Synopses & Reviews
A wickedly smart and rollicking journey through the birth, life, and afterlives of popular culture's most beloved sleuth
Today he is the inspiration for fiction adaptations, blockbuster movies, hit television shows, raucous Twitter banter, and thriving subcultures. More than a century after Sherlock Holmes first capered into our world, what is it about Arthur Conan Doyle’s peculiar creation that continues to fascinate us? Journalist and lifelong Sherlock fan Zach Dundas set out to find the answer.
The result is The Great Detective: a history of an idea, a biography of someone who never lived, a tour of the borderland between reality and fiction, and a joyful romp through the world Conan Doyle bequeathed us.
Through sparkling new readings of the original stories, Dundas unearths the inspirations behind Holmes and his indispensable companion, Dr. John Watson, and reveals how Conan Doyle's tales laid the groundwork for an infinitely remixable myth, kept alive over the decades by writers, actors, and readers. This investigation leads Dundas on travels into the heart of the Holmesian universe. The Great Detective transports us from New York City's Fifth Avenue and the boozy annual gathering of one of the world's oldest and most exclusive Sherlock Holmes fan societies; to a freezing Devon heath out of The Hound of the Baskervilles; to sunny Pasadena, where Dundas chats with the creators of the smash BBC series Sherlock and even finagles a cameo appearance by Benedict Cumberbatch himself. Along the way, Dundas discovers and celebrates the ingredients that have made Holmes go viral — then, now, and as long as the game’s afoot.
"The intrepid Nancy Drew has given girls a sense of their own power since she was born, Athena-like, from the mind of Edward Stratemeyer in 1929 and raised after his death in 1930 by his daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Mildred Wirt Benson, a journalist who was the first to write the novels under the pen name Carolyn Keene. Poet and critic Rehak invigorates all the players in the Drew story, and it's truly fun to see behind the scenes of the girl sleuth's creation, her transformation as different writers took on the series, and the publishing phenomenon the highly productive Stratemeyer Syndicate machine that made her possible. Rehak's most ambitious choice is to reflect on how Nancy Drew mirrors girls' lives and the ups and downs of the women's movement. This approach is compelling, but not particularly well executed. Rehak's breathless prose doesn't do justice to the complexity of the large social trends she describes, and tangents into Feminism 101 derail the story that really works the life of a publishing juggernaut. All the same, Stratemeyer himself would undoubtedly say that the story is worth telling. Drew fans are likely to agree. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, the Wylie Agency. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Packed with revealing anecdotes, Rehak's meticulously researched account...will delight fans of the beloved gumshoe whose gumption guaranteed that every reprobate got his due." Booklist (Starred Review)
"A breezy social history." Kirkus Reviews
"As a literary biography, Girl Sleuth is necessarily tangled, since the Nancy Drew mysteries...had numerous parents. But Rehak does a terrific job of bringing to life the writers and editors who constituted Carolyn Keene, the pseudonymous author of the series." Kate Arthur, The New York Times Book Review
"In her evenhanded, readable book, Rehak does a good job of exploring the class tensions between the two creators....[A]n enjoyable, thorough piece of detective work. It would earn a nod of approval from Nancy Drew herself." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"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....Nancy would be so proud." Chicago Tribune
"Melanie Rehak unspools the fascinating story of how Nancy came to be....[A]bsorbing and delightful..." Wall Street Journal
"Whatever becomes of [Nancy's] future...Rehak has given her past its due in this vivid, unpretentious and sympathetic history." Newsday
"Rehak sheds light on perhaps the most successful writing franchise of all time and also the cultural and historic changes through which it passed. Grab your flashlights, girls. The mystery of Carolyn Keene is about to begin." Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club
"Girl Sleuth is meticulously researched, elegantly written, and riveting. Melanie Rehak juxtaposes teen sleuth Nancy Drew's omnipotence with the all-too-real struggles of her creators." Susan Kandel, author of Not a Girl Detective
ADVANCE PRAISE FOR GIRL SLEUTH
"Witty, fast-paced, and smart, Girl Sleuth makes the story behind Nancy Drew as much fun to read as the mystery novels themselves. It's superb."- Jean Strouse , author of Morgan
"Rehak chronicles a character who influenced at least two generations of women in a highly readable, exhaustive book."
PRAISE FOR GIRL SLEUTH
"[An] absorbing and delightful book."--The Wall Street Journal
"Girl Sleuthand#160;is an enjoyable, thorough piece of detective work. It would earn a nod of approval from Nancy Drew herself."--The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Jean Strouse, author of Morgan
Los Angeles Times
Wall Street Journal
"A lively look at the enduring detective. A Sherlock Holmes fan since childhood, Portland Monthly co-executive editor Dundas (The Renegade Sportsman, 2010) embarks on a cheerful romp through the conception, fame, and afterlife of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous sleuth. The detective story was still in its literary infancy when Conan Doyle invented a character based on one of his medical school professors, "a hawk-nosed, gray-eyed wizard radiating an air of command." Joseph Bell was a master diagnostician, making deductions from astute observations. "What if a detective did that?" Conan Doyle wondered. Dundas chronicles Holmes' evolution as Conan Doyle fleshed out his personality and appearance, beginning with A Study in Scarlet (1887). In The Sign of the Four (1890), Holmes emerged as "a magnetic figure, coiled in his armchair, wreathed in smoke: a gray-eyed whipcord of skinny muscle wrapped in a dressing gown." Watson, too, became deeper. Though "bluff and hearty," he seemed to harbor "inner pain and loneliness." Watson's regard for Holmes, Dundas writes, is "one of literature's great studies in devotion." Readers found the Holmes stories irresistible, but by 1893, Conan Doyle was tired of producing them and summarily killed off his hero. Watson was not the only one bereft; readers called the author a brute. Years later, offered substantial money by a periodical, Conan Doyle revived Holmes with a barely believable tale accounting for his survival. Dundas offers attentive readings of Holmes stories; traverses the bleak landscape of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902); investigates Conan Doyle's homes, haunts, and obsession with spiritualism; chronicles his visit to the cheesy museum at 221b Baker St. and his meetings with the Baker Street Irregulars, a "mother ship of a small, dedicated subculture of Holmes enthusiasts"; and recounts the work of the actors who have played Holmes, including Basil Rathbone, who felt the role consumed him, and Benedict Cumberbatch. A bright read for Sherlock's fans."--Kirkus Reviews
A LOS ANGELES TIMES summer reading selection
"For even the casual fan, the history of this deathless character is fascinating. Dundas does a fine job of tracing the roots of Holmes … [and] writes in a jovial, casual way that invites the reader to take part." — BOSTON GLOBE
"Find[s] fresh ground . . . [Dundas's] scholarship is impressive . . . He's an amiable guide, placing more than a century of Sherlockiana into an appealing, modern frame." — Daniel Stashower, WASHINGTON POST
"[An] entertaining new cultural biography of Holmesiana." — GLOBE AND MAIL
"Charmingly eccentric . . . Skillful . . . For all who enjoy the company of Sherlock Holmes, in any of his many forms, reading Dundas's account will be hours well spent." — Leslie Klinger, LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS
"Dundas weaves fascinating parallel histories of Holmes as literary creation, Holmes as broader cultural phenomenon, and the character's larger-than-life creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ... Incisive, well-informed, and slyly witty (like Holmes himself), Dundas's book provides entertaining and irrefutable evidence that the game is still — and is likely to remain — afoot." — SHELF AWARENESS (starred review)
"The author of this wonderful book has crammed it with enough research — Holmesean, Watsonian, Doylean — to bulge the seams ... [But] Dundas's matey writing style makes the details easy to absorb ... A delight for Baker Streeters." — BOOKLIST (starred review)
"A lively look at the enduring detective ... A cheerful romp ... A bright read for Sherlock's fans." — KIRKUS REVIEWS
"Sherlock Holmes means different things to different people: to die-hard readers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original (who cracked his first case in 1887); to older filmgoers, Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing; to children of the 1970s and pretty much no one else, Nicol Williamson and Robert Stephens; and to younger fans, Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch. All of them turn up in The Great Detective, in which Zach Dundas traces Sherlock's evergreen celebrity. Such is Dundas's enthusiasm that one almost forgets Doyle's wary role in the legend. The author's resigned response to an extraordinarily rich $45,000 offer from Collier's Weekly to resurrect Holmes in 1903: 'Very well.'" — VANITY FAIR
"The game is afoot! Like Sherlock Holmes himself, Dundas's pursuit of his quarry spans centuries, genres, and continents — and it's a delightful journey into the mythology and meaning of an icon that everyone knows, many are obsessed by, and nobody has ever quite topped." — PAUL COLLINS, author of The Murder of the Century and NPR's Weekend Edition "literary detective"
"The Great Detective is a moving study, capturing as I've never before seen our interest in the quintessential sleuth and his stalwart biographer. Sherlock Holmes will never fade, and this book proves it." — LYNDSAY FAYE, author of Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson
"Sherlock Holmes is both immortal and immaterial — and the inspired deductions and ratiocinations of Zach Dundas bring us closer to understanding why we've spent over a hundred years trying to claim Doyle's detective from the fictional world and give him a home in our own. The best and wisest Holmes book that I have ever known." — MATTHEW SWEET, author of Inventing the Victorians
A plucky "titian-haired" sleuth solved her first mystery in 1930. Eighty million books later, Nancy Drew has survived the Depression, World War II, and the sixties (when she was taken up with a vengeance by women's libbers) to enter the pantheon of American girlhood. As beloved by girls today as she was by their grandmothers, Nancy Drew has both inspired and reflected the changes in her readers' lives. Now, in a narrative with all the vivid energy and page-turning pace of Nancy's adventures, Melanie Rehak solves an enduring literary mystery: Who created Nancy Drew? And how did she go from pulp heroine to icon?
The brainchild of children's book mogul Edward Stratemeyer, Nancy was brought to life by two women: Mildred Wirt Benson, a pioneering journalist from Iowa, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, a well-bred wife and mother who took over as CEO after her father died. In a century-spanning story Rehak traces their roles and Nancy's in forging the modern American woman. With ebullience, wit, and a wealth of little-known source material, Rehak celebrates our unstoppable girl detective.
The brainchild of children's book mogul Edward Stratemeyer, Nancy Drew was brought to life by two women. In a century-spanning story, Rehak traces their roles and Nancy's in forging the modern American woman.
In 1930 a plucky girl detective stepped out of her shiny blue roadster, dressed in a smart tweed suit, ready to restore a stolen inheritance to its rightful owner. Tied up by the villains, she managed to free herself and bring them to justice - all while wearing a pencil skirt and high heels. Eighty million books later, Nancy Drew has survived the Depression, World War II, and the sixties (when she was taken up with a vengeance by women's libbers), and emerged as beloved by girls today as she was by their grandmothers. Now, in a narrative with all the fast-paced thrill of one of Nancy's adventures, Melanie Rehak solves a page-turning literary mystery: Who created Nancy Drew? And how did she go from pulp heroine to American icon?
With ebullience, wit, and a wealth of little-known source material, Rehak weaves a behind-the-scenes history of Nancy and her groundbreaking creators. Taking us from The Secret of the Old Clock to The Secret of the Spa, Rehak tells all about our fearless sleuth - including the fact that both Nancy and her "author," Carolyn Keene, were invented by Edward Stratemeyer, a dime-novel genius who also created the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys. But Nancy Drew was actually brought to life by two remarkable women: original author Mildred Wirt Benson, a convention-flouting Midwestern journalist, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, a wife and mother who transformed herself into a CEO to run her father's company after he died. Together, Benson and Adams created a character that has inspired generations of girls to be as strong-willed and as bold as they were.
Melanie Rehak will send you back to your old Nancy Drews -- but thanks to GIRL SLEUTH you'll never read them the same way again.
THE FIRST BEHIND-THE-SCENES HISTORY OF THE BELOVED GIRL DETECTIVE
"Through the history of Nancy Drew, Rehak sheds light on perhaps the most successful writing franchise of all time and also the cultural and historic changes through which it passed. Grab your flashlights, girls. The mystery of Carolyn Keene is about to begin." -- Karen Joy Fowler, author of THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB
* The original proposal for Nancy Drew suggested that her name be Stella Strong, Nell Cody, Helen Hale, or Diana Dare.
"GIRL SLEUTH is meticulously researched, elegantly written, and riveting. Melanie Rehak juxtaposes teen sleuth Nancy Drew's omnipotence with the all-too-real struggles of her creators." --Susan Kandel, author of NOT A GIRL DETECTIVE
* When Nancy Drew was introduced she wore cloche hats and gloves whenever she was out in public. In the 50s she changed to sport dresses and rompers and even -- gasp -- pants.
"Witty, fast-paced, and smart, Girl Sleuth makes the story behind Nancy Drew as much fun to read as the mystery novels themselves. It's superb."
--Jean Strouse, author of Morgan, American Financier
* Nancy and her boyfriend Ned Nickerson never once kissed, although in The Secret of the Old Attic she does "faint into his strong arms."
For longtime Conan Doyle fans as well as readers just discovering Sherlock Holmes, a wickedly smart and rollicking journey through the birth, life, and afterlives of popular cultures most beloved sleuth.
For longtime Conan Doyle fans as well as readers just discovering Sherlock Holmes, a wickedly smart and rollicking journey through the birth, life, and afterlives of popular culture’s most beloved sleuth
Today he is the inspiration for fiction adaptations, blockbuster movies, hit television shows, raucous Twitter feeds, and a thriving subculture. Over a century after Sherlock Holmes first capered into our world, what is it about Arthur Conan Doyle’s peculiar creation that continues to fascinate us? Journalist and lifelong Sherlock fan Zach Dundas set out to find the answer. Through sparkling new readings of the original stories, Dundas explores Conan Doyle’s fictional and real-world inspirations and reveals how the Holmes tales laid the groundwork for an infinitely remixable myth, kept alive over the decades by writers, actors, and readers. Dundas’s investigation leads him—like a Bill Bryson of Baker Street—on travels into the heart of the Holmesian universe. He infiltrates fan conventions, nearly freezes on a heath out of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and talks to the creators and star of the BBC’s Sherlock. Along the way, he discovers and celebrates the ingredients that have made Holmes go viral—then, now, and as long as the game’s afoot.
About the Author
MELANIE REHAK's Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her earned both Edgar and Agatha Awards. She has written for the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and others; her column on food books, “Paper Palate,” appears in Bookforum.
Table of Contents
The Stratemeyer Clan 1
Alma Mater 48
Hawkeye Days 73
Nell Cody, Helen Hale, Diana Dare 90
Nancy Drew Land 110
Syndicate for Sale 126
An Unfortunate Break; or, The Cleveland Writer Comes into Her Own 140
Motherhood and Nancy Drew 168
"They Are Nancy" 197
The Kids Are Hep 224
Nancy in the Age of Aquarius 254
Will the Real Carolyn Keene Please Stand Up? 288
Reading Group Guide
"Witty, fast-paced, and smart, Girl Sleuth makes the story behind Nancy Drew as much fun as the mystery novels themselves."-Jean Strouse, author of Morgan: American Financier About the Book Since the day she solved her first mystery in The Secret of the Old Clock more than 75 years ago, Nancy Drew has become a symbol of grace under pressure, wits conquering malice, and the promise of a happy ending. And for the millions of girls who filled their imaginations with Nancy's escapades, the author named on the cover of each installment-Carolyn Keene-sparked their imaginations as well. Eighty million books later, the identity of Carolyn Keene has itself remained a mystery for most readers, a murky labyrinth of rumors, contradictory news articles, and discreet contracts. Who really invented Nancy Drew? Who came up with her hair-raising story lines and provided her with a steady stream of levelheaded dialogue? Journalist Melanie Rehak set out to find the truth through some first-rate sleuthing of her own, discovering along the way that the story behind Nancy Drew is also a mesmerizing portrait of twentieth-century America. Revealing the behind-the-scenes story of the writers and publishers who developed the Nancy Drew series into a phenomenon, Girl Sleuth brings to light a fascinating cast of real-life characters. Nancy was originally the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, a children's book mogul who placed ads to recruit his writers. Nancy Drew was one of his last creations; he lived barely long enough to see her early (and instant) success. After his death, it was up to two very different women to keep the series going: Mildred Wirt Benson, a cash-strapped journalist from Iowa; and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, an Ivy League-educated mother who stepped in to protect her father's legacy. Through the Great Depression, World War II, the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and their own cross-country creative disagreements, Benson and Adams (both using the moniker Carolyn Keene) ensured that Nancy Drew would remain a beloved fixture for countless generations of readers. Using This Guide In her celebration of America's favorite girl detective, Melanie Rehak unearthed a treasure trove of little-known facts about Nancy Drew's creators and the ways in which history had a hand in shaping this unstoppable heroine. Girl Sleuth offers intriguing avenues of exploration for moms and daughters, teachers and students, and all book lovers-from librarians to mystery aficionados. Whether you're hosting a multigenerational book group or using Girl Sleuth to enhance a classroom experience, the questions and exercises presented in this guide are designed to enrich your experience. DISCUSSION TOPICS AND ACTIVITIES Ask Your Mother 1. How did Nancy Drew compare to other female characters in fiction when the series was created? What did America make of a young protagonist who tooled around in a roadster and had little parental supervision? How do contemporary heroines assert their independence? 2. Gather a sampling of Nancy Drew novels, trying to include original editions and contemporary ones such as those in the new Nancy Drew, Girl Detective series. Which era do you prefer? What changes do you notice in the artwork featured on the covers? 3. Why were Nancy Drew's creators careful to keep her relationship with Ned from culminating in marriage? In what ways have young women's notions about marriage changed over the past seventy-five years? Was Clues to Good Cooking an affront to Nancy's persona? 4. Compare Mildred's upbringing to Harriet's and Edna's. How did each woman navigate family life and the world of work? Do any of these three women remind you of women in your ancestry? 5. Predict what changes will have to be made to update Nancy Drew a century from now. What might determine whether she appeals to your granddaughters? Detective Work 1. Examine the many reference notes provided by Melanie Rehak at the end of the book. What sources did she consult most frequently? Is there someone in your family's history whose biography you would like to research? If so, what library archives and publications would be most useful to you? 2. As a creative exercise, compose a brief outline for a short story. Include a description of the main character. Ask another member of your book group to do the same, and then trade outlines so that you can each write one another's stories. When you return to read the finished stories, consider your reactions as both the creator of an outline and the writer of a story. Can you sympathize with Mildred's experiences writing for Edward and Harriet? With Harriet's experiences trying to guide the Syndicate's authors. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this method of fiction writing? 3. Girl Sleuth features numerous revelations about the financial arrangements surrounding the series, from Edward Stratemeyer's suggested initial cover price (fifty cents) to his daughters' reduction in the fees paid to writers. Assembling the data on paper or in a spreadsheet, what do you discover about the profit margins in the Stratemeyer system? What might have made his system even more profitable? What were its benefits? What does the book teach about human resources and power in salary negotiations? 4. What were Grosset & Dunlap's assertions when bringing its lawsuit? What was the purpose of asking Mildred to testify? What did you learn from Girl Sleuth about intellectual property laws? How would you have ruled in the case? 5. Draw timelines for the lives of Mildred and Harriet. In what ways were they sometimes living parallel lives? In what ways were their activities vastly different? Mark the points in their lives when historic events took place. What was the impact of these events on the Nancy Drew narratives? 6. Create a timeline for the identity of Carolyn Keene, including the period when writers other than Mildred and Harriet were the authors. How has she evolved, depending on author and time period? What has remained unchanged about her? Storytelling 1. What do you and your childhood friends remember most about the Nancy Drew series? Did your group of friends resemble Nancy's in any way? Which titles remained your perennial favorites? How did Nancy compare to the protagonists of similar books, such as the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys? 2. How did you picture Carolyn Keene when you were younger? Does it matter that she was as fictional as the series bearing her name? What did Nancy Drew's real authors have in common with your imaginary version of Carolyn Keene? 3. The physical description of Nancy Drew was very carefully crafted. How did her creators' choices about everything from her appearance to her love life enhance her appeal? Why was her specific, improbable set of circumstances such a popular formula? Did you agree with claims that earlier books showed hints of prejudice and racism? 4. Did the story of Mildred's and Harriet's life reflect the evolution of Nancy Drew along the way? Did the fictional sleuth have much in common with her authors? 5. Mildred and Harriet each felt an attachment to a particular version of Nancy. Which of their concepts resonated the most with you? What is the best way for a fiction writer to balance reality and fantasy? In what ways is Nancy a good dose of both? Especially for Book People 1. Chapter 6, "Nancy Drew Land," chronicles the series' journey from concept to printed page. What does Stratemeyer's approach indicate about the process of creating a novel in general? Why do you imagine Harriet continued to rely on Grosset & Dunlap rather than taking on their duties herself, along with the lion's share of the profit? 2. Near the end of Girl Sleuth, Rehak describes a 1993 Nancy Drew conference sponsored by the University of Iowa, with acclaimed novelist and feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun as keynote speaker. If you had attended the conference (and perhaps you did) what sessions would have interested you? What do you make of commercial fiction as a subject of serious scholarship? 3. To what do you ultimately attribute the Nancy Drew series' successes? Did Stratemeyer's early marketing philosophy play a role, or was content the most important factor in making Nancy Drew a household name? 4. What is the significance of the fact that this series didn't exist in paperback until fairly recently? Does format (hardcover versus paperback) affect your perception of a book? What was the economic impact of Grosset & Dunlap's hardcover-only decision? 5. In your opinion, could the film and television versions of the series ever have been successful? Did they fall short because of the way they were produced, or are some printed works simply never meant for other media? What are some of the differences between Hollywood's creative process and that used by the publishing industry? About the Author Melanie Rehak is a poet and critic who has written for the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, Vogue, and the Nation, among other publications. She is also a Mel and Lois Tukman Fellow at the New York Public Library's Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. Rehak lives in Brooklyn.
Copyright © 2005 Harcourt, Inc.