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  • The Case of the Celebrity Sleuth:The Girl Detective as Star in Early Nancy Drew Novels
  • Jennifer Geer (bio)

To say that the Nancy Drew mystery series has been commercially successful since its debut in 1930 is something of an understatement. In spite of the Great Depression and the period’s conventional wisdom that series books directed at boys sold better than those for girls, Nancy Drew quickly became a publishing phenomenon. In 1932, Publisher’s Weekly praised the series as one of “the top-notch sellers” for the year, and in 1934 Fortune breathlessly described its sales as “the greatest phenomenon among all the fifty-centers” for young readers (qtd. in Rehak 156, 172). By 2007, nearly eighty years after the girl sleuth first stepped onto the scene, over 200 million Nancy Drew books had been sold worldwide (Taylor R7). Unsurprisingly, many critics have attempted to address the question of why this series became so popular. What made Nancy Drew a bestseller, particularly in the very difficult economic environment of the early 1930s? The Nancy Drew novels certainly benefited from being part of the larger Stratemeyer brand, which by 1930 was celebrating nearly twenty-five years as one of the most popular and prolific publishers of children’s series books. The syndicate’s founder, Edward Stratemeyer, had revolutionized the production and marketing of series books through his use of ghostwriters under tight editorial and contractual control and his emphasis on moderately priced, attractively bound volumes that could be marketed directly to young readers (Johnson 6–7; Keeline 19–21; Nash 34–35; Rehak 25). Within the ranks of Stratemeyer serials, Nancy Drew also distinguished herself by being “the first major full-time investigator in American girls’ series books” (Billman 101). Nancy solves mysteries, and her appeal is thus targeted to fans of that genre as well as fans of serials more generally. As Anne Scott MacLeod has noted, “[t]he series . . . is focused”; readers are in no doubt that they [End Page 300] will be reading a mystery story rather than “a school story or a romance or a career novel with a bit of mystery thrown in” (n.p.). The end result is a reading experience that is both comfortingly formulaic across the series and ever-changing in each individual volume.

Nancy’s adventures proved to be wildly successful even by the high standards of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, however. In 1932, Nancy Drew easily topped the Syndicate’s sales lists even though her novels were competing against longer-established series, including fellow sleuths the Hardy Boys, and her position as one of the top-selling series heroines was still unchallenged fifty-two years later when the syndicate was bought by Simon & Schuster (Rehak 155–56, 172–74, 298–99). Nancy’s enduring popularity suggests that readers found qualities in her that they did not in other Stratemeyer protagonists. One of the most often-cited reasons for this popularity, and one of the most compelling, is the escapist appeal of Nancy’s character and her world, which is notable even within the context of series adventure fiction. Although the early Nancy Drew novels appeared at a time when the real Midwestern towns that inspired River Heights were being heavily impacted by the Great Depression, her hometown remains set apart as a prosperous vision of Americana, and her upper middle-class world of enticing shops, fashionable frocks, and sporty cars appears virtually untouched by economic hardship (Rehak 155; Siegel 164; Stoneley). Nancy herself is similarly idealized. As many critics have pointed out, she enjoys both extraordinary family support and extraordinary independence: she has “no school or employers to restrict her movements, no mother to fuss, no siblings to watch over, and an indulgent and famous father who grants her ample freedom—and, presumably, an equally ample allowance for car maintenance, travel, and needed supplies” (Johnson 151; cf. Chamberlain 3–5; MacLeod; Nash 36–39). Although she is only sixteen, she is respected by virtually every nonvillainous adult she encounters, and she possesses a bewildering array of skills, from car repair to tap dancing. Overall, Nancy functions as what Kathleen Chamberlain has called “an object of projection . . . a mannequin that [readers...


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