Book Review: Girl Sleuth – Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

What a terrific, fascinating read — not just for anyone interested in Nancy Drew, but anyone interested in publishing in general.

Confession: I never read Nancy Drew’s adventures when I was young, but among the first books I read were in the Hardy Boys’ case files series. I went to a Catholic grade school, and I rather vividly remember the small room that housed the library containing all the school’s books for all its grades — K through 8. I read pretty well from an early age (and spoke even earlier). By the time I got to that grade school (in second grade), I had already begun to explore beyond the children’s books. In that room I discovered A Wrinkle in Time, and not long after received the first in the Hardy Boys’ case file series.

I read as many of the adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy as I could over the next few years. I found a few installments that crossed the Hardy brothers over with other characters — Tom Swift sticks out in my mind. I read only one featuring Nancy Drew before, in sixth grade, I read Stephen King’s Needful Things and never really looked back, pursuing more novels from King and Dean Koontz and Michael Crichton over anything for younger readers.

Besides being young sleuths and crossing over in their series, the Hardys and Nancy Drew (and the aforementioned Tom Swift, as well as the Bobsey Twins and several other characters I never encountered) had one big thing in common: they were produced by the Stratemeyer syndicate.

Does that not sound like the most insidious group ever? Like a Hydra-esque cadre of supervillains?

The Stratemeyer syndicate was founded by Edward Stratemeyer — creator of the Hardy boys and everyone else, including Nancy Drew.

“Creator” is an important word there, though — as far as I can tell, Stratemeyer wrote only a few books himself. He farmed the others out to ghostwriters, including Leslie McFarlane, whom I grew up knowing as Franklin W. Dixon — author of the Hardy Boys novels.

What’s interesting is that Girl Sleuth is as much an inside look at that creation and the subsequent management of the Syndicate as it was of the two women who most wrote Nancy Drew under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene — Stratemeyer’s daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, and a woman from Illinois named Mildred Wirt Benson.

Which makes Girl Sleuth as interesting for its insight into the publishing industry (at the time) as it is into the development of Nancy Drew and the relationship between Adams and Benson. Having first appeared in 1930, Nancy Drew has evolved over time — just as the feminist movement has. And having been created even before them, the Stratemeyer syndicate evolved just as the publishing industry has.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate seemed to me to be a now-more-transparent version of what James Patterson has done. It’s really only mentioned in the early pages of Girl Sleuth, but Stratemeyer himself would dream up characters for series he would pitch to his publisher, Grosset and Dunlap — which was purchased by G.P. Putnam’s sons in the 1980s and is now part of the Penguin Random House mega-publishing conglomerate.

Here it would have  been a nice coincidence to tie together, but Patterson is an author with Hachette. Still, basically the process is the same — after Grosset and Dunlap approved Stratemeyer’s series pitch, he would write up a detailed outline of a plot. It sounded like it was usually around five to ten pages long, and it included everything from plot beats to sequences on a chapter-by-chapter basis.

Once that outline was finalized, it would be sent off to a ghostwriter with whom the Syndicate had a relationship. In the case of the Hardy Boys, that was Leslie McFarlane.

In the case of Nancy Drew, that was Mildred Wirt.

Stratemeyer passed away soon after the Nancy Drew series was produced — it seemed like just as the first few books were published (and an immediate success). His daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer, would take over the family business, which would otherwise continue to operate largely as normal.

Girl Sleuth is a fascinating look at how the Nancy Drew books developed under the eyes of Stratemeyer-Adams and Wirt-Benson — and not always amicably, though there never seemed to be anything but politeness between the two women.

That was one of the things it was fascinating to see. The book includes correspondence between the two, with letters from times when their business partnership was strained for various reasons — family illnesses, for example. There were questions of payment and negotiations for increases.

Eventually, Stratemeyer-Adams began to use other ghostwriters for the Nancy Drew series, with Wirt-Benson focusing on her own work, characters, and books.

I mentioned it was now-more-transparent — but it never was at the time. There’s a mention at one point that the Authors Guild (of which John Dos Passos was a member) wrote to Carolyn Keene with an invitation to join — apparently not realizing that Keene was a pseudonym.

For me, for that alone, Girl Sleuth was fascinating. It lagged a bit toward the end, but I also noticed that it, like much non-fiction, suffers from the problem that Kindle can’t separate end matter like appendices and acknowledgements from either its estimated page count or its time-to-finish percentage. I finished the book last night, and when I closed it the percentage was still at around the 70% mark.

That’s a lot of notes!

Still, for less than ten bucks, I think it’s well worth the attention.