Bookforum | Oct/Nov 2005

Before Buffy, Charlie's Angels, and Wonder Woman, there was Nancy Drew. She was sort of annoying, with her perfect hair and car and boyfriend, and her eyes couldn't dance without dancing merrily. But it's hard not to admit that as a female investigator, bearing top billing on her slim shoulders, she was decades ahead of her time. In Girl Sleuth, Melanie Rehak pitches the story of America's iconic teen detective as a mystery: the quest for the creative force behind the pen name Carolyn Keene.

Like Nancy, Rehak is at her best when things seem at their bleakest. The first crisis occurs in 1930, when Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the collective that produced Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, and countless other popular youth series, dies of pneumonia. What will happen to his fledgling character, teenage sleuth Nancy? Will his inexperienced daughters determine Nancy's fate? Will Mildred Augustine Wirt—the spunky Iowa journalist who wrote the first three books, beginning in 1929, from outlines provided by Stratemeyer—continue now that her mentor is gone?

It's a riveting story, encompassing a sea change in the role of women in fiction, publishing, and the American workplace, and Rehak's book is, not surprisingly, strong on plot, complete with the requisite twists. Her style, however, errs on the simple side, favoring reporting over analysis, and the elementary commentary on larger historical events, in particular World War II and the civil rights movement, is somewhat unsatisfying. Although the connection to the Nancy narrative is clear—Rehak briefs readers on civil rights activism, for example, after describing complaints of racism lodged against the series in the '50s—the historical asides that result seem too diluted to stimulate a culture-savvy audience.

Part of this is symptomatic of the series itself. One of Rehak's most significant observations about the Nancy Drew mysteries is the way they completely skirted major historical events, starting with the Great Depression. Stratemeyer dreamed up the character before the crash of 1929, but the first books did not appear until spring 1930. Still, as Rehak notes, Nancy blithely shops at a swanky department store, and her roadster guzzles gas; she is untouched by the nation's hardships even as she fights economic injustice on a personal scale. (In her first adventure, she finds a missing will that benefits four poverty-stricken households at the expense of a wealthy one.) Later, the ever-resourceful Nancy also proves virtually impervious to war, though in revised editions she at least faces the changing times with an updated hairdo and a convertible.

To her credit, Rehak—who holed up with not only all fifty-six books from the original series but also the thirty-four revisions—knows that a mystery's payoff is all about the denouement. Her portrayal of the series's ultimate drama, a face-off between two spirited writers, both over seventy years old and each laying claim to the character of Nancy, does not disappoint. Nor do the smaller revelations she offers at every turn: how, for example, the Stratemeyer Syndicate pioneered direct-marketing catalogues to sell its books to children, in the face of much parental hand-wringing. And though Rehak dwells less on theoretical issues than on material and social aspects (the mechanics of publishing, the two waves of feminism that affect Nancy's character), her book gives readers the chance to pose questions of their own about the nature of collective authorship and intellectual property, the essence of creativity, and the mystery of one girl sleuth's unlikely survival.