Books » Book Features

Detective Work

Clues to Nancy Drew and other news.



In her monumental new work of nonfiction, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (Knopf), novelist Jane Smiley spends nearly 300 pages examining the novel as a literary form and another 300 pages examining 101 novels, from Murasaki Shikibu's thousand-year-old The Tale of Genji to 2001's Look at Me by Jennifer Egan.

Smiley started this project in the fall of 2001, but as she reveals in an early chapter, she started reading seriously when she was a child, even if it wasn't reading anything "respectable." By this she means she loved the Bobsey Twins and Nancy Drew.

That would come as no surprise to Melanie Rehak, who examines the ongoing popularity of Nancy Drew, girl detective, in Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her (Harcourt).

But, strictly speaking, women didn't create her. The idea belonged to Edward Stratemeyer, the brain behind the Bobsey Twins too (and the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift). And Carolyn Keene, the author behind Nancy Drew (who turned 75 in April of this year), was no author at all but the pen name of Mildred Wirt, a writer hard-up for a living in Cleveland and working under the strict instructions of Stratemeyer's daughters, Edna and Harriet, who inherited their father's business in children's books when he died in 1930. But, as Rehak reveals, Wirt didn't write all the Nancy Drews. Harriet Stratemeyer took over that job in 1953 -- a good thing. Interviewed on her way to yet another academic conference devoted to the girl detective in 1993, Wirt, a seasoned journalist by this point, told a reporter, "I'm so sick of Nancy Drew I could vomit."

That mystery over authorship solved, there's the further mystery over why Nancy Drew has seen her series sell in the millions despite every marketing effort to update her (audiences prefer the classic Nancy circa mid-century) and despite the low point reached in 1978 when TV's Nancy Drew, played by Pamela Sue Martin, did a layout in Playboy. (Harriet Stratemeyer's reaction, understandably: "fit to be tied.")

Rehak, writing in The New York Times last April, has this solution to the young sleuth's appeal no matter the decade: "[Nancy Drew's] first readers discovered a heroine who was, in addition to being attractive and generous, utterly her own young woman. In that sense she was the most modern of role models -- a girl who knew how 'to think for herself and to think logically.' Her mother was dead, her adoring father never got in her way and there was no challenge she could not meet, be it putting together the perfect outfit for a tea party or escaping from a kidnapper -- sometimes both in the same afternoon."

A challenge well-met indeed. No challenge however: enjoying Rehak's well-researched detective work into the business behind Nancy Drew as a publishing phenomenon and into the lives of those responsible for it.

Hear Melanie Rehak speak and have her sign Girl Sleuth when Rehak joins authors Suzanne Marrs (Eudora Welty: A Biography) and Jim C. Cobb (Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity) at this year's book and author event sponsored in part by the Flyer's sister publication Memphis magazine. The evening, organized by Shirlene Cosby, will take place on Thursday, October 6th, at the Bartlett Performing Arts & Conference Center, 3663 Appling Rd. The program begins at 5:45 p.m. and includes remarks from the guest authors, followed by a question-and-answer period, followed by author booksignings. For more information, call 946-5914.

Can't make it to Bartlett but can make it down south to Oxford this week? James Cobb will also be reading from and signing Away Down South at Off Square Books (a few doors from Square Books) on Tuesday, October 11th, at 5 p.m.

Can't make it to Oxford but can make it east to Nashville this week? Cobb is among the dozens of writers, publishing houses, and book dealers participating in the 17th annual Southern Festival of Books, October 7th-9th, at Nashville's War Memorial Plaza and downtown public library. For a list of the writers reading from and signing their works and for the festival's full program of activities, go to

Of Note This Week on the Academic Front: Anthony Grafton, Princeton historian and contributor to The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, addresses "The Library in Western Culture: From Alexandria to Google," as part of the Barret Lecture Series celebrating the opening of the Paul Barret Jr. Library at Rhodes College. The event on Thursday, October 6th, at 7:30 p.m. is free and open to the public and takes place in the McCallum Ballroom of the Bryan Campus Life Center at Rhodes.

At the University of Memphis, Michelle Feynman, daughter of Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, will inaugurate the Vision Speaker Series at the FedEx Institute of Technology on Tuesday, October 11th, at 6 p.m. Feynman's topic: her recent book from Basic Books, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman.

And at Burke's Book Store, former Memphian Cary Broussard goes from fairy tale to boardroom in From Cinderella to CEO. Broussard, nationally known for her work with women's groups and TV appearances, signs Thursday, October 6th, from 5 to 7 p.m.

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