In my last column, I talked about classic girl detectives. This time, the modern girl detectives get their chance.
The girl detectives from the late 20th-early 21st century comprise a much more diverse group. But they share with each other and their predecessors the qualities of intelligence, bravery, and grit.
Some of you might notice some notable exceptions on this list. Here are my criteria:
- Detective under 20 years old
- Female main detective
- Primarily a mystery novel
- Published between the 1970s and the present day
- Categorized as Children’s or YA literature
(NOTE: The plot descriptions are based on the first book in the series unless otherwise noted.)
Here are my favorite modern girl detectives.
Born at the Wrong Time (but published in the right one)
Sally Lockhart in the Sally Lockhart series by Philip Pullman
Many people think of the His Dark Materials series when they hear Philip Pullman. To me, he is beloved as the creator of Sally Lockhart, a 16-year-old girl in Victorian England who loses her father and gains a priceless ruby, as well as all of the murderous troubles that go with it.
When I first read The Ruby in the Smoke and its sequels in 1991, heroines like Sally Lockhart were quite rare, especially in children’s and YA literature. She is beautiful, but her most compelling traits are intelligence, strength, bravery, and daring. She is also reserved in her interactions, foregoing flirtation and the societal obligation to be charming unless it serves her purposes. Marriage is the last thing on her mind. She even carries a small Belgian pistol her father taught her to use. She wasn’t like any other literary heroine I encountered before and she deserves to be better known today.
Enola Holmes in the Enola Holmes mystery series by Nancy Springer
Enola is a 14-year-old girl who lives with her mother and a few servants in the crumbling family estate in the English countryside. She awakens on her birthday to find her mother left gifts for her and disappeared. She soon finds out that there is more to these gifts than meets the eye.
She’s also the little sister of Sherlock Holmes, who, along with their brother Mycroft, descends from London to decide what to do with Enola and the estate. Enola has different ideas, but they brush her aside. They underestimate Enola, but they learn not to do that again.
I love mysteries involving puzzles and ciphers. Enola is witty, intelligent, and resilient. I thoroughly enjoyed the first movie on Netflix and her first book adventure searching for the missing marquess and look forward to reading the others in the future, as well as seeing the next movie, recently confirmed by Netflix.
Myrtle Hardcastle in the Myrtle Hardcastle series by Elizabeth C. Bunce
I’ve read the first two books in this series and can’t wait for the third next month. Myrtle strongly reminds me of Flavia de Luce, Alan Bradley’s girl detective (in books written for adults, so not on this list), who is also fascinated by science and murder.
The daughter of a lawyer and a scientist (Her mother, who is deceased.), Myrtle enjoys access to professional materials for both disciplines. Her governess Ada Judson is a fairly willing accomplice, but cautious about jumping to conclusions and calling the police. (To be fair, Myrtle has a history of doing just that.) But Myrtle persists until she finds out who murdered her elderly neighbor and how (first book) and clears her Aunt Helena of a murder charge (second book).
Myrtle’s arch narration is hilarious as she rails against rules for Young Ladies of Quality (her capitals) and rebuffs the efforts of adults to help her befriend girls her age. She is brave and loving and has moments that remind us she is a little girl dealing with dangerous situations.
Goldie Vance in Goldie Vance Vol. 1 by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams (illustrator)
Marigold (Goldie) Vance is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives and works at the Florida hotel her father manages. Goldie parks cars, but helps the hotel detective in her spare time. In the first of the four volumes in the graphic novel series—there are also two novels inspired by the graphic novels— a hotel guest’s priceless necklace disappears and the hotel detective needs help finding it. (Although he doesn’t want the help.) The necklace’s owner disappears and the race is on to find both.
Goldie is Black and queer. She crushes on a girl in the story, but it’s treated as the normal teenage crush it is. Goldie doesn’t agonize about it and no one bullies her or even talks about it, despite the fact that the story is set in 1962. I thought it was cute and a timely part of the storyline. The artwork is bright and bold and Goldie is a fun, smart, brave character. The mystery is interesting and twisty. I loved this book so much on Kindle that I bought the paperback for my kids and to fully enjoy the artwork.
21st Century Modern Girl Detectives
Kazuko (Kazu) Jones in the Kazu Jones series by Shauna Holyoak
Kazu Jones is a Japanese-American girl living in Denver, CO. She wants so much to be a detective and doesn’t see why she can’t start now. Since she is in fifth grade, her parents and the police disagree. But dogs are disappearing at an alarming rate and Kazu can’t hold back when the dognappings get closer to home.
The characters and the evolutions of their relationships are realistic, yet heartwarming. I find it hard to take when animals are in peril, but the narrative handles this topic sparingly and sensitively. Only the most sensitive might need to steer clear or try to skip those parts. I think getting through them is worth it. This book is well written, timely, and exciting. I’m delighted there is a second in the series.
Shirley Bones and Jamila Waheed in the Shirley and Jamila series, written and illustrated by Gillian Goerz
In this beautifully illustrated graphic novel, Shirley and Jamila are two tweens who want freedom to be different. Shirley is very smart and socially awkward, and is similar to modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, even in her name. Jamila is one of very few Indian kids in her part of their Canadian town. Jamila just wants to shoot hoops at the local court all day while Shirley helps neighborhood kids solve their problems with her investigative skills. But their moms want them to go to science camp (Jamila) and dance camp (Shirley). They connect at a garage sale and hatch a plan to spend their summer differently.
The resemblances between Shirley Bones and Sherlock Holmes are a little on the nose, but watching the girls solve a mystery and build a friendship is wonderful. The book touches on the difficulties for Jamila and her brothers as immigrants to Canada, as well as Shirley’s difficulties making friends. In solving the mystery, they discover other kids who need friends, leading to an ending that’s heartwarming, but not in a schmaltzy way. One bit at the ending I especially love; one of the kids’ pets is named Uncle Feather, like Fudge Hatcher’s myna bird in Judy Blume’s Fudge series. A new installment arrives in November and I’ve pre-ordered it.
Candice Miller in The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
This is one of the books where I immediately want the whole world to read it. Candice Miller doesn’t want to spend the summer away from her dad and her friends in Atlanta. She and her mother go to her grandmother’s old house in Lambert, South Carolina, while their home is being remodeled for sale due to her parents’ divorce.
Candice meets a boy who lives across the street named Brandon. Together, they discover the mysterious letter that inspired the actions that got Candice’s grandmother fired from her job as city manager in 2007.
Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game is a vital influence on this book. From the theme of a businessman trying to make up for the past to the types of clues in the letter, author Varian Johnson’s love for that story shines through. The characters in the book also love TWG and reference it frequently.
This book unflinchingly portrays life at different periods of time for Black people in the South without getting too shocking for middle grade readers. (Candice, Brandon, and their families are Black.) All of the characters are nuanced and complex. This is a very important book for kids to read both for the visceral portrayal of our nation’s shameful history with racism and introducing them to the joys of complex mysteries. (The Westing Game, too, if they haven’t read it.)
Paloma Márquez in Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes
Paloma Márquez is spending the summer in Mexico City with her mother, far from her familiar world of Kansas. Her late father was born in Mexico City and Paloma hopes to trigger more memories of him while her mother works on a literature fellowship. Otherwise, she isn’t happy about the trip.
But she soon becomes intrigued by Mexico City’s beauty and culture, particularly Frida Kahlo, whose home La Casa Azul is the first spot she visits. There she meets Lizzie and Gael, two siblings who tell her the story of Frida’s beautiful peacock ring, which is missing from her home. The three quickly become friends and set out to find this priceless piece of Mexico’s heritage before it disappears forever.
Paloma drew me in instantly. She is smart, funny, and realistically snarky. She is also caring. She worries about her mom and records every memory she discovers about her dad on index cards she keeps in her pocket. She likes boys, but they’re not her whole life. She also loves detective stories, especially the Lulu Pennywhistle series, which is, unfortunately, not a real series.
There is just enough danger and intricacy to interest older readers, but still be appropriate for middle grade. Spanish phrases pop up throughout the text, but most are commonly known or fairly easy to figure out from context. There isn’t enough to be discouraging to a young reader who is unfamiliar with Spanish. I absolutely loved it.
Who are your favorite modern 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.