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Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

A-GirlSleuthIn this biography, social history, and homage to a robust fictional icon, Rehak delves into the background of Nancy Drew, that sassy, suave thing who fearlessly swept past police and "keep out" signs to solve over 50 crimes without mussing her perfect coif. Edward Stratemeyer, a children’s book author who also created the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins, originally concocted this girl detective. He commissioned ghostwriter Mildred Wirt Benson to begin the series in 1929. When he died, daughters Harriet and Edna Adams took up his syndicate publishing business and churned out the wildly successful series under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Rehak charts Nancy’s evolution against the backdrop of the Depression, World War II, changing racial and sexual roles, and the women’s movement.
Harcourt. 364 pages. $25. ISBN: 0151010412

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"In this well-researched and fluidly paced book, Rehak delivers a complex interweaving of the writers’ biographies with the context of their times. … Rehak writes with gusto and intelligence about Benson and Adams, their publishing worlds, and American women’s history." Maud Lavin

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Benson brought Western spunk and adventure to Nancy’s style, but Harriet added to that a touch of East Coast refinement. … For longtime Nancy fans who pick up Rehak’s book, just one warning: You will not have read more than a chapter or two before you are filled with longing to return to the world of Riverside Heights." Marjorie Kehe

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Rehak does a terrific job of bringing to life the writers and editors who constituted Carolyn Keene, the pseudonymous author of the series. … But Girl Sleuth is least successful in its attempts to be a social history of feminism." Kate Arthur

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"[A]n absorbing, well-researched stroll through a century of cultural history. … Girl Sleuth is an enjoyable, thorough piece of detective work." Karen R. Long

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Melanie Rehak … has taken on a feat of daring worthy of Nancy herself. … The pleasures of Girl Sleuth come from what most of the book is devoted to—the stories of the forceful personalities behind the series and how their lives were affected by historical events." Jan Burke

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Rehak could have gotten more deeply inside the heads of both women. Still, she clearly culled numerous details gleaned from stacks of newspaper articles and other primary sources to document this fascinating chapter in the history of publishing." Kari Wergeland

Critical Summary

Rehak glows as a biographer of the players behind the creation of the mythic girl detective, exploring Adams’s background as a Wellesley graduate at a time when few girls completed high school and her subsequent transformation from housewife to businesswoman after inheriting her father’s publishing company. With her own sleuthing, Rehak pieces together the working relationship between Benson and Adams from their business letters and dealings. As a historian, however—especially of the emerging feminist movement—Rehak strains and struggles to tie together the enormous shifts in women’s roles and the timeless simplicity of Nancy’s world. Still, she has written a readable and intriguing exploration of that character so influential in stoking the crime-solving imagination of over three generations of American girls.

Where to Start

The Secret of the Old Clock | Carolyn Keene (1930): Before it’s too late, why not start some young girl you know with the first of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, in which Nancy searches for a missing will? Ages 9-12.