Culture  /  First Person

Oh Nancy, Nancy!

The mysterious appeal of my first detective.
A Nancy Drew series collection on a bookshelf

Of one thing I was absolutely certain: Nancy Drew was an infinitely superior product to the Hardy Boys. Carolyn Keene, the author of the former, was in every respect a better stylist and story-teller than Franklin W. Dixon, who wrote those adventures. Oh, the blandness of the Hardy Boys, with their bluff blond extrovert masculinity, their letter-sweater squareness. Nancy — motherless Nancy, mystery-tangled, feminine, solitary, clever Nancy — was something altogether other.

Here, I’m afraid, was my fundamental error. For Carolyn Keene never existed. And nor did Franklin W. Dixon. And inasmuch as they did exist, they were the same person: the collective pen-name of an East Coast writing syndicate founded by Edward Stratemeyer (1862–1930). Peter Archer painted the Hardy Boys covers too, though I never noticed. Nancy was a factory product. Of Stratemeyer, who sold 500 million books even though you’ve never heard of him, it was said: ‘As oil had its Rockefeller, literature had its Stratemeyer.’

He died in the year that Nancy first appeared in print — though he wrote the outline for the first three novels. In her world, Nancy has a living father but a dead mother; in the real world she had a dead father but a living mother. Of the dozens of ghostwriters who produced the stories between 1930 and the present day, Mildred Wirt Benson (1905–2002) was the queen. She lived in Toledo, Ohio, and was paid a flat fee of between $125 and $250 for each book. And she wrote most of the ones I so delighted in — all but seven of the first 30 books in the series. Here was, as I never knew at the time, The Mystery of the Invisible Ghost.

We have ghostwriters to this day. But the writing syndicate – a huge yet under-noticed feature of 20th-century publishing — seems to have gone the way of all flesh. And that may seem, to most literary sensibilities, like a good thing — the demise of a conveyor-belt approach to fiction-writing as product, to art as so many tins of beans. But to quote George Eliot, ‘that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs’. The Stratemeyer syndicate — and Mildred Wirt Benson, resting in her unvisited tomb — brought Nancy Drew to me, and my eight year-old life was incomparably richer as a result.