Rehak, Melanie - Girl Sleuth (2)Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her
Melanie Rehak

Although I read some Nancy Drew books as a child, I wasn’t an avid fan. One of my friends, though, had more than a full shelf of Nancy Drew mysteries, and I remember how satisfying it was to see those yellow spines orderly arrayed. But I never returned to Nancy Drew; I admit, I thought of her as a little square, and when I picked up Girl Sleuth, I expected a straightforward account of the ghostwriters behind the Carolyn Keene persona. I was very wrong!

I had no idea how the idea behind Nancy Drew was conceived or executed or how much drama there was behind the scenes, nor was I old enough to register the controversy over who “really” wrote the Nancy Drew books when Mildred Benson, the first ghostwriter, testified in a trial in 1980. Until then, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams who took over her father’s company, the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1930 and wrote many of the later Nancy Drew books, was thought to have been Carolyn Keene.

But these two women weren’t the only to have written Nancy Drew mysteries. What’s more, the manuscripts were based on detailed outlines provided by the Syndiated, and then the manuscripts were heavily edited. In this case, what authorship means becomes a difficult question, and the truth likely is that no single person was Carolyn Keene; she was an amalgam of identities.

Additionally, how Henry Stratemeyer operated the Syndicate and Harriet continued it–as a woman during a time when women didn’t lead companies, starting during the Depression no less made for fascinating reading. Harriet and her sister Edna at first worked together, but conflict divided them until Edna moved to Florida and they were barely talking.

Melanie Rehak’s comprehensive research, though, doesn’t just tell the story of the family, the company, and the Nancy Drew series. It offers a historical context to situate the behavior and decisions of the principle actors. I didn’t know, for example, that the first editions of the Nancy Drew mysteries had a spunky, defiant Nancy, but one who was casually racist. When Grosset & Dunlap, the publisher, insisted on revising the books to remove the racial prejudice, some of Nancy’s spark that made her resonant with feminists in the 1960s and 70s was also edited away.

Although the Nancy Drew books are still published today–and publishers still attempt to create new and trendy tie-ins, Nancy Drew hasn’t ever duplicated the popularity she experienced in her heyday. The most recent entry is a forthcoming movie, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (2019).

Since I wasn’t a huge fan of Nancy Drew but only picked up Girl Sleuth out of a passing curiosity, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it and how much I learned, and I think that it would also appeal to so many other readers: fans of Nancy Drew, those interested in publishing, feminism, or women’s history, or people who like reading fascinating sagas.

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