Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

by Melanie Rehak

Published by Harcourt

364 pages, 2005




The Real Mystery About Nancy

Reviewed by Sienna Powers


Nancy Drew has a lot of fans of many ages. A lot. For three-quarters of a century, she's been gathering up generation after generation of new readers. As one set of young fans grew up, another rolled in to take their place. But even growing up couldn't erase the soft spot a lot of women kept for the dynamic sleuth and Carolyn Keene the woman who created her and whose name was on the cover of -- literally -- countless copies of Nancy Drew books.

The biggest surprise in Melanie Rehak's breezy biography of the fictional detective is that -- like Aunt Jemima and Betty Crocker -- there never actually was a Carolyn Keene. In fact, the person who dreamed the girl detective up in the first place was -- wait for it -- a man.

These suggestions are for a new series for girls verging on novels. 224 pages, to retail at fifty cents. I have called this line the "Stella Strong Stories," but they might also be called "Diana Drew Stories;" "Diana Dare Stories," "Nan Nelson Stories," "Nan Drew Stories" or "Helen Hale Stories..."

Stella Strong, a girl of sixteen, is the daughter of a District Attorney of many years standing. He is a widower and often talks over his affairs with Stella and the girl was present during many interviews her father had with noted detectives .... quite unexpectedly, Stella plunged into some mysteries of her own.... An up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful and full of energy.

This from a memo sent by prolific and successful children's book author Edward Stratemeyer in 1929 to his longtime publishers, Grosset & Dunlap. Stratemeyer, who was also the creator of the very popular Bobbsey Twins franchise (which he wrote under the pen name Laura Lee Hope) had over the years developed a syndicate and, at the time of the memo, he did very little of the writing himself, instead developing pools of other writers to farm his work out to.

Grosset & Dunlap were enthusiastic about the new series, and Stratemeyer contracted the actual writing of the books out to a young writer he'd been working with, Mildred Wirt Benson.

When Stratemeyer passed away in 1930 and in the first wave of Nancy Drew's success, his daughters inherited the company. It was here that the real mystery around the Nancy Drew books -- and others that their father's Stratemeyer Syndicate had been producing -- was born. A Publisher's Weekly article that the young Stratemeyer sisters thought less than flattering to both the company and their late father called their ire. To avoid future press scrutiny, they determined to "create personas for the Syndicate's most valued pseudonyms..." Among them, Laura Lee Hope and Carolyn Keene who were, in a sense, brought to life. "Eventually," writes Rehak, "every 'author' would acquire stationary with his or her name at the top of it, a bit of biographical background, and a signature, generally forged by Harriet whenever it was called for."

If the history in Girl Sleuth is fascinating, so too are the changes the Nancy Drew character has undergone over the years: more than the hemlines were altered. And, as much as things changed, some things never really did. In her introduction, Rehak notes that she had recently read all 56 of the original Nancy Drew novels:

I discovered that the series often relies on formulaic dialogue, totally implausible escapes, and absurd plot twists that Agatha Christie would never have approved of. But I also realized that the stories themselves are secondary. What we remember is Nancy: her bravery, her style, her generosity...

Melanie Rehak reminds us to see good ol' Nancy in that way, as well. | December 2005


Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.