Ever since researching classic girl detectives for a paper in 2008, I wanted to read the adventures I had only read about. For this column, I originally chose the topic of children’s mysteries. I realized that needed to be narrowed a bit. Then I remembered the girl detectives. Now was my chance to read more!
I tried to locate the first in each series to read. If that wasn’t possible, I took the earliest available. I also got an overview of each series through The Girl Sleuth by Bobbie Ann Mason and Jennifer’s Series Books website, series-books.com. (I highly recommend those resources and Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women who Created Her by Melanie Rehak.)
I chose my favorite classic girl detectives from the series I read and divided them into categories based on their popularity among readers and personality characteristics/career. Warning: these books all date from the early- to mid-20th century and reflect the racial and gender attitudes of their time, some more obviously than others.
Nancy Drew in her debut The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene
(written by Mildred Wirt Benson, revised and abridged by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams)
It’s hard not to like Nancy. (Unless you instantly hate her.) She’s intelligent, helpful, beautiful, and good at everything she does. She drives a cool car, lives in a lovely house in River Heights, and has a supportive father, Carson Drew, who is a lawyer. Nancy’s mother died when she was small, but housekeeper Hannah Gruen is a good mother figure without the authority to curtail Nancy’s freedom. Plus, the books are often interesting and action-packed. Nancy usually ends up in some type of danger, but always finds a way out.
Plot synopsis: Nancy helps Josiah Crowley’s friends and family search for his missing will before rich, unkind relatives steal the whole estate.
The Girl Next Door
Judy Bolton in her debut The Vanishing Shadow by Margaret Sutton
Judy is more realistic both in character and plot than Nancy Drew. She has red hair and a temper and butts heads with her grandmother. She fights with her brother, Horace, and sometimes runs and hides when she is upset. Most notably, she grows up and solves mysteries into adulthood, even after marriage, unlike the perennially teenage Nancy.
Plot synopsis: Judy overhears a strange conversation between two men about the new dam at Roulsville (her hometown). She doesn’t understand what she hears, but the strange men threaten her anyway. Judy promises to keep quiet and actually tries to keep that promise, while still untangling the mystery and trying to save Roulsville from destruction.
Trixie Belden in her debut The Secret of the Mansion by Julie Campbell
This is the best written of all the books I read for this article. The sole child among this group, Trixie, has the bravery and smarts to go toe-to-toe with anyone else on this list. Trixie is a wonderful character, realistic and energetic, making mistakes and learning from them. She is loyal and kind and loving, but a regular kid and far from perfect. For instance, she gets annoyed with her little brother tagging along and becomes distracted while watching him, but mostly willingly does her chores, including extra ones to earn money for a horse. She also rides a spirited horse after the Wheelers’ stable hand tells her not to and finds herself in a tight spot. (One of several.)
Plot synopsis: Mr. Frayne, the elderly gentleman who lives in the crumbling mansion on the hill next door to Trixie, is found unconscious at the end of his driveway. While he is in the hospital, Trixie and best friend Honey Wheeler realize someone is living in the house. It’s Jim, Mr. Frayne’s nephew, who is on the run from his abusive stepfather. There is supposedly a hidden will and money in the house and the girls promise to help Jim find it. (A missing will and a long-lost heir. Very popular tropes in children’s mysteries. Not being able to write about murder or anything too scary narrows your options quite a bit.)
Nancy Drew’s Fun Kid Sister
Penny Parker in her debut Tale of the Witch Doll by Mildred A. Wirt
I liked this girl, despite her outer trappings being practically a clone of Nancy Drew’s. This series was written by Mildred Wirt Benson, the original Carolyn Keene. Penny lives with her father and a housekeeper in a town called Riverview. (Wirt couldn’t have changed it more from River Heights?) Penny is smart and fun. Her father publishes the local paper and sometimes lets her write for it.
But Penny isn’t perfect like Nancy. She drives a clunker that is frequently in the shop. She has to consider her allowance before buying things. She just isn’t as polished somehow. But that’s part of the reason I like her. She is impulsive, a bit reckless, and always dragging her best friend, Louise, on her adventures.
Plot synopsis: Penny and Louise find out that their friend Nellie’s doll shop has been vandalized and an old woman is pressuring her to sell it. They then find a stranded actress on the road and help her get to the theater on time. The actress starts receiving creepy witch dolls that seem to be from Nellie’s shop. Every time she tries to get rid of it, it reappears. Penny determines to find out why both Nellie and Miss Harmon (the actress) are under threat and prove that the witch doll isn’t actually reappearing by itself.
Cherry Ames in her debut Cherry Ames, Student Nurse by Helen Wells
I cheated a bit with this one. Cherry does solve mysteries, but not until later books in the series. I didn’t know this at first and kept wondering when the mystery was going to start! Apparently, it was not uncommon for series to become mystery series in order to sell better. But I liked Cherry and her story, so I’m including her on this list.
Cherry is a first-year student nurse. She is so excited to become a nurse and make a difference. This sounds saccharine, but Cherry’s earnestness works for her. She is entirely sincere, hard-working, and kind. She wants very much to “get her cap” and become a nurse, but does what is best for her patients, even if it means breaking a rule. You can’t help but root for her.
Plot synopsis: This book is basically an account of a girl’s first year in nursing school. Cherry makes friends, including winning over an unpleasant loner, and develops a crush on a young doctor. She studies hard and rotates through the wards learning about different kinds of nursing. She also deals with an unpleasant doctor who keeps insisting she remove her rouge, although she keeps telling him she isn’t wearing any. (I just found this so outrageous I had to mention it.)
The Flight Attendant
Vicki Barr in The Silver Ring Mystery by Helen Wells (who also wrote Cherry Ames)
Vicki is a flight attendant, who solves mysteries between flights. (She knows how to fly a plane, too!) This book was very enjoyable, but there isn’t much to differentiate Vicki from the other classic girl detectives apart from her career. The mystery was well plotted and interesting, and I enjoyed the info given about flying and the work of a flight attendant.
Plot Synopsis: Vicki helps a man having a heart episode on one of her flights. He and his wife are so grateful that they invite her to their home in New York City. Mrs. Bryant (the wife) confides to Vicki that they are searching for their estranged granddaughter, Lucy Rowe. When she learns that Vicki is often in San Francisco, she asks that Vicki make some inquiries about Lucy, because that is where she grew up and is currently living.
There you have it, my favorites of the classic girl detectives. (So far. There are a lot of them.) Who are your favorite classic girl detectives?
Sara Farmer lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, three kids, and two cats. When she’s not chasing kids and cats, she reads and writes mysteries. You can find her at www.kittymomma.com and on Twitter @avonlea79.