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The Case of the Modified Mysteries

July 13, 1999|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's no mystery why those Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys adventures currently on bookstore shelves look suspiciously like your grandparents' mysteries. The volumes from Massachusetts-based Applewood Books are exact replicas of the originals.

"Back Again . . . Just as You Remember" proclaim the jacket blurbs, together with this warning: "There is another, less expensive edition available in bookstores--but beware, it is an updated, rewritten and condensed version."

Applewood president Phil Zuckerman, who is in his late 40s, explains the genesis of his nostalgic facsimiles. "I was reading [the Hardy Boys'] 'The Mystery of Cabin Island' to my two young sons, and I couldn't for the life of me see what I had seen in this."

It turned out he was reading the sanitized, politically correct, contemporized version published in 1959 by Grosset and Dunlap, and it had lost both its "antique sense" and "a lot of the nuggets that made these books what they were."

Apparently he isn't alone in wanting the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books as they were originally written and illustrated.

"I had no idea the kind of popularity these would achieve," says Zuckerman, whose company has reproduced 12 of the 56 Nancy Drews and eight of the 32 Hardy Boys. Applewood even uses the original typeface.

Now, anyone who ever followed Nancy or Frank and Joe on one of their gee-whiz capers knows that the Nancy Drew books, which debuted in 1930, were written by Carolyn Keene, and the Hardy Boys books, which appeared in 1927, by Franklin W. Dixon.

Wrong. Keene and Dixon were pseudonyms for a stable of ghostwriters who churned out the series.

Both juvenile lines, as well as that of the Bobbsey Twins, were owned by Edward Stratemeyer, whose syndicate gave authors a flat fee for spinning 60,000-word tales, often with little more than a title to guide them. And they were sworn to tell no one.

Most prolific of the Nancy Drew writers was Mildred Wirt Benson, who penned 23 stories over a 24-year association with the syndicate, a partnership interrupted temporarily during the Great Depression, when she refused to take a salary cut from $125 to $75 per book. Benson wrote her last Nancy Drew, "The Clue of the Velvet Mask," in 1953. Now in her 90s, she is a columnist for the Toledo (Ohio) Blade.

In his day, Stratemeyer, whose syndicate is under the Simon & Schuster umbrella, was castigated by the self-appointed guardians of young people's morals who found the books suspect.

"So much so," notes Zuckerman, "that the Boy Scouts of America targeted him as the No. 1 demon and actually banned his books for children."

By today's standards, the tales seem refreshingly innocent and, in Applewood's versions, both charmingly dated and horrifyingly sexist and racist. In the first Nancy Drew, "The Secret of the Old Clock," Nancy's father says she doesn't have "the sort of head which one expected to indulge in serious thoughts." And the vocabulary of the "colored" caretaker, Jeff Tucker, is sprinkled with "dat's" and "ain'ts."

Such matters are addressed in a publisher's note in the $14.95 Applewood reproductions: "Many readers will remember these editions with great affection . . . others will wonder why we just don't let them disappear."

As Zuckerman sees it, the stories are part of our heritage. "You can sort of look at [changing] American social values through these books."

Beverly Beyette can be reached by e-mail at beverly.beyette@latimes.com.

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