Before Nancy Drew

I’ve been taking a deep dive into the history of children’s detective novels.  Childrens (or really, teens) authors got into the act not long after adult detective novels became a rage, in the early 20th century. Writers and publishers knew they were on to a good thing: they took out the murders, threw in some enterprising teens, and found a whole new audience.

One of the earliest practitioners was American author Augusta Huiell Seaman, who wrote close to 40 juvenile mysteries, beginning in 1915. (For comparison, Sherlock Holmes became popular around 1890, and the first Agatha Christie was published in 1920.)

It’s startling how much Nancy Drew, begun 15 years later, owes to Seaman’s books, particularly if you compare the early-career Seamans and the early Nancy Drews (original versions, not the 1960’s rewrites). It’s all there, the carefree teens at water-side vacation spots, the details about fashion, the youthful boldness and sportiness, the use of the word “chums,” even the clunky use of overly multi-syllabic description. This is from the first few pages of The Slipper Point Mystery (1919):

The canoe approached nearer, revealing its sole occupant to be a girl of fourteen or fifteen, clad in a dazzlingly white and distinctly tailored linen Russian blouse suit, with a pink satin tie, her curly golden hair surmounted by an immense bow of the same hue. She beached her canoe skilfully not six feet away from the rowboat of the occupied prow. And as she stepped out, further details of her costume could be observed in fine white silk stockings and dainty patent leather pumps. Scarcely stopping to drag her canoe up further than a few inches on the sand, she hurried past the two in the rowboat and up the broad steps to the pavilion.

The Hardy Boys (1927) and Nancy Drew (1930) were products of  the juggernaut Stratemeyer Syndicate (also known for The Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift, as well as a jaw-dropping list of shorter-lived popular commercial series). They did not create the genre conventions we know today, merely capitalized on them.


Later Seaman books became pretty formulaic themselves, to the point where they were gobbled up and reprinted by Scholastic (staple junk reading for those of us who grew up in the 1960’s and ’70’s).



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