My Life as a Girl Detective

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When I was a kid I wanted more than anything to be a girl detective. A sleuth like Nancy Drew, with a trusty side-kick, my own car complete with rumble seat, and a father who could get me out of trouble in a pinch. At times I thought I might be an international spy like Agent 99 from the television show Get Smart. But mostly I wanted to be a detective.

I wanted to solve mysteries, find clues, chat to strangers, and then when I’d unearthed some evidence, write everything down in a cute notebook. I’d live, I imagined, in a rambling old brick house with my parents and several adoring younger sisters…. note the influence of Little Women here… in a town that had lots of other brick houses, on wide, tree-lined streets, and a big brick library where I could access all the research material I needed to solve my cases. Plus old-fashioned, street-corner diners where I could order a cup of coffee, sit in a booth, and discuss progress on my cases with my loyal assistant/best friend.

Endpapers for an early edition of Nancy Drew. source

As a child I read voraciously. And, as the youngest child of a single mum who worked full-time, I was often alone. Or with much older people. I used to go visiting in the neighbourhood all on my own. A fact that always makes me chuckle. But I was comfortable with adults, terribly nosy, and loved to hear people’s stories. Besides, the neighbourhood was filled with stay-at-home mums who didn’t mind chatting to my nine-year-old self while they folded their laundry or did the ironing. I particularly loved visiting Sally who had recently married my mum’s cousin. When Sally’s beautiful sister came to stay for a few weeks, I was awestruck, and a regular visitor for tea. Now, when I think about those days, I realize that the adults were being very kind to me. But back then I didn’t see anything odd about it.

Anyway, I think all that visiting whetted my appetite for finding out what makes people tick, for listening to their stories. And combined with my constant reading and my vivid imagination, I began to imagine my calling as a girl detective. Meanwhile I devoured all the detective fiction I could get my hands on.

Obviously growing up put paid to my ambition to be a girl detective. But it did nothing to diminish my love for detective stories. I adore detective fiction. And if you’ve read my blog for a while that admission will come as no surprise. I am not quite so much in love with thrillers or books with too much explicit violence. But a good murder or two, some missing persons, or a kidnapping are totally up my street. It’s the detecting part that I love. Following clues, finding out what makes people tick, who did what and why, learning everyone’s back story, and then neatly fitting all the pieces together to solve a case. Restoring order to a chaotic world.

And my particular favourite kind of detective fiction is the kind that features a “girl detective” … even if she’s not exactly a girl anymore.

Lately I’ve been thinking of this odd little part of my own back-story. I just finished reading a Sally Spencer book, Daughters of Darkness, which features girl detective Jennie Redhead. I so enjoyed this book. Even if the ending was a bit beyond believability, I still liked it. Set in 1975 in Oxford in the UK, Daughters of Darkness is classic girl-detective fiction.

Jennie Redhead has an English degree from Oxford. She had a brief career in the police, before she was driven out of the force by a corrupt boss and set up shop on her own. Jennie is kind of an English Kinsey Millhone. She loves a good quip, spends a lot of time in pubs, and has an old boyfriend who is a cop and who helps her out when he can. I loved the descriptions of Oxford and the surrounding countryside in the novel, and the fact that Jennie gets around on a bicycle. I mean, it is Oxford, after all.

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is a favourite as well. Set in southern California, Grafton’s stories take place in the eighties, and Kinsey is a girl after my own heart. Like Jennie Redhead, she’s the quintessential “plucky” girl detective. She can’t cook and she’s dedicated to her job. If she was interested in fashion, she’d be perfect. I always laugh when she pulls out her one and only, stretchy, black, all-purpose dress. It’s these kinds of character details that I love about good detective fiction. Plus Kinsey has a coterie of friends and neighbours who have interesting and ongoing back-stories of their own. You can find all of Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries (A through Y) here.

When she died in 2017, Grafton still had one more book to write to finish the alphabet. Apparently, she always hated the idea of adapting her books for film or television, worrying that the characters would be given short shrift, that “her work would be compromised.” One source I read said that Grafton threatened to haunt her family if they ever sold the rights to her work. But I read today in a note on her website that the family has recently decided to develop Grafton’s books for television. Uh oh. Stay tuned for the haunting.

But the original and best-loved (by me anyway) girl detective (other than the ones written for…well… actual girls) is Cordelia Gray from P.D. James’ An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Cordelia is bright, “disconcertingly intelligent,” and very young at twenty-two to be a partner (let alone sole proprietor) of a detective agency. Especially since, as she says herself, she “brought no qualifications or relevant past experience” to her job. When her partner, the hapless Bernie Pryde, commits suicide in the first chapter of the novel, Cordelia must struggle on… on her own.

I read An Unsuitable Job for a Woman when it was first published back in the seventies. In fact I still have my hard-cover copy given to me by my grandmother Sullivan. I’ve long thought that my grandmother would have made a formidable girl detective if she’d had the chance. She was smart, as well as smart-mouthed, and fearless; she would have kicked ass, if you’ll pardon the profanity. At not much over five feet tall, she handled my six-foot-two-inch grandfather, a couple of hired men, and often a boarder or two with aplomb. Plus she raised eight children, five of them boys. And made time to read a ton of books.

The Skull Beneath the Skin, the second book in the brief Cordelia Gray series, wasn’t published until 1982. I’ve never understood why P.D. James waited ten years to write a follow-up. Still, I loved both books. As I’ve been writing this post I’ve been dipping into both books to remind myself why I love the characters and P.D. James’ writing so much and I’ve found myself caught up all over again in the characters and their narratives. Especially James’ exquisite descriptions.

Take, for instance, her rendering of Miss Sparshott, the temporary typist employed at Cordelia’s detective agency. Miss Sparshott is described in minute detail from her “receding chin with one coarse hair which grew as quickly as it was plucked” to her clothes. Miss Sparshott was a “skilled dressmaker.” But her “beautifully made clothes were so dateless that they were never actually in fashion; straight skirts in grey or black which were exercises in how to sew a pleat or insert a zip fastener; blouses with mannish collars and cuffs in insipid pastel shades on which she distributed without discretion her collection of costume jewellry; intricately cut dresses with hems at the precise length to emphasize her shapeless legs and thick ankles.” Oh dear.

In looking for that quote, I’ve just spent ten minutes reading the whole first chapter. I think I’ll be taking both books to bed with me tonight.

I’m not sure why, when so many detective novels are written by women, so few of them feature a female lead-detective, a “girl detective.” Many of the most revered female mystery writers, including P.D. James, write primarily about male detectives. Ruth Rendell, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Kate Atkinson, Louise Penny, Donna Leon, Elizabeth George. Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope, Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway, and Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan are notable exceptions to this rule. And Elizabeth’s George’s pivot in her last Inspector Lynley book, The Punishment She Deserves, making Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers the main character, is a wonderful step in the right direction. As much as I love the Lynley character and his story line, Havers is a refreshing change.

I’m sure I am missing a bunch of other examples here. Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce for instance. But, as delightful as she is, Flavia is not what I mean when I say “girl detective.” She is still too much of a child and thus bound by the constraints of the adult world around her.

It’s late now, my friends. I must try to wrap this post up. I’m getting a bit dippy from reading about and writing about “girl detectives” all day.

Ha. Just writing “girl detective” makes me chuckle. I wonder what Vera Stanhope would think of that appellation.

Of course it’s woefully out of date, I fully admit that. And other than Nancy Drew, and maybe Cordelia Gray, none of the characters I’ve mentioned could be rightfully called “girls.”

But the term “girl detective” has a special cachet for me. It conjures up my nine-year-old dreams of growing up, and being free to do as I wished in the adult world. Footloose in a car with a rumble-seat, solving mysteries with my plucky and loyal side-kick. Asking questions with impunity. Following up clues. Being smart. Controlling my own destiny.

Doesn’t it sound wonderful?

Now how about you, my bookish friends? Did you ever long to be a girl detective? Maybe you still harbour such dreams? Sometimes I do. I mean, I am still incredibly nosy, at least according to Hubby.

P.S. The book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link I will earn a small commission.

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62 thoughts on “My Life as a Girl Detective”

  1. I can’t relate to Nancy Drew , she didn’t seem to travel over the Atlantic but we had Enid Blyton’s Famous Five & Secret Seven which I loved . She gets criticised now for being class ridden . The villains were nearly always common , scruffy working folk . So it is fair criticism but I didn’t see it at the time . They were just a bunch of enthusiastic kids putting their world to rights . I love the thought of you wandering your neighbourhood like a nosy little old lady – Miss Marple ?
    PS We are away in Scotland just now & I’m reading Crow Lake . It’s every bit as good as you say

  2. Your childhood seemed so interesting! Life with books, and in books, as well……

    I’ve first wanted to be Nscho-tschi,young native American from Karl May’ s book series Winnetou.

    Than I wanted to be Calamity Jane (not sure how politically correct would these books be today,so,I apologize,just in case)…much later I wanted to be a  girl detective (actually, epidemiology has a lot with solving mysteries:))

    Our taste for mysteries are very similar indeed- a murder or two,no explicit violence,no serial killers without a reason….

    And yay, Spencer and Grafton,new books for me!

    Love P. D. James and her books…and the rest mentioned here

    Dottoressa

    1. I think my internal life was more interesting than my real life as a child. I have a friend whose daughter as a child was obsessed with Calamity Jane after having seen the character in a Broadway musical. They were visiting us that summer and she was about six years old and bellowing out the song sung in the play by Calamity Jane… “Oh… you can’t git a man with a gun.” I still smile when I think of that.

  3. I was dying to learn to read from a very young age. There is a photo of me about 3 years old max sitting with my ankle on my other knee with a newspaper in hand (just like my Dad did). I used to look at words and just imagine what they were saying. So I learn’t to read quickly and well by 5 years old. I read tons of books including Nancy Drew and yes I wanted to be her too. Also the Secret 7 and Famous 5 as Wendy mentions. Around 10 years I found the Mallory Towers books. Did you read them Sue? Such fun, naughty but loveable girls in girls school. Funny I also loved to visit adults and chit chat with them. I had plenty of friends my own age too. Thanks Sue for a trip down memory lane :).

  4. OMG. This describes me to a tee – especially as a kid who was often alone, and visiting the adults! Nancy Drew was one of my heroes – plus, she had a “roadster” which I recall being disappointed finding out was simply a car. I used to drive my mother crazy calling our car a roadster …

    And now I also have to go and re-read my Cordelia Grays. I always like Adam Dalgliesh, but like you, longed for more Cordelia stories.

  5. I have devoured Sue Grafton’s series over the years and miss her immensely! Have you read her book “Kinsey and Me”? I recommend it. Despite her wishes, I look forward to a TV series. The actors will probably not live up to my imagination of the characters. I have viewed all of the Vera TV shows, but have not read the books. I have gone off Elizabeth George. I stopped reading her Lynley series after she killed off Lynley’s wife. I had thought the last few books had gotten tooooo long (over 700 pages) and too much filler that had nothing to do with the story. I liked Sgt. Haver so I may just try reading her last book if it’s not too long!

    1. Christine Cascadia

      A few years ago Elizabeth George came to our area to give a book talk. She spoke about plot and character development. This article is a good summation and very helpful in understanding her choices. (And I have to add that the decision to have her newest book become available in miserable January is brilliant. A perfect time for a long read.)
      http://www.elizabethgeorgeonline.com/essay_whatcame.htm

    2. I almost gave up on Elizabeth George for a while. A couple of her books were a big disappointment. Then in the one before the last one she redeemed herself. And the last two I really loved. Albeit… they could have been considerably shorter, I agree.

  6. Ah yes, loved Nancy Drew and love a good mystery. One of my daughters recommended and let me borrow her copy of The Chestnut Man by Soren Sveistrup over a year ago. Just could not read…lockdowns. Now my daughter tells me that a series/movie has been developed on Netflix, finally picked up the book. So far so good, but, yes a bit gruesome. Must confess I like the male detective in this one better than the female, we’ll see how it goes. Love that you had tea with the neighbors, they probably loved it, broke up the day.

  7. Loved your post today. I follow several bloggers but yours is the only one I read fully. I enjoy your book recommendations and fashion looks. The picture of your family is so familiar.
    It brings to mind my own family photos. Our mothers share the same hairstyle, hair color and eyeglasses style. The children could have been neighbors down the street. We lived in a very rural area in Utah which has grown up to be a busy, crowded suburb of Salt Lake City. Seeing your photo brings home the idea that, in spite of geographic differences, one can still feel connected. I think you would make an excellent “girl detective”.

  8. One of my best memories is peddling my bike to the library in the small town where we lived and coming home with six or seven books piled in the basket. I read Nancy Drew, and later loved (and fancied myself) Harriet the Spy, but during my middle school years I was really drawn to the YA books of Beverly Cleary and Betty Cavanna, books about navigating friendships, school, popularity (or lack of it), and boys. I expect they would be seen as anti-feminist (and worse) today, but they were invaluable to me.

    Since my days with Nancy and Harriet I haven’t read many detective stories, but maybe I’ll dive back in? Thanks for the suggestions.

    Your writing “aplomb” brought to mind my late Uncle Bogard. He had a saying that when something was done really well, it was done with “succotash and aplomb.” I believe it was a Southernism. Or maybe just a Bogie-ism!

      1. That had to be the Southern influence! They all hailed from Kentucky and Tennessee. I love the expression, but I always hated the succotash!😉

  9. Annette Loscialpo

    Never been much of a mystery reader, but did read Nancy Drew as a kid. Now at 80 (with snow white hair) I’m reading Still Life by Louise Penny, our book club selection. I’ll let you know if it’s not too late to like a good mystery.

      1. Annette Loscialpo

        Didn’t like Still Life very much. Maybe you are right in not being a fan of Louise Penny. Now she’s written a book with Hilary Clinton. We’ll see how that goes. Probably won’t read.

  10. I don’t remember reading Nancy Drew but I remember reading about the Boxcar children. I read mysteries as a child but I can’t remember the titles, although the characters and settings still stick in my mind. I love all the authors you mentioned although I don’t like too much violence. I’ve only read one or two Denise Mina books and I stopped in the middle of the Sue Grafton books when someone’s daughter was killed. I need to go back to that series. I love Sally Spencer and read most of the Inspector Woodend series and I remember when Monica joined the force. I stopped reading the Monica series when one of the books was too violent (no spoilers here). I reread the first PD James book and I would like to reread the entire series. I loved Cordelia Gray and the tv series. My favorite mysteries are police procedurals and I’m reading the Hillary Greene series by Faith Martin and enjoying them immensely. The Caroline Graham Inspector Barnaby are very good and I’ve gone thru all the Wexford books by Ruth Rendell. I look to you and your readers for new to me authors. The V. I. Warshawski series is good too along with Cara Black’s books set in Paris.

    1. I also loved that TV adaptation of the Cordelia Gray book. I thought it was very well done. I’m not familiar with Faith Martin’s books. Must give them a try. Thanks.

  11. While I’ve enjoyed some detective novels, I’ve not read that genre as widely as you. And I never aspired to be a girl detective, though I did enter the world of Nancy Drew a little when my daughter was young. Come to think of it, she showed a great deal of interest in “detecting” and one of her favourite youthful pastimes was playing with her detective kit. She also loves fashion so I guess you two have some common interests. Thank you for all the recommendations. I always find them helpful in directing my own reading.

  12. Even though I read Nancy Drew books, Trixie Belden was my favourite. I am sitting here chuckling as I imagine Stu as your “plucky and loyal side-kick.”

  13. Have you read Kerry Greenwood’s Phyrne Fisher series? Whilst a slightly different genre to those you mentioned, Phyrne is a determined, independent young woman in 1920s Melbourne whose detective work is subtle and her escapades daring.
    Another favourite “girl” detective is Mary Russell by Laurie R. King. As Sherlock Holmes apprentice and eventually wife Mary is a clever, unusually talented girl/women who despite danger solves interesting mysteries across the world and 19th century England.

  14. Val McDermid’s Inspector Karen Pirie series (Edinburgh) is fabulous – I think there are 6 of them. And her newest book, 1979, is the start of a new series featuring Allie Burns, a young investigative journalist in Glasgow. I really enjoyed the retro aspect (something pre-covid, thank god!).
    Jane Casey’s detective is London-based Maeve Kennedy – love every entry in that series. Similar and just as good are the three (so far) Cat Kinsella books by Caz Frear. For a US setting, American Sara Gran writes about PI Claire Dewitt, her stuff is a bit quirky and very well-respected. Also Deborah Crombie has Met detective Gemma James, who shares top billing with her husband and fellow cop, Duncan Kincaid. These are off the top of my head but it is so true that even with female authors, male detectives are the majority.

    1. I went off Val McDermid’s books a while ago with al the drama around the Tony Hill- Carol Jordan relationship. After a while it just annoyed me. Much like the way Elizabeth George over wrote (over wrought?? ha.) the relationship between Simon St. James and Deborah for a while back in her earlier books. I loved Jane Casey’s writing, but I also abandoned her books after a few too many plot twists that had me scowling. I can be vicious, I know. 🙂

  15. I loved Nancy Drew! My friends and I would ask for different titles for birthday/ Christmas and would borrow each other’s books. A new girl joined our group who told us in hushed tones that she owned EVERY Nancy Drew book but disliked them! Heresy to our girl detective ears!! Eager to make friends she allowed us the use of her lush library..alas being an early reader I was encouraged by my widely read father to move on to other titles, writers and genres. A bit of a literary snob he felt my beloved Nancy Drew was a kids equivalent to Harlequin Romance!! I remember secretly reading my borrowed ND’s when my parents were not around in tandem with Jane Eyre or Three Musketeers..because I would be grilled on Brontë and Dumas at the breakfast table. Never the less I enjoyed my heroine’s escapades with her plucky friends and very much envied her that roadster!

    1. So you were a closet mystery reader. I love that. I once had a student who was such a voracious reader that she’d finish the books we read in class way before the deadlines, then bring her own to school and attempt to secret them behind the assigned text during reading time. I took her aside one day after class and told her that she’d better read books that weren’t three inches longer than the class novel if she wanted to hide the fact that she was reading something else. I remember laughing as I said it and she was relieved that I actually loved the fact that she was doing “extra” reading.

  16. Great memories of hours spent with Nancy, et al!! Oh that we could have been her!
    Consider the Cormoran Strike series (yes, he’s a guy) with his extremely effective sidekick (read, she’s really got great intuition and effort) Robin Ellacott. Written by J. K. Rowling, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Thanks as always for your great writing!

  17. I LOVED Sue Grafton’s books and will always be sorry to never find out what “Z is for ?” I’ve read every Agatha Christie but otherwise tend away from mysteries that have anything really scary or violent. Have you read Tessa Wegert’s two recent books. They feature a female detective and are set in The Thousand Islands between Canada and the USA. The first is “Death In The Family” and the second is “The Dead Season.” An interesting fact is that Tessa is a native of Montreal. She now lives in Darien, Connecticut with her husband and two teenage children, who are friends with my grandchildren. She just came back from her first trip to see her family in over 2 years.

  18. I also loved Nancy Drew. I started a detective club and if you wanted to join you had to successfully follow a stranger on the street!

  19. Thanks for these reading suggestions. My granddaughter and I love good mysteries. What pleasure, a winter day and a good mystery book.

  20. I just came across a small box of my childhood Nancy Drew’s (from the ’50s) in the attic. Which I could find someone who would like to have them – they were such fun and the illustrations are wonderful.

    ceci

  21. I am thrilled at the knowledge that Sue Grafton’s mysteries will be adapted for television. I read that her husband and daughter are on board with this, knowing how television has changed so drastically since the 80’s. There are just some beautifully done adaptations of books these days.
    As an avid reader, I gobbled up Nancy Drew, Trixie Beldon, and lots of mysteries as a child, but as an adult focused more on “serious fiction”. I was on a trip, in a bookstore, and happened to buy a Sue Grafton….maybe “D is for Deadbeat”, and was just delighted by it!
    I especially love how Sue Grafton managed her characters timelines, and age. She explained in an interview that each of her books happened seamlessly in Kinsey’s time, so that as all of her readers grew older, year by year, Kinsey, and her wonderful 80ish landlord, Henry only aged month by month. I’m so glad we never had to lose Henry, and his “sibs”!

  22. I loved the Nancy Drew books and distinctly remember reading them late on Christmas night, under the tree. Thanks for bringing back that memory. Have you heard of Amy Stewart? “Girl Waits With Gun” is her first in a series of books loosely based on a true story of the first woman detective in Bergen County NJ (where I live – cool to read about her with her horse and buggy travelling on the same roads as I do). An independent, strong woman facing the challenges of the early 20th century.

  23. It’s wonderful to get a few new mystery suggestions from like-minded readers; thanks, all!
    Please forgive a gentle correction from early in the thread — it was Annie Oakley who sang that “you can’t get a man with a gun”, rather than Calamity Jane. It’s locked into my memory by a wonderful high school production (in New Brunswick!).

  24. When I was 10 my father moved us from a small town in Connecticut to Manhattan. I read Nancy Drew but I also liked Harriet the Spy. I ate tomato mayo sandwiches like Harriet and walked around the neighborhood jotting down anything that looked suspicious in my notebook, just like Harriet!

  25. I was also a Nancy Drew fan. She had panache, so much for style than Cherry Ames, Student Nurse. And I am still a mystery fan.
    I recently came across a well established author, how I missed her all this time I don’t know: Nevada Barr. She has a long series of mysteries featuring Anna Penguin, a U.S. Forest Ranger. Every book is set in a national park, and as well as the human interest and murder to solve you get the great outdoors.

      1. Hi, one more Nevada Barr comment. You know, the author’s name was a little off putting to me, I’m glad I got past it. Now I am on book #8 in the series, which involved finishing #7 at 1:30 AM and ordering the next on Kindle.
        Intricate interesting stories, good writing, motivations that make sense, and some surprising endings are in every book so far. Anna Penguin, our hero, is wry and a little offbeat. Not unlike Kinsey Milhone.
        Even for me (I am something of an idler) I love reading about rappeling, caving, scuba diving, etc. Barr has been a seasonal forest ranger herself and also clearly does good research. I’d love to know what others think.

  26. Flavia is my all time favourite. Some of the little details are so cleverly written that just thinking about them again makes me chuckle.

  27. I loved Nancy Drew as a child and dreamed of being like her. I don’t know if I spent a lot of time aspiring to be a detective, but whenever I read a new Nancy Drew book, I wanted to become her for a while.
    I read the Bobbsey Twins before Nancy Drew and they solved a few crimes as well.
    I enjoyed Sue Grafton’s books very much and still devour detective stories. I have really liked Tana French’s Dublin Detective Squad books (although they tend to be very dark).
    The opposite of dark, I laughed my way through the Stephanie Plum books. They do not take themselves seriously and sometimes that is just the ticket.
    I’ve been hoarding a couple of PD James books, wanting to read them in order. I need to look up lists of the books and find the first for one of the characters. I’ll have to get a copy of Daughters of Darkness.

  28. I also loved the Nancy Drew series when I was young. Commenters have reminded me of many wonderful girl detectives I have enjoyed over the years. I was very interested in the Jemima Shore mysteries by Antonia Fraser back in the 80’s as there was a TV adaptation on PBS’s Mystery series. Cara Black is my current go-to girl detective writer.

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