versions of the series.

Benson, a Midwesterner who was the first woman to get a masters of journalism from the University of Iowa, worked as a reporter (primarily at the Toledo Blade) from graduation until till the day she died at the age of 96. Her prolific book writing, which supported her family, was unflagging, even through her pregnancy and, later, the death of her first husband. Her Nancy was a reflection of her own personality: efficient, professional, and sometimes a little sarcastic. (One of her colleagues described her at the age of 93 as having the dismissive air of Robert De Niro.)

Adams had grown up in comfort, thanks to her father’s business success, and attended Wellesley at a time when a college education was still a rarity for a woman. When her father died she was settled in suburban New Jersey as a wife and mother of four, not having worked except for a brief stint at her father’s office before her marriage. But she took on the job of heading up the Stratemeyer Syndicate with zeal and without a look back, keeping the company profitable for five decades and distributing handsome profits to her sister and her mother. Adams saw Nancy as more ladylike and gave her a more genteel vocabulary. Benson’s Nancy grumbled; Adams’s sparkled.

Their differences meshed for the first 30 books, until 1953, when Adams decided to take over all the writing. She also set about rewriting the earliest volumes, sometimes changing their plots substantially. During the rewrites she removed racist language that had peppered the early volumes and made other concessions to modern times. Nancy’s age was bumped up to 18 to reflect the new driver-license laws, and she no longer wore hats and gloves.

These changes were little noticed by the new generations of Nancy Drew readers, but they resisted other attempts to modernize her. Television and movie versions of the books failed, though the TV show did spawn a novelization of one of the most unlikely episodes, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula. The Nancy Drew Files, a spinoff series that Simon and Schuster started after Adams died, updated Nancy Drew substantially, and its tawdry appeal to the youth of today was a significant departure from Adams’s proper sleuth. (I remember my shock when Nancy and Ned actually kissed in Two Points to Murder, a bit of news that I anxiously shared with my fourth-grade classmates, who crowded around my desk to read the titillating paragraph.)

In the end, the 56 classic Nancy Drew mysteries, from The Secret in the Old Clock to The Thirteenth Pearl, probably endured because of brand recognition and loyalty as much as anything else. Along with the Hardy Boys, they were the first serial mysteries aimed at young readers. Printed in sturdy hardback, they lasted longer than paperbacks, so a volume could be passed from one generation to the next. They have never gone out of print, and the fact that new Nancy Drew stories have continued to appear for the last quarter of a century has kept new readers hooked. Can Nancy last for another 76 years? The clues say yes.