Juvenile and Young-Adult Mystery Fiction Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

After the 1870’s, the American publishing world experienced an explosion of literature written for young readers. Many of the early books published for juveniles were didactic and moralistic in tone and subject. Others based on historical characters, events, and situations were educational. There was also another kind of publication read by young people that was generally decried as tasteless, unwholesome, and a bad influence on young people: the dime novel. That “demon-in-print,” as it was sometimes known, was undoubtedly the most widely read of all the works of literature of that day and age in the United States. Dime novels were also diverse; some were written specifically for adults, while others were aimed at younger reader. There were also dime novels written specifically for women, and others written for male readers.

The range of subject matter in dime novels was immense, and mystery and detective stories numbers were exceptionally popular. In the world of the dime novel, Nick Carter and the Old Sleuth series of detective stories, including the adventures of Detective Gay and countless other sleuths, inspired readers breathlessly fans to await new installments in the adventures of their favorite mystery solvers. Moreover, no matter what the subject or theme of most dime novels, mysteries were frequently used as secondary plot devices to hold readers’ interest. Such secondary mysteries might pertain to hidden identities; recovery of lost jewelry, money or documents; perpetrators of vandalism; or devices that would serve to whet readers’ attention. Dime novels were stigmatized as poorly written and sensationalist publications, but that stigma was not always deserved. Such respected children’s authors as Louisa May Alcott perfected their craft by writing dime novels.

By the late nineteenth century, most dime novel publishers, and especially Street & Smith, began pooling their titles into “Libraries” designed for boys and girls and printing those titles into hardback books. At a time when hardbound children’s books sold for more than a dollar, the seventy-five cents charged for a Library volume was a bargain. In most instances, however, these hardbound Library volumes were simply previously published dime novels in new bindings redesigned for children. Some of the authors represented in the Libraries went on to write juvenile series books. As a consequence, the unsavory reputation of dime novels tended to taint the new juvenile series.

The Transitional Period

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the nineteenth century, certain authors created successful niches for themselves in juvenile fiction. The rags-to-riches tales that Horatio Alger began writing during the 1860’s were considered to be morally exemplary, if a bit unrealistic. Oliver Optic’s boys books were mostly historical adventures set in various places and times, and featured a youthful hero. Martha Findlay created the Elsie Dinsmore books, a series of domestic novels much admired by sentimental young women of that period.

As the twentieth century approached, the face of juvenile literature was about to change. Men such as Gilbert Patten and Edward Stratemeyer would bring about that change. Both men had enjoyed success as the authors of dime novels themselves and were ready to investigate the new opportunity of juvenile literature. Writing as Burt L. Standish, Patten created a popular series of dime novels about Frank Merriwell (1901-1911) that were then collected into a series of hardbound books. With the explosion of new juvenile books, new publishers sprang up across the country, but many of them disappeared almost as rapidly as they had appeared.

Patten’s Merriwell books were mostly school and sports stories. Some of them contained suspenseful plot elements or simple mysteries to solve. Stratemeyer wrote as Arthur M. Winfield. His main series was the Rover Boys (1899-1926), which were also essentially school stories. However, Stratemeyer’s characters often traveled to faraway places and had adventures solving mysteries concerning such matters as crooks who tried to steal from their father’s business or would-be kidnappers. Rover Boys books also involved treasures to be unearthed, cases of amnesia to be cured, and rescues to be effected. Books in the Rover Boys series were never based primarily on mysteries, but because Stratemeyer had written twenty-two Nick Carter dime novel mysteries, he realized the value of making books engrossing for readers, both young and old.

Mysteries alone could not always make a series successful. L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), tried to write juvenile mysteries, but his series lasted through only two books, The Daring Twins (1911) and Phoebe Daring (1912) before being discontinued. Baum’s publisher was a small Chicago-based company that could not afford to carry a series until it developed an audience of regular readers.

Girls’ Mysteries

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Until the early twentieth century, girls’ books were outsold by boys’ books. The introduction of mysteries aimed specifically at girls in the second decade of the new century changed that, and girls’ books were soon outselling those written for boys. The Ruth Fielding series of novels that began in 1913 quickly became a huge success and eventually reached thirty titles. Authorship of the Freeman books was credited to Alice B. Emerson, but Emerson was actually a house name used by the new publishing syndicate created by Stratemeyer.

Much like the fiction factory of Alexander Dumas, père, in nineteenth century France, Stratemeyer’s syndicate provided titles and outlines of stories to work-for-hire writers who turned out books written to specification. Stratemeyer decided early to follow fairy-tale conventions; consequently, many of his leading characters were either partial or full orphans who proved themselves to be self-reliant, clever, and courageous. As an orphan and very much on her own, Ruth Fielding is an example. She takes her life into her own hands and tries to mold it as she wishes it to be. She has friends who help her, but she meets her own challenges head-on and independently. She begins as a self-confident schoolgirl who later becomes a Red Cross nurse, an actress, a scriptwriter, and a director of motion pictures. She also finds time to marry, have a child, and solve mysteries during her spare hours.

The Ruth Fielding series represented both the continuum of the dime novel tradition and the innovative qualities that created juvenile mystery fiction. Such books gave young readers a sense of empowerment, enabling them to see themselves operating on adult levels but often without having to deal with adult supervision or the necessity of being responsible to adults. In many series, the youthful heroes faced adult villains whom they had to outsmart. All the leading characters in series were understood to be on the side of right and working for the good. However, adult characters in the series generally fail to understand that truth and frequently warn youngsters to stay away from trouble.

Innovations in Juvenile Series

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

A twentieth century innovation in juvenile series books was the use of advanced technology of the kind popularized in the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. At the turn of the twentieth century, American lifestyles were rapidly changing as new inventions were loosed upon society. Steam-powered ships and railroads and automobiles were revolutionizing travel. This development was reflected in such juvenile books as the Motor Boys series that began in 1906, the Motor Girls series (1910), and the Ralph of the Railroad series (1906). Meanwhile, aviation had recently become possible, and on a larger scale than anyone dreamed possible, so there were naturally Boy Aviators series (1913) and Girl Aviators series (1911). L. Frank Baum entered this field, too, with his two-volume Flying Girl series (1911). By the 1920’s, radio was also making a place for itself in American homes, so it is not surprising that there were also Radio Boys (1922) and Radio Girls (1922) series.

Because young people are often quickest to pick up on and champion new technologies, it is not surprising that young readers would be quick to see the value of applying new technologies to solving mysteries. One of the more popular juvenile characters of all time is Tom Swift, a youthful inventor who made his debut in Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle in 1910. Tom envisioned and built flying machines, house trailers, electric rifles, and all kinds of wonderful things, including some whose...

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Willing Suspension of Disbelief

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

To any mystery series, readers must bring a willing suspension of disbelief. If readers can believe that teenage boy capable of running a laboratory or factory on his own, while inventing devices such as atomic-powered vehicles, then they should have no trouble in believing that an enemy nation is attempting to subvert the boy’s work and that the boy can find time to solve the mystery of who is scheming against him, even while having obligations to a family and a girlfriend.

Tom Swift, Jr.’s main series competitor was the Rick Brant science mystery series published from 1947 to 1968 under the house name John Blaine. Peter Harkins wrote the first three books in the series, Harold Godwin the next twenty-one. The Rick Brant books were actually mysteries that used science backgrounds, in contrast to books about solving the mysteries of science—a description that tends to characterize the Tom Swift books. Tom’s work often takes him to very exotic places, including outer space, but Rick’s adventures are strictly confined to Earth.

The challenge of solving mysteries appeals to readers of all ages and especially to the young, who know that mysteries exist all around them and look for ways to solve them. Young readers want to be treated with the same respect accorded to the series detectives by the police who defer to them. That same kind of freedom from the restraints of childhood is symbolized by the mobility available to these series heroes by use of mechanical forms of transportation, such as motorboats, airplanes, automobiles, and motorcycles. The decades between the later 1920’s and the 1960’s were when series mysteries enjoyed their greatest popularity and sales. In spite of the Great Depression, these inexpensive volumes continued to sell. The books were inexpensive because publishers realized they make more money by selling in volume than by selling books at inflated prices. When a new series was launched, it was customary to release its first three volumes simultaneously in which was called a “breeder” set, so readers would not have to wait for six months or a year to get another volume.

The Hardy Boys

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The final years of the 1920’s and opening years of the 1930’s introduced two young-adult mystery fiction series that set the standards against which all later juvenile mystery series would be judged. The Hardy Boys series began in 1927, and the Nancy Drew series followed three years later.

The sons of the nationally known detective Fenton Hardy, Frank and Joe Hardy are brothers who try to follow in their father’s footsteps. Frank tends to be serious, cautious, and thoughtful, while Joe is impetuous, impatient, and prone to acting without thinking through the consequences. Fenton Hardy is proud of his sons’ efforts to detect and encourages them to follow their dreams. However, the boys’ father is often away from home, and their mother is not strong enough to keep the boys safely at home. The boys essentially operate in a world without parents.

Before the appearance of the Hardy Boys, the device of father and son detectives had been used in dime novels, in some of which the fathers and sons competed with each other. The Hardy Boys seldom compete with their father but frequently find that by chance they are working on the same cases. Coincidence plays an important role in the stories, as was common in juvenile mystery series. For example, in one story the boys became irate when a red-haired man nearly runs them down, so they decide to track him down. Eventually, they discover that the man is a criminal whom their father has been...

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Nancy Drew

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

After completing the Ruth Fielding series during the late 1920’s, Edward Stratemeyer wanted to create another girls’ series that would serve as a companion to the Hardy Boys series. Thus was born an incredibly popular titian-haired, blue-eyed amateur detective called Nancy Drew, whose books would consistently outsell those of the Hardy Boys and whose name would become an icon of juvenile mystery fiction.

The stated author of all the Nancy Drew books is Carolyn Keene. However, that is merely a house name created by the Stratemeyer syndicate. Twenty-five of the books were written by Mildred Wirt, a popular journalist and juvenile fiction writer under her own name. Among the many other authors to write books in the...

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Other Boys’ Series

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Another Stratemeyer series for much younger readers, the Bobbsey Twins, was launched in 1904 and lasted seventy-five years. Published under the house name Laura Lee Hope (Lilian and Howard Garis), these books provided children with a gentle introduction to the world of mystery. When the series was reworked during the 1950’s, the mystery components in the books were given greater emphasis, evidently in response to the interest shown by very young children in mysteries. In contrast, older children and young adults generally prefer more action in the mysteries they read. With few exceptions, most juvenile series are not modeled on investigators like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Their...

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Other Girls’ Series

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Within the annals of girls’ mystery fiction, Nancy Drew’s closest rival was probably Grosset & Dunlap’s Judy Bolton series, written by Margaret Sutton. It began in 1932 with The Vanishing Shadow and ran to thirty-eight titles by 1967. Some critics regard the Bolton books as superior to the Drew series and see Judy as offering a better role model. Judy tends to be more personally involved with her friends and those who need her help and does not project the same aloof persona that Nancy does. Whereas Nancy never really ages, Judy progresses from her early teens to high school age and eventually marries—a rarity in itself in girls’ series. Judy also shows that she has a conscience and sometimes reveals a lack...

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Juvenile Mysteries in the Twenty-first Century

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Juvenile mysteries are still being written in the twenty-first century. J. K. Rowling’s extremely popular Harry Potter series is, in effect, an installment mystery. John Bellair’s supernatural suspense stories are also mysteries. Once readers accept that wrongs can be perpetrated by supernatural entities, Bellair’s stories become mysteries like any others. Meanwhile, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys continue to appear in new stories, and sometimes, all three of them join up to fight crime. At the same time, many of the classic juveniles series are being reprinted—in both original and revised editions. Scholarly articles and conferences reflect an undying interest in and devotion to the older series books.

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Billman, Carol. The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and the Million Dollar Fiction Factory. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. Documented study that attempts to explain the phenomenal success of the Stratemeyer Syndicate and its numerous publishing projects.

Caprio, Betsy. Girl Sleuth on the Couch: The Mystery of Nancy Drew. Trabuco Canyon, Calif.: Source Books, 1992. Effort to interpret the Nancy Drew character as a manifestation of Carl Jung’s virgin goddess.

Cox, J. Randolph. The Dime Novel Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. Comprehensive reference...

(The entire section is 441 words.)