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"The Many Voices of Carolyn Keene" by John C Adams


All the Nancy Drew mysteries I read as a child had a consistency of voice to them, so I can still remember where I was when I discovered that Carolyn Keene was not in fact one writer but a team. At first, I had trouble believing it, and wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to.


The writing team credited as Carolyn Keene on the cover of the Nancy Drew mysteries expanded to include both men and women, which is interesting given the feminine voice of Nancy and her pals George and Bess and that of the intended readership.


The number of writers penning the stories we all enjoyed so much increased until 28 names have emerged as being a part of the Carolyn Keene team. Primary among these was Mildred Wirt, later Mildred Wirt Benson.


The Nancy Drew franchise was owned by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. They were also behind the Dana Girls mystery stories, so it’s fair to say that their hold on mid to late century girls’ mystery stories was a firm one.


Mildred Wirt is thought of as the primary voice of Carolyn Keene. After she left the Nancy Drew franchise, her books were rewritten by Stratemeyer’s daughter Harriet Adams, who also changed the titles.


This was quite a bold move given that Mildred Wirt had created Nancy’s unique personality, working from index card thumbnail sketches provided by Stratemeyer to create the feisty and confident young woman we all love.


Nancy Drew was ahead of her time and Wirt said that she expected the series to be popular for that reason but had still not anticipated that it would be a blockbuster.


Mildred Wirt wrote the Nancy Drew mystery books from 1929 to 1947, contributing to 23 of the first 30 stories in the series. Her influence within the syndicate was important, because she also wrote under the Carolyn Keene pseudonym for the Dana Girls mysteries.


Mildred Wirt appears to have left the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1947 because she was marrying for the second time, after the death of her first husband that year. Her identity as part of the Carolyn Keene writing team only emerged in 1980 during testimony in a court case. The writers had all signed confidentiality agreements.


I am delighted that Mildred Wirt was honoured by the Mystery Writers of America with a Special Edgar Award for her role in the Carolyn Keene team.


The many voices of Carolyn Keene have been varied indeed. Among them is mystery writer Susan Wittig Albert, who is also known for her 'Darling Dahlia' mystery series, the 'China Bayles' herbal mystery series and the 'Robin Paige' Edwardian-Victorian mysteries.


The 'Darling Dahlia' mysteries are set in 1930s Alabama, and I’ve always loved how the 'China Bayles' mysteries (where the detective’s sidekick runs a New Age shop) use plant names as their title inspirations. Widow’s Tears and Bleeding Hearts are among them.


Another voice of Carolyn Keene that just makes absolute sense when you think about it was Charles Leslie McFarlane, who also ghostwrote many of the early Hardy Boys series as Franklin W Dixon.


Put them together, and Dana Girls, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys resonate as the detective series I devoured as a child and still enjoy today.


McFarlane was active on the Hardy Boys series from 1927 to 1946, working for the Stratemeyer Syndicate at the same time as Mildred Wirt was penning the first runs of Nancy Drew stories. He wrote 19 of the first 25 Hardy Boys mysteries during that time.


He also wrote the first four Dana Girls mysteries. McFarlane’s reasons for working on the Carolyn Keene team appear to have been more pragmatic and financial (a means to clear bills that were mounting up) than perhaps was the case for Mildred Wirt, who spoke fondly of Nancy Drew.


Over time, I have become far more accepting of the discovery that Carolyn Keene was a team of writers. I certainly feel delighted that their names have emerged, providing them with recognition of the talent and hard work that led Wirt, McFarlane, Wittig Albert and others to produce the much-loved mysteries within the Nancy Drew series and more childhood series besides.


While ghost writing is stock in trade for genre-fiction series, it still feels fairer to know that they have been recognised and named at last.


The image shows a young red-haired woman
The Many Voices of Carolyn Keene

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If you’ve enjoyed this article, you might be interested reading in my review of The Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene.


Or you might like to take a look at my review of The Crooked Bannister by Carolyn Keene.


If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Daggerspell by Katharine Kerr.


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