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Still going strong at 78

Book Review

Nancy Drew’s 78th birthday – April 28, 1930! That was the publication date of The Secret of the Old Clock, the first in the Nancy Drew Mystery Series by Carolyn Keene.

Most readers know by now that Keene is as much a work of fiction as the much-loved girl sleuth. The Nancy Drew books were the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, founder of The Stratemeyer Syndicate, a book-packaging house that also produced popular series like The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsey Twins and The Dana Girls (published by Grosset & Dunlap).

Book packagers develop the concepts and plots of books (often series) and find writers for these books, handles the editing and also the cosmetic side of producing a book, like cover design and layout.

The book or series is sold to a publisher, and the packager and the author(s) usually share the copyright of the work.

(Currently, the most famous book packager in the business is Alloy Entertainment, responsible for series like Gossip Girl, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and The A-List. Alloy, by the way, started life as 17th Street Productions in 1987 and produced the Sweet Valley High series.)

But back to Nancy Drew and The Stratemeyer Syndicate. I had only a sketchy idea of how the series was created and written until I happened upon Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, by Melanie Rehak. This is a absorbing book for anyone who grew up admiring the girl detective and wishing that their lives were as thrilling as hers.

My third sister introduced me to Nancy Drew with The Clue in the Old Stagecoach. The copy we had was a hardback with a picture cover, published in 1960, seven years before I was born.

By then, the series had been revised a few times and the books, as well as Nancy herself, undergone several makeovers. Her hairstyle and wardrobe continued to be updated every decade or so, to suit new generations of readers.

The text of the books were also revised. Later books (from volumes 35 to 56) were shorter than the first 34, with fewer descriptive passages, the plots and characters less developed. However, in 1959, volumes one to 34 were also edited and shortened.

Content was also changed - for example, in The Secret of Shadow Ranch (volume five, published in 1931), Nancy’s friend George Fayne explained that her parents did not think they would have a son and named her after her grandfather.

But in The Clue in the Old Stagecoach, George declares that her name is short for Georgia. Accordingly, her explanation about her name has been removed from current editions of Stagecoach. Sadly I have never read any of the pre-revision editions of the books.

Twenty-three of the 64 original Nancy Drew Mystery Series books were written by Mildred Wirt Benson, hired by The Stratemeyer Syndicate to flesh out plotlines devised by Edward Stratmeyer and, later, his daughter Harriet.

Walter Karig and other writers wrote several books in the series, while the rest were the work of Harriet Stratemeyer who, when it was first revealed that Carolyn Keene did not exist, claimed that she wrote all the books.

According to Nancy Drew experts, there are distinct differences between Benson’s Nancy and Harriet Stratmeyer’s version. In a 1999 interview with Benson (who died in 2002), she said, “She (Harriet) made her (Nancy) into a traditional sort of a heroine. More of a house type. And in her day, that is what I had specifically gotten away from. She (Nancy) was ahead of her time. She was not typical. She was what the girls were ready for and were aspiring for, but had not achieved.”

In the late 70s, The Stratemeyer Syndicate sold the rights to future Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins titles to Simon & Schuster.

Grosset & Dunlap retaliated by filing a lawsuit for copyright infringement and breach of contract. However, all it got was the rights to publish the hardcover versions of pre-1979 Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys and Dana Girls books, which is why bookstores now stock Nancy Drews with glossy yellow hardback covers featuring art from the 1970s edition of the series. Each copy costs RM13.90 – a steal really, but as there are 64 titles, it’ll still cost you to get the entire set.

Daphne Lee has a huge book collection that goes back more than 30 years and is still growing. Her dream is to own a bookstore and write good children’s books. Send e-mails to the above address and check out her blog at