IT’S A GRAY and chilly March day, good for curling up inside with cats and multiple cups of tea. As my pub date grows closer (May 17th!), I’m starting to see some early reviews of The Walled Garden. One of them referred to my protagonist, Lucy Silver, as the “young detective,” which delighted me because got me thinking about my favorite “girl detectives,” and I realized that Lucy is a direct descendent of that adventurous sisterhood.
I suppose the phrase “girl detectives” may sound un-PC, but to me, there’s always been something so fresh and thrilling about a girl detective. The idea of a girl starting off on her own to take on the world, perhaps naively, but with youth and energy and enthusiasm, in order to solve a mystery, has never grown old for me.
In his generous blurb for The Walled Garden, Bret Lott says that the novel is “an exquisite portrait of a young woman who is, truly and finally, seeking to solve the mystery of herself,” and that insightful observation finally gave me words to put around something I’ve long felt about mysteries.
I grew up in a small town with a good public library within bike-riding distance and a best friend who possessed a far more generous collection of Nancy Drew books than I did. I read the Nancy Drew stories again and again, longing for something even slightly mysterious to happen in my bland and boring town. Even as a young reader, I could sense that the books were written to a formula, but I still adored the slim “titian-haired” young sleuth, long before I had a clue what titian-haired even meant!
Nancy Drew’s whole world lives fondly in my memory: her blue roadster (which became a convertible in later books), her loyal friends Bess and George, her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson (who could doubt she would someday become Nancy Nickerson?), and finally (and possibly most importantly), the money—her fond father, River Heights lawyer Carson Drew, always willing to finance Nancy’s travels to solve whatever mystery presented itself. Machu Picchu, in The Clue in the Crossword Cipher, stands out in my memory as especially exotic. And devoted housekeeper Hannah Gruen was there to fuss over Nancy, caution her to be careful, and say a sharp word of warning when necessary. But since she wasn’t a mother, she had no power to prevent our girl detective from doing pretty much whatever she wanted.
And thank heaven for that, because otherwise there would have been no mysteries to solve!
From 1930 to 2003, there were 175 mysteries in the original Nancy Drew series, and the books were eventually spun off into multiple TV series, movies, graphic novels, and even video games. In 2009, Entertainment Weekly ranked Nancy Drew seventeenth on its list of “The Top 20 Heroes”—ahead of Batman (my son will be shocked!), explaining that Nancy Drew is “the first female hero embraced by most little girls . . . [Nancy lives] in an endless summer of never-ending adventures and unlimited potential.”
Unlimited potential. That’s it. That’s what reading Nancy Drew stories made me feel as a girl growing up in a sleepy small town where nothing ever happened, during the 1970s, a time when women’s voices and women’s stories were still being routinely dismissed. Nancy Drew made me feel that I could grow up and make choices for myself, go out into the world as a woman and certainly investigate, and possibly even “solve” mysteries. She taught me that it was okay to be curious, and that I could trust my own intelligence and instincts.
I went to England for the first time (with a friend) when I was twenty-two, and the five weeks I spent there changed my life. After a lifetime of reading, I had finally become the “girl detective” I’d always dreamed of being, setting off on my own mystery-solving adventure. The mysteries I wanted to solve might not have been terribly earthshaking—they were more like, what did these English villages and places I’d always read about actually look like? And, more importantly, how did they make me feel?
But I’ve never gotten over that “girl detective” feeling of setting off to see the world and explore its endless possibilities. And of course, though I didn’t know it when I was twenty-two, the real mystery I was trying to solve was, as Bret says, the mystery of myself.
So I’m eternally grateful to Nancy Drew and her daring, adventurous spirit, because she led me directly to Lucy Silver and her adventures in The Walled Garden, and incidentally along the way, to a lot of great journeys and mystery-reading experiences of my own.
I’m loving this subject so much, I’ve decided this will be the first post in a series on Girl Detectives! Next, I’ll consider Anne Beddingfeld from Agatha Christie’s fabulous 1924 classic, The Man in the Brown Suit, which I first read around age 13.
In the meantime, tell me about your favorite girl detectives!
Nancy Drew silhouette: Google Images