No doubt about it, we love our amateur sleuths. We delight in watching the unassuming and underestimated outsmart the bad guys—and the pros. We want to root for the little guy. Or the little girl. Literally. Young detectives have been solving their share of fictional crimes as long as we’ve been reading mysteries. Let’s look at what these meddling kids have been up to over the past 150 years.
The Early Years
Kids were on the case before adults even reached the crime scene. English literature’s first detective novel, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, was published in 1868, but “Ernest Keen, Boy Detective,” beat Collins to press by two years. Headlining dozens of penny dreadful magazine stories, Ernest ushered in a new kind of crime fiction, starring crime-solvers, not criminals. American magazines followed in the 1880s with “New York Nell, the Boy-Girl Detective,” who cracked her cases disguised—wait for it—as a boy. Crime fiction has always been popular literature, appealing to an audience of everyday readers, young and old. Penny dreadfuls were affordable enough for even working class kids to get in on the fun.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle recognized another contribution these kids could make. A ragtag band of London street boys assisted in Sherlock Holmes’s first mystery, 1888’s A Study in Scarlet (their first appearance in The Strand was 1893’s “Adventure of the Crooked Man”). Ubiquitous yet overlooked, the “Baker Street Irregulars” took the investigation to spots the patrician Holmes could never go unnoticed. Not only helping Holmes solve some of his trickiest cases, the Irregulars helped build his broad and devoted fan base.
Ask any teenage girl: nobody takes them seriously. They’re commonly dismissed—which explains our special affection for the girl detective. She’s always the cleverest person in the room, and her daring exploits have allowed girls to explore identities rarely attainable in real life. Anna Katharine Green’s debutante Violet Strange launched her brief career in “The Golden Slipper” (1904). Demure and retiring as befitted a girl of her station, Violet was uniquely suited to solving the problems of New York high society—quietly, politely, and without causing a fuss. The fun for the reader is seeing how her unexpected brilliance shines as she slips in and out of the scene. In the ideal resolution for a girl of the era, Violet ultimately set aside her exciting career in favor of marriage and domesticity.
These early sleuths established the Young Detective’s Manifesto—the principles shared by every adolescent gumshoe to follow. When L. Frank Baum’s Phoebe Daring (1911) teamed up with the state governor to save a friend who was falsely accused of a shocking crime, she proved that might doesn’t make right, and that the fight for justice belongs to everyone, from the young and small (and female) to the most powerful men in the land.
The Golden Age
Our favorite and most enduring young detectives came of age in the middle of the 20th century. The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, Harriet the Spy, and countless others appeared on the scene—and on the page, screen, stage, and newsprint. Taking the magnifying glass from adult Golden Age sleuths like Miss Marple and Peter Wimsey, these young detectives kept the lighter side of mysteries alive even as adult crime fiction was growing more cynical.
Nancy Drew, the most famous young sleuth of them all, solved her first case in 1930 (The Secret of the Old Clock by Mildred “Carolyn Keene” Wirt) and hasn’t slowed down yet (she’s currently headlining her third TV series). Nancy tackled cases with the can-do spirit characteristic of the generation that survived the Great Depression and won World War II. Her all-American, girl-next-door appeal inspired a dozen offshoots, including my favorite, Julie Campbell’s Trixie Belden. These Golden Age young detectives reached a middle-American audience with comforting homogeneity, reassuring Cold War kids that with a little ingenuity, the good guys would always win. Even popular series innocents like the Bobbsey Twins, the Boxcar Children, and Ginnie and Geneva got in on the mystery-solving game. These are the books that are still reprinted, the characters continually reinvented for new eras. They have a perennial appeal and kid-friendly innocence that never feels dated.
But as our societal innocence waned in the 1960s, independent young detectives broke away from their middle-class roots. The Mystery, Inc. kids from “Scooby-Doo, Where are You?” drove their groovy van onto the scene in 1969. Shaggy, Scooby-Doo, and crew had ’60s Youth Culture taking on The Man to unmask frauds and hoaxsters. With no evidence of parents or a home base, they could be the hippies next door, while retaining their clean-cut affluence. Scarves, dogs, and rock-and-roll: pop culture would never be the same.
The Great Hiatus (to borrow the Sherlockian term)
Growing up in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, we had no shortage of young detectives to choose from—we just read all the same ones our parents (and sometimes grandparents) had. I devoured Trixie Belden reprints, never realizing they were written in the ’50s. Plenty of original mysteries hit the shelves: authors like Lois Duncan, Joan Lowery Nixon, and Christopher Pike gave us darker, edgier books like Killing Mr. Griffin, The Other Side of Dark, and Slumber Party. But these were thrillers, not whodunits, and no new, immortal young sleuth emerged to wear the mantle (or Inverness coat, to torture the metaphor) of the great series detectives. Adult mysteries’ focus on crimes and criminals had finally crept into kids’ literature. Keeping Golden Age kids’ detectives alive in reprints and new adventures helped rekindle the good, clean, innocent fun.
The Modern Era
…But the innocence couldn’t last forever. Twenty-first century young detectives are more likely to encounter murders, kidnappings, assaults, and other serious crimes than their earlier counterparts. In 2004, television’s party girl-turned-PI Veronica Mars led a new class of teen investigators—jaded and world-weary and unrecognizable to the Hardys and Drews. With all the best—and worst—traits of classic noir private eyes, this hardboiled heroine shattered the fresh-faced girl detective mold. Paradoxically refreshing, Veronica Mars made us take a new look at what the genre had to offer modern fans.
Writers, publishers, and showrunners recognized the changing face of young detectives. Sleuths of the 21st century are far more diverse than their forebears, returning the genre to its populist roots. No longer just the purview of middle-class white kids (or authors), the field is open to sleuths like Chinese-Irish Mary Quinn (2010, The Agency: A Spy in the House, by Y.S. Lee), who crosses New York Nell with Violet Strange, posing as a servant to uncover secrets in Victorian London. Or a reimagined Zora Neale Hurston (2011, Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon), whose supernatural sleuthing in Eatonville, Florida, upends our expectations for what a brilliant detective and her loyal chronicler look like. Or Manu “Mars” Patel, whose podcast adventures are a multicultural penny dreadful serial for the digital age (2016, “The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel”).
It’s too soon to say who the immortal young sleuths of the modern era will be, but today’s authors are drawing on three centuries of tradition. Young detectives have earned their place alongside mystery fiction’s most esteemed investigators. No matter how the world changes, we’ll never outgrow our love for these most unexpected of amateur sleuths.
Elizabeth C. Bunce’s award-winning young adult novels have been called “mysteries in fantasy dress.” She has finally bowed to the inevitable and now pens the Myrtle Hardcastle Mystery series from Algonquin Young Readers. Obsessed with the new sciences of Victorian criminology, Myrtle enthusiastically joins our class of intrepid young sleuths, upending conventions and meddling in investigations, with the spirited assistance of her steadfast governess and an opinionated cat. Books one and two, Premeditated Myrtle and How to Get Away with Myrtle, were/will be released 6 October, 2020. Her debut novel, A Curse Dark as Gold, was a Smithsonian Notable Book, the inaugural winner of the William C. Morris Award, an Oprah’s Book Club pick, and is included on Kansas’s 150 Books for 150 Years Sesquicentennial book list, alongside works by Truman Capote and L. Frank Baum. A native of the American Midwest, Bunce lives near Kansas City with a husband and some cats. You can find her online at www.elizabethcbunce.com