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The case of the perpetual teen
Melanie Rehak's Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her is a witty, tell-all narrative that unmasks the origins of the popular young detective. Sixteen-year-old Nancy Drew burst onto the scene 75 years ago, the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the prolific Stratemeyer Syndicate. Stratemeyer mined cultural and literary marketplace trends to invent characters and plotlines (including the Bobbsey Twins and Ruth Fielding stories), then delegated the writing to ghostwriters. After the success of his Hardy Boys series in 1927, he created a feminine character: blond, blue-eyed Nancy, beloved daughter of widower attorney Carson Drew. Plucky and capable, she wore smart tweeds, drove a blue roadster, dated the devoted Ned Nickerson and solved mysteries that were "Robin Hood scenarios with a little bit of danger thrown in."
Stratemeyer's series outline sold the character immediately to publisher Grosset & Dunlap, but it took two strong-minded and talented women to fully develop Nancy: Stratemeyer's daughter, Harriet Adams (who ran the syndicate after Stratemeyer's death in late 1930), and journalist/ghostwriter Mildred Benson, who wrote nearly all the books under the name Carolyn Keene. Both women were hard-working, intelligent and headstrong, and had been college-educated in the early 1900sAdams at rarified Wellesley College, Benson at Iowa State University. Adams directed Benson closely in writing the Drew character and plots, once stating that, "had Nancy ever gone to college, she would have been a Wellesley girl." But Benson put her indelible stamp on the intrepid sleuth, rendering heroften to Adam's displeasurein her own, self-described likeness as an "impudent pup" and "an individualist."
Girl Sleuth is an enjoyable anecdote-packed read, as it tracks the myriad reinventions of a fictional character influenced by changing times, mores and tastes. (Rehak's complex discussion of the Drew character as intertwined with the rise of the American women's movement is informative, though perhaps better left to a separate book.) While our heroine's roadster may now be equipped with a global positioning system, says Rehak, "she's still our Nancy."