This past spring, Nancy Drew—foiler of plots, possessor of a killer wardrobe, maker of tea sandwiches and above all else, driver of that illustrious blue car, which has morphed over the years from a roadster to a convertible to a hybrid—turned 81. It seems almost inconceivable that our favorite teenaged detective could have been with us for close to a century, but then again, it’s equally difficult to imagine American culture without her. She was the first girl character to head up her own series, the first fictional girl to be as mature, sensible, athletic and smart as her overwhelmingly male children’s book counterparts back in the early decades of the 20th century, and the sleuth that made us all envy her with her adventures, her triumphs over evil, her tight-knit band of friends and, of course, her cute boyfriend Ned, who made a great date but never got in the way of anything she wanted to do.
Unsurprisingly, success came effortlessly to Nancy, though it was something of a shock to almost everyone else. Her first three stories were published on the same day in April of 1930 (in a package that the children’s publishing industry of the time referred to as a “breeder set” because it was designed to get young readers hooked and clamoring for more) and they were runaway hits. The Secret of the Old Clock, The Bungalow Mystery and The Hidden Staircase took Nancy from haunted mansion to creepy cabin to a sinking boat—with a few stops for a nice lunch along the way as well as several blows to the head and a blinding rainstorm.
scenes, things were no less shadowy. Though the books claimed Carolyn Keene as their author, there was no such person, a fact many people are unaware of even today. In reality, Nancy’s inventor was a man named Edward Stratemeyer, and the women who brought her to life over the next five decades were Edward’s two grown daughters, Harriet and Edna, and a young journalist named Mildred Benson.
Stratemeyer himself was the only person who wasn’t surprised by Nancy’s success. He knew her audience was waiting for her because he got the idea for his “up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful and full of energy” from his greatest source of inspiration, fan mail from kids. By the time Nancy came along, he was the head of his own company, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which also put out other indelible series like The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, Bomba the Jungle Boy and The Hardy Boys (who preceded Nancy by three years but were never as popular as she was). His method of working was to write outlines for every book in each series, and then give the writing work to one of his trusty stable of ghostwriters, which he later edited to ensure consistency. By using a pseudonymous author for each series, he ensured that loyal fans would never know if he changed writers.
And were they ever loyal! Over the course of his decades as a producer of children’s books, he received hundreds of letters from children, and he paid close attention to the enthusiasms and criticisms they shared with him when it came to figuring out what kind of stories to try next. By the mid-1920s, an era of liberation for women, he began to notice that his girl readers in particular were asking for a kind of book he hadn’t considered before: stories in which a girl heroine made her intrepid way through life and did not, in the end, grow up and decide to get married. They had been subsisting on books that were either written for boys or, even if they featured action like The Motor Girls, The Outdoor Girls and the Ruth Fielding series (which concerned a young woman making her way as a film producer in Hollywood) all ended up that way, and they were tired of them. One little girl who was enamored of his Don Sturdy series wrote: “Won’t you please write another two or three about Don and Teddy to satisfy my insatiable love of thrilling and exciting adventure. Please [underlined 8 times] emphatically do not [underlined with a scribble] make Mrs. Sally Sturdy and Ruth so weepy and weak.”
When he dreamed up Nancy, who was originally to be called Stella Strong, his hunch, based on what we might think of today as data from a focus group of children, turned out to be right and created a groundbreaking character who just happened to solve mysteries, too. Nancy, who never aged (with one exception when the driving age was changed from 16 to 18) and never even considered matrimony, was an instant superstar, not least because of her bold independence. Many years later, when Edward’s daughter Harriet was running the Syndicate alone, she reminded herself of this key element: “Must appeal to children. This excludes love element, adult hardships. Marrying off Nancy Drew disastrous.”
And what of Harriet, who ghost wrote many of the Nancy Drew books (and many other Syndicate books as well), her sister Edna, and their writer-for-hire, Mildred? With very little to go on other than their wits and courage, Harriet and Edna took over their father's company when he died suddenly of pneumonia just a few weeks after Nancy’s debut, with Harriet as its public face, and both of them writing of outlines. Edna became a silent partner in 1942, and Harriet forged ahead on her own despite being consistently patronized by men in the publishing business who could not adjust to the idea that a woman was in charge of a million-dollar company.
She had an equally ambitious counterpart in Mildred Benson, who, even after she was hired as a reporter at The Toledo Times during World War II -- a job she steadfastly refused to give up when the men came home -- continued to throw her all into her book writing, which included numerous other series in addition to the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories. These women would have been exceptional even by today’s standards, but in the postwar years, when American women found their choices and salaries abruptly limited, they were nothing short of extraordinary. As their peers dropped not only out of careers but also out of college either to marry or to make sure that they would not be too educated to do so, these two persevered.
Nancy Drew did, too, thanks to the combination of Harriet and Mildred, neither of whom received any credit for her writing efforts until much later. Her good breeding and unwillingness to do so much as kiss Ned Nickerson made her acceptable to newly wholesome 1950's America, even as she continued to outwit everyone. Then, just as the psychedelic 60's threatened to sweep away everything that had come before, including our blue-eyed heroine, the girl detective was anointed by her fans as something much more critical than a series book character with excellent manners and an enviable car: she was an icon of women's liberation. ''I was such a Nancy Drew fan . . . and I'd love to know how many of us who are feminists right now in our 30's read those books,'' the president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Karen DeCrow, told The Boston Globe in 1976.
Still, Nancy herself never really changed—she didn’t really have to since she had always been so forward thinking. Though she was being embraced by a new generation, and many details of the books were altered--racial stereotypes, including black characters who spoke exclusively in Southern slave-era dialect, were excised along with clothing styles, appliances and any number of other things that dated the series, while Nancy and her pals began to wear pants and stopped talking about the running boards of cars—the stories themselves remained ageless, existing in a universe untouched by World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the psychedelic '60s and the women's lib movement. Rather than reflecting the times, Nancy provided an escape from them in many ways. Which, if we’re honest about it, is one of the best reasons to read any mystery story, be it Nancy Drew, Mary Higgins Clark, Laura Lippman anyone else. Real life, after all, presents so few opportunities to tie up all the loose ends neatly.
Here is a short review of one of the early Nancy Drew books.