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Tom Chaney: Nancy Drew at 75

Of Writers And Their Books: Nancy Drew at 75. Tom discusses the history of the writing of the long-running series of Nancy Drew books. This column first appeared 14 August 2005.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: We Rob Banks

By Tom Chaney

Nancy Drew at 75

In 1930 Nancy Drew sprang into life in The Secret of the Old Clock. She was a sixteen-year-old teenager speeding around River Heights in her small blue roadster solving crimes, rafting on white water, and cooking gourmet meals.

Nancy Drew was the last literary brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, owner of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. He had created the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, and the Hardy Boys. Those series for young people had become so popular that he saw a market for a girls' mystery-adventure series.

Stratemeyer hired a young journalist in 1929 to write the stories under the pen name Carolyn Keene. That young, anonymous journalist was later found to be Mildred Wort Benson, who was the first person to earn a master's degree in journalism at the University of Iowa.

Stratemeyer died in 1930, the year the first three Nancy Drew mysteries were published. Stratemeyer’s daughter, Harriet Adams, took over supervision of the series, writing some of the books herself.

Grosset & Dunlap first published the series. In 1969 the syndicate entered into an agreement with the publishing firm of Simon & Schuster. Harriet Adams died in 1982. Two years later Simon & Schuster bought the syndicate and the aging Nancy Drew (by now she had turned eighteen), thereby becoming both the publisher and owner of Miss Drew.

The idea of the character of Nancy Drew developed in an unusual way for a heroine of the depression. First, she was rich. Her attorney-father spared no expense on his daughter and allowed her the freedom to catch crooks. Nancy's mother had died when the budding sleuth was but three years old. She lived with her frequently absent father and a live-in housekeeper, Hannah Gruen.

This home situation left her free to investigate at all hours without fear of parental disapproval. She often elicited her more timid girlfriends, Bess Marvin and Georgia (George) Fayne, to aid her in hunting criminals. Her steady boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, often lent a hand. One local Nancy Drew fan remarked that this freedom was one of the features that attracted her to the Nancy Drew stories. "Nothing ever happened in Horse Cave like in River Heights."

When the identity of the first Carolyn Keene came to light, the University of Iowa convened a symposium on the influence of Nancy Drew. Some of the participants are in the forefront of a new field of mystery and suspense stories with women detectives.

In the discussion in Iowa City several writers noted the lack of gender stereotypes in the character of Nancy Drew. Nancy Pickard wrote, "Nancy is our bright heroine, chasing down the shadows, conquering our worst fears, giving us a glimpse of our brave and better selves, proving to everybody exactly how admirable and wonderful a thing it is to be a girl."

"Nancy manages the almost impossible feat of being wholesomely 'feminine' ... while also proving herself strong, resourceful and bold, the most independent of the girl sleuths. Nancy is a paradox, and she is also the most popular girl detective in the world," according to Kentucky writer Bobbie Ann Mason.

Carolyn G. Heilbrun, a noted literary scholar who also writes mysteries as Amanda Cross, praises Nancy Drew as "... a young woman who refuses to be a romance-obsessed sex object, and who takes risks on behalf of those in need of help.... She says a life of adventure is possible, and even noble." This praise could certainly apply to Amanda Cross' heroine, Kate Fansler whose sleuthing territory is apt to be the university campus.

Nancy Drew has worn out a number of Carolyn Keenes. She has solved over 350 cases and sold more than 200 million books in some fourteen languages.

In 1986 Pocket Books launched the Nancy Drew Files aimed at a slightly older, late teen audience. In eleven years 124 titles were issued.

In the mid nineties Simon & Schuster enrolled Nancy, Bess, and George in Wilder University as freshmen in a rather more sophisticated twenty-five book series, Nancy Drew on Campus, with 1.5 million copies in print.

In 1994 younger readers met an eight-year-old Nancy Drew solving her first mysteries in the Nancy Drew Notebooks -- again more than twenty-five titles and 1.5 million in sales.

Then there is the inevitable teaming of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys called the Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys Super Mysteries -- more than four million copies of 36 titles.

And now Nancy has entered the computer age. The 1998 Secrets Can Kill; 2002's Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake followed by 2004's Danger on Deception Island all provide puzzles to solve and people to interview. According to Ric Manning of the Courier-Journal, "Nancy Drew: Secret of the Old Clock" celebrates the 75th anniversary of the novels using the story from the first book.

And Nancy sails down the years in her blue roadster or blue Mustang or jet plane providing adventure for teens and young adults, and perhaps influencing a new crop of budding women novelists the likes of Sarah Paretesky or Bobbie Ann Mason.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-10-05 11:44:16
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