Mystery Box by Gordon McAlpine

Mystery BoxInformation

Goodreads: Mystery Box: A Novel About the Creators of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys
Source: Library
Published: 2003


Gordon McAlpine imagines Carolyn Keene and Franklin Dixon as real people who meet in 1920s Paris and mingle with the American expatriate literary circle.


In Mystery Box, Gordon McAlpine imagines Carolyn Keene and Franklin Dixon, not as the pseudonym of a series of ghostwriters, but as real people whose life experiences shaped their stories.  Such a premise might suggest that both Keene and Dixon experienced idyllic childhoods with model families, but McAlpine boldly invents a troubled past for both of them–pasts they attempt to escape by fleeing to 1920s Paris and diving into the American expatriate literary circle thriving there.  Of course, this raises the question of whether this story addresses current readers of the series or readers who enjoyed them in their own childhoods.  Either way, the premise seems flawed–current young readers may well not understand the veiled references to Keene’s life of depravity among the avante garde while nostalgic readers may not wish to see their childhood idols handled so rudely.

Indeed, the question of what the book means to accomplish plagued me throughout my entire reading, distracting me from the plot.  The story seems to take itself rather seriously, attempting to transform names that would typically be associated with wholesome, though over-idealized, books into names that conjure up thoughts of broken families, wasted potential, and lost souls.  But why?  Is it for the shock value?  Is it because doing something so counter-intuitive must be thought “original”?  Seeing Carolyn Keene run from a place she feels unwanted and begin to experiment in an attempt to find herself, watching Franklin Dixon leave everything he’s known behind because of one harsh conversation–none of it really sheds light on the creation of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys.  So, why, I asked myself repeatedly, why do it?

Because, frankly, giving Keene and Dixon troubled lives actually makes less sense in light of their creations.  I can only suppose that Keene, for instance, gives all her characters the same names of the people she’ s known (her “real” father, for example is actually named Carson) but completely different attributes in an attempt to give herself the story she wishes she could have lived.  And Franklin, torn from his family, writes himself into a story all about brothers going on adventures together.  But does that really work?  Does making an alternate life for yourself in fiction heal you or keep you from accepting that you that you need to find healing in the outside world, as well?  Mystery Box seems to think writing heals all wounds, but I wonder.

The rest of the book is taken up by parading Carolyn and Franklin among the “Lost Generation” and their crowd.  F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas all make substantial appearances, mentoring the young writers and offering them advice on love.  Waiting for the famous names to appear proves by far the most interesting part of the book, for the plot is little more than Carolyn and Franklin waiting to find each other and I think few readers can accept that finding one’s soul mate makes you suddenly the writer you always wanted to be.  Whether the author characterizations actually match their historical counterparts is beyond me, but I suppose they are close enough for the purposes of Mystery Box.  I wonder, though, whether young readers of Keene and Dixon would be particularly interested in these figures.

Altogether, Mystery Box proves a disappointing read.  I grew up with Nancy Drew and loved her for her kindness, her bravery, and her independence.  Carolyn Keene, in this version, is said to possess these traits also–but she quickly loses them in her own self doubt.  Franklin, meanwhile, meanders about playing at detective, but never achieves the kinds of cases he probably would like.  Watching these figures shatter in the face of life is depressing and seeing them write their books in an attempt to take control is not particularly uplifting.  I think a book about these authors would have been better served with a fun plot, one that does not take itself seriously (in acknowledgement of the fact that these authors are not real) and just generally gives a crazy detective-style story full of inside jokes.  Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are, in the end, happy books, and I think a book about their creators should be written in that spirit.


7 thoughts on “Mystery Box by Gordon McAlpine

  1. DoingDewey says:

    When I first read the title of this book, I was really excited about it because I thought it was nonfiction. Given that it was fiction and not even very enjoyable fiction from the sounds of things, I’ll definitely be passing on this one.


    • Krysta says:

      It’s funny you say that because whenever I look at the title, I think “But how is anyone supposed to know what the book is about?!” I don’t know why, but it’s really ambiguous and not in a particularly intriguing way. Including the whole “a novel about the creators…” in the post title seemed too long, though.

      I’m disappointed I didn’t enjoy the book too much because I love Nancy Drew and I’ve been wanting to read this book since I heard about it. I randomly stumbled upon it one day in a used book store and was thrilled–until I read it.


  2. jubilare says:

    I wonder if the book didn’t come out of that place of disbelief in goodness that seems to be taking over a lot of fiction. It is as if story-tellers, as well as our culture, think that happy homes and good childhoods and noble characters are myths. Now, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, as you say, are idealized, but there’s something between, a more balanced view of reality.

    I’ve not read it, though, so this is purely speculation.


    • Krysta says:

      I can’t say what exactly the author was thinking. Maybe he thought the 1920s was just a disenchanting time. Maybe he was trying for a Hemingway-esque plot, where everything seems terrible, but at the end he holds out an almost glitter of hope. Maybe he really didn’t believe the “authors” could have had happy childhoods. The possibilities are endless!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ana @ Read Me Away says:

    Hm, I think I’ll give this book a pass. I really like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and this book probably wouldn’t sit right with me. :\ Thanks for the heads up! Still a great review, Krysta. 😀


    • Krysta says:

      I’m glad you liked the review. I was sorry I couldn’t speak of the book more favorably–I loved Nancy Drew as a child and really wanted to go on some more adventures with her “creator”.


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