“The Mystery of the Writer’s Ghost” (by Leigh Lundin)

Writing as L. Leigh, Leigh Lundin appeared in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in August of 2006 with the story “Swamped.” The tale went on to win that year’s EQMM Readers Award—in a competition in which first stories only very rarely place in the top three. Since that debut Leigh’s stories have appeared in both EQMM and AHMM, in the MWA anthology The Prosecution Rests, edited by Linda Fairstein, and in other publications. The Florida resident has recently been spending a lot of his time in South Africa, which has become the inspiration for some of his stories. He is one of the founders of SleuthSayers, the successor to the short-story blog Criminal Brief. Leigh describes SleuthSayers’ site as “bringing together professional crime writers and crime fighters.”—Janet Hutchings

“The syndicate’s behind it,” Frank said.

“Who?” asked Joe.

“The Stratemeyer Syndicate. For seventy years they kept their existence a secret. Our man disappeared into it, the most prolific mystery writer readers never heard of.”

“The guy who carried a Canadian passport and used aliases like Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene?”

“Pseudonyms, he called them, Joe. Noms de plume. Most people would call him a ghostwriter.”

“You’re talking Charles Leslie McFarlane?”

“Yes, the very one. He later authored mysteries and radio dramas under his own name, but his children’s books have never gone out of print.”

“Really? Like what?”

“Mainly us, the Hardy Boys. Our books continue to sell more than a million copies a year. McFarlane wrote twenty of the initial twenty-six novels. He penned the first sixteen given outlines by old Edward himself.”

“Edward Stratemeyer? The guy who founded the syndicate and brought the world the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, and our brainy, fashionable friend Nancy Drew?”

“The same. His stable of authors mostly comprised newspapermen and women who agreed to write children’s books anonymously. Leslie McFarlane’s role remained a secret into the late nineteen seventies.”

“Wow.”

“He was a bit subversive when it came to authority figures. He once said, ‘Would civilization crumble if kids got the notion that the people who ran the world were sometimes stupid, occasionally wrong, and even corrupt at times?’ ”

“Cool! But that reminds me of Dad. We were forever saving him.”

“Although he worked to provide atmosphere and clarity, McFarlane didn’t like the books. He called them ‘the juveniles’ and considered the plots thin and the prose bad.”

“Really? Aren’t we the good guys?”

“Teachers and librarians disdained the syndicate novels. They complained about characterization.”

“Why? You have dark brown hair and I’m blond. That’s characterization, isn’t it?”

“Adults poked fun at the books’ excessive speech tags, calling them Tom Swifties. Such author intrusion left many people cold,” coolly pontificated Frank. “Robert Lopresti calls them unnecessary stage directions.”

“Hang it all,” responded Joe judiciously. He added heatedly, “That burns me up.”

“Speech tag verbs and adverbs form a slippery slope,” remarked Frank smoothly. “Whew! I’m glad we’re done with those examples.”

“Me too,” Joe repeated. “But the fact remains, Stratemeyer and McFarlane left a remarkable legacy.”

“Ontario named a public school after McFarlane and McMaster University archives his works. Our buddies Dale Andrews, Rob Lopresti, and Leigh Lundin have written about us and Tom Swifties.”

“And Stratemeyer, of course. Wasn’t he a scoundrel? (Hey, ya got to love that word.)”

“I think not. He was a brilliant businessman and entrepreneur. He not only admired Alger stories, he “completed” eleven boys’ novels under Horatio Alger Jr.’s name. That launched Edward into the publishing business and made him realize money could be made through ghostwriters. So began his syndicate, hiring writers like McFarlane, producing thirteen hundred novels in more than a hundred different series.”

“Wow, that’s a super story. Now we’ve got another mystery to solve.”

“What’s that, Joe?”

“How the editor let us get away with an article like this.”

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11 Responses to “The Mystery of the Writer’s Ghost” (by Leigh Lundin)

  1. Dale Andrews says:

    A nice piece, Leigh! As I wrote in my earlier piece (which you cite) it is amazing how many writers found their first love of mysteries in the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. They may not have been well written, but they sure hooked us as kids.

  2. “Coolly pontificated!” I’m already feeling an itch to use that one.

  3. Leigh says:

    Say it ain’t so, Albert! Although it may be the first time (and with good fortunate the last) those two words were used together.
    Dale, although we’d both written about Tom Swifties, your article inspired me to read the initial novels of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. The histories behind the mysteries are intriguing. I was surprised to learn Stratemeyer wrote Horatio Alger stories and yet it fit the businessman he was to become.

  4. Robert Lopresti says:

    Lovely stuff. Don’t forget Mildred Wirt Benson,who wrote most of the Nancy Drew books for the Stratemeyers under the name Carolyn Keene. In the early 1990s her alma mater, U of Iowa held the first ever academic conference on Nancy and got testimonials from successful women in just about every field explaining how the Girl Sleuth had inspired them.

    • Leigh says:

      Indeed, I haven’t forgotten Mildred! I’ve actually sketched a second article, if the nice ladies at EQMM don’t mind another, er, stab. Earlier this week, I read her first Nancy Drew, The Secret of the Old Clock, the original version, not the one replotted by Margaret Stratemeyer. It holds up very well.

  5. Eve Fisher says:

    LOL!

  6. Funny and a sly way to slip in a writing lesson.

    I think the trick we adults don’t see is that lack of detail allows kids to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. Lack of character detail allows boys and girls to picture themselves as characters and worlds of their own. As for the narrative tags, it must have been a thing of the times.

  7. Leigh says:

    Thanks, Eve!

    You have a good point, Militant. I suspect I did that as a child reader.

    I wrote a tangential article in Sunday”s SleuthSayers, Literary Rags.

    http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2014/05/literary-rags.html

  8. Mark Armstrong says:

    Edward Stratemeyer was a dime novelist and editor at Street & Smith in the late 1800s. His name pops up more than once in Quentin Reynolds’ 1955 history of Street & Smith, The Fiction Factory” (not to be confused with the earlier autobiographical book, also titled “The Fiction Factory,” by Street & Smith writer & Plotto author, Wallace Cook.)

    It’s not surprising that Stratemeyer felt it necessary to leave Street & Smith to advance his career. Richard Duffy, editor of Ainslee’s for Street & Smith got bounced a few years later for wanting to be a partner in that magazine. Street & Smith had all the writers working anonymously under house names to make the writers dispensable. Many different men and women wrote the stories attributed to Bertha M. Clay. Many were “the author of Nick Carter.”

    Stratemeyer was simply following the practices of the publishing industry of his day when he established his own stable of writers.

  9. Leigh says:

    Mark, thanks for the additional information.

    Our friend and colleague, Deborah Elliott-Upton is a major Nick Carter fan. I’ll make certain she sees this. Thank you!

  10. Pingback: The Secret of the Ageless Girl (by Leigh Lundin) | SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN

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