Girl Detectives: The Legacy of Nancy Drew

Filed under: Books for Kids, Books, New In Pop Culture, Gear Guides: Big Kids, Gear Guides: Tweens


Back in 1930, hard-boiled detectives like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe were in vogue, making mystery-solving a decidedly masculine occupation. And then Carolyn Keene came along and tossed an 18-year-old girl into the mix.

I would dare say Nancy Drew has more worldwide name recognition today than any of her tough-as-bullets forerunners. I would even say she's arguably more famous than her squeaky-clean chums, the Hardy Boys, who preceded her by three years.

Today, girl detectives are flourishing. Let's take a look at some of Ms. Drew's unofficial progeny, as well as revisit "The Secret of the Old Clock," the very first Nancy Drew mystery, now available in an 80th Anniversary Limited Edition.


The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene (Grosset & Dunlap, $7)
This 80-year-old mystery holds up remarkably well. Nancy's eminent politeness and quaint aphorisms could have come across as very dated and corny, but instead, they feel rather charming. The solution to this mystery may not be a stunner, but watching the very likable teen detective figure it out is undeniably entertaining. And when you consider that this was written in 1930, you can truly understand what a groundbreaking figure Nancy Drew was. She's intelligent, intrepid, and really knows how to handle herself in risky situations. She makes a great role model for kids today, let alone back then. It's no wonder she became such a girl-power icon.

The Red Blazer Girls: The Vanishing Violin by Michael D. Beil (Knopf, $17)
As quick as they are to rattle off contemporary pop culture references, one wonders if the Red Blazer Girls will feel as timeless in 80 years. But we'll let our great-grandchildren worry about that. Reading the adventures of these crime-busting, puzzle-solving, very modern Catholic school girls today is a blast. The parochial setting, by the way, is never taken too seriously (the girls frequent a coffee shop called Perkatory), and these young ladies go through as much social coming-of-age stuff as they do detective work. In this, their second book, this quartet of chatter-y teen sleuths hunt down a rare violin that went missing decades before. These particular detectives are always running into hidden codes and symbolic messages, priming the way for the next generation of Dan Brown readers.


The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee (Candlewick, $17)
In a completely different era altogether -- Victorian London -- the Agency is a secret female-run organization that rescues troubled young girls from poverty, jail, or even the executioner, and trains them to find a new life as undercover crime fighters. Our heroine, biracial Mary Quinn (who must keep her half-Asian heritage hidden), is sent to work for a suspicious rich family under the guise of governess. The story unfolds in a series of remarkable twists and turns, leading to a truly surprising conclusion that should satisfy even hardcore mystery buffs. But even beyond that, this book is a joy to read. The dialogue simply sparkles -- especially the Jane Austen-esque banter between Mary and James Easton, her sometimes competitor/sometimes collaborator in sleuthing. There are some darker moments and some pretty mature subject matter, so "The Agency" is not for young kids, but older tweens and teens would be missing out on something special if they skipped it. I, for one, can't wait for Book Two.


The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye: An Enola Holmes Mystery by Nancy Springer (Philomel, $15)
Speaking of the Victorian Era, its most famous detective (well, literary history's most famous detective) was Sherlock Holmes. Turns out he had a younger sister, and she inherited his nose for sleuthing. In this series ("Gypsy Good-bye" is actually the last of six books), 14-year old Enola actually dreads running into her brother. After the disappearance of their mother (back in book one), Sherlock and their elder sibling, Mycroft Holmes, want to send Enola to a boarding school so she can be made into a proper young lady. Spunky, independent Enola will have none of it, and instead runs away to start her own detective agency. She must do so secretly, though, posing as the secretary to an imaginary crime-solver-for-hire that she invents. So much in these intriguing tales is used to illustrate the difficulties of life for women and young girls in the Victorian era -- including much about the evils of corsets. This is historical fiction that holds as many shocks as it does thrills for young readers.


Judy Moody, Girl Detective by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds (Candlewick, $16)
Okay, Judy Moody isn't always a detective, but in this, her ninth book, she is. In fact, she wants to be Nancy Drew. While reading her way through all 90 gazillion Nancy Drew books, Judy decides to start solving mysteries herself. She sees mysteries wherever she goes -- most of which don't really need solving. But she jumps in anyway, discovering clues and accusing guilty parties -- often in haste. This is not just a humorous and entertaining romp for grade-school readers, it's also a love letter of sorts to the Nancy Drew books. Judy makes multiple references to specific Drew adventures; she enumerates Nancy's rules for being a detective; she even starts speaking like her idol, explaining to her confused compatriots that "chum" means "friend" in Nancy Drew talk. I think Carolyn Keene would have been flattered -- and Nancy would be proud.

Related: I Hate That My Kids Hate 'Dora the Explorer'

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