Tuesday, September 20, 2016

TNB--Children in Crime: Just a Girl Detective

The Tuesday Night Bloggers have returned from our August summer holiday and the topic for September is, appropriately enough, Children in Crime. As the little darlings go back to school, we are turning our thoughts to child detectives and even perhaps the evil that lurks behind the innocent faces of childish criminals. If you'd like to join us for discussion of the youngsters in the mystery genre--particularly Golden Age youngsters, but all are welcome--then please stop in every Tuesday as we gather at Kate's place over at crossexamingcrime. Pull up a chair and have a scone or two...

Today's entry is an expansion of an essay I wrote originally for Noah's October 8 Challenge last year in which I focused on girl detectives. Although not every girl detective mentioned is actually child-aged, each series when written was generally marketed to the 7 to 12 year old age range. These young women provided strong female characters that girls could relate to and perhaps dream of being like.

 My first acquaintance with the girl detective genre came, as I'm sure it did for many girls, with Nancy Drew when my mom passed her set of six Nancy books on to me. She was, in fact, my introduction to mysteries.  More than than that Nancy and her blue roadster stood for adventures.  My parents have always supported me no matter what.  They believe I can do anything I want--and made me believe it too and taught me that it never mattered that I was a girl.  Nancy was my first reinforcement of that idea in book-from.  She began her adventures at the age of 16 in 1930 and was independent and self-sufficient from the beginning. She was supported by a loving and interested father who had taught her to take care of herself.  When Nancy has a flat tire while out detecting in her roadster, she doesn't have to wait for some strong man to come along and change it for her. She sets to work on it herself. And she's prepared for the dangers of detective work as well. When Nancy first indicates that she wants to try and track down the missing will in The Secret of the Old Clock, Carson Drew doesn't tell her the job is too difficult or too dangerous for a girl.  He just tells her: "Detective work isn't always the safest occupation in which to engage. I happen to know that Richard Topham is an unpleasant man when crossed. If you actually succeed in learning anything which may help the Horner girls, you are certain to have the Tophams in your wool." He warns her of the dangers....but he doesn't warn her off. Throughout the series Nancy finds herself in tight spots and manages to work her way out of them.

Nancy was my mainstay in detective fiction for a long time. She was always on my Christmas wish list and I regularly spent my hard-earned allowance at the local used bookstore on editions of her stories that I didn't yet have. I worked my way through all 56 of the hardbacks and a few of the soft cover stories before leaving her behind for Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. But Nancy wasn't the only girl detective on my list.

Trixie Belden, whose first book was published in 1948, was in some ways a more realistic character for a middle-class girl to relate to. I might have wanted to be Nancy with her roadster and the ability to travel just about anywhere at the drop of a hat, but it was far easier to see myself as Trixie--the tomboyish girl with a quick temper. Nancy is well-to-do and has a wealthy father to support her in all the travels she does--from ski lodges to Hawaii to Scotland to the jungles of Africa. Trixie has to work hard at her chores to earn spending money and is often struggling with her schoolwork. Her trips are usually to visit family. She seems to face more of the ups and downs of teenage life than Nancy does--everything from squabbles with her brothers to dealing with her own insecurities. But the one thing she does share with Nancy is her knack for solving mysteries.

Trixie and Nancy were my girls growing up. Nancy was my ideal and Trixie represented a more realistic view of what I might be able to do if I wanted to set up a girl detective business of my own. But I abandoned them once I got started on Holmes and Poirot and Miss Marple and others. Then, just a few years ago, I found a first edition Judy Bolton story in an antique shop--and, on a whim, I bought The Voice in the Suitcase. That story reminded me of my early love for the girl detectives and I've been susceptible to picking up a few every now and then in recent trips to used book stores...including a second Judy Bolton story The Name on the Bracelet.

Created by Margaret Sutton in 1932, the Judy Bolton series seems at first glance to be very like Nancy Drew. Judy's dad is a doctor and Judy still has her mom and an older brother thrown in the mix. Her family is fairly well-to-do as Nancy's is. But for those who may think Nancy a bit too privileged (rich dad who let her go on all sorts of trips to ski lodges and what-not; her own little roadster; etc), Judy is a bit more down-to-earth. She is employed as a secretary to a local lawyer and has thoughts of marriage and a family--and, unlike most of her fellow girl detectives, actually does marry about half-way through the series.

Another fairly recent acquisition was Dorothy Dixon and the Double Cousin (1933). Dorothy is a lot like Nancy...but even more so, if that were possible. She's just your typical girl sleuth--you know, the kind of girl who can fly planes, pilot motor boats, throw a knife with deadly accuracy, and take the place of an almost-identical twin cousin at the drop of a hat (without ever having met the cousin before and, therefore, without having the first clue how said cousin behaves in day-to-day situations). Dorothy is a mere sixteen years old, but by the time Dorothy Dixon and the Double Cousin takes place, she already has three mysteries under her belt and the local Secret Service agent trusts her enough to take her into his confidence over top secret plans for a super spiffy, super dangerous formula for a brand new explosive. Much adventurous hi-jinks ensue and it all ends well...as readers of these Girl Super Sleuth adventures know it will.

And, finally, my most recent discovery in the girl detective line: Vicki Barr. Unlike Nancy Drew whose mystery-related travels are more pleasure trips turned detective outings, Vicki Barr represents the career girl as girl detective as a side-line. Her detective radar goes off when passengers act strangely or locals in cities along her flight runs seem to be troubled. And her position as a stewardess gives her valid reasons for becoming involved in mysterious circumstances in so many different places. But like Nancy, she is independent and resourceful--representing the modern young woman in the post-war world. Her independence is particularly apparent in The Secret of Magnolia Manor (1949), the fourth book in the series where Paul Breaux uses Creole customs as an excuse to curb his niece's freedom. The story itself is on a par with other girl detective stories of the era. The clues are fairly obvious to those well-read in the mystery genre (and we wonder why they aren't so obvious to those involved in the story), but it is good clean fun with little violence and no murders. Another series that I'm quite certain I would have enjoyed thoroughly when I was in my Nancy Drew phase...and even now I enjoyed the story and the introduction to the New Orleans of the late 1940s  

That's one of the good things about these mysteries. Vicki and Dorothy (or Nancy or Trixie or Judy....) always gets their man--or woman as the case may be. Good triumphs and the criminal is always caught. The clues all come together and it makes for a nice happy wrap-up. They make for very comfortable, feel-good reading...especially for those of us looking for a nice nostalgic trip down memory lane.

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