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Jul/Aug 2005 Book Reviews

The Current Crop of Girl Detective Books

Discussed by Colleen Mondor


What the hell happened to the girl detective?

It was only dumb luck that I stumbled over M.E. Rabb's great Missing Persons series last fall which followed the adventures of the Shattenburg sisters. Rabb's books (which I reviewed in the October/November 2004 issue of Eclectica) were smart and funny and just exciting enough to keep a reader turning the pages without worrying that buckets of gratuitous blood were suddenly going to appear. In terms of the girl detective genre, they were perfect and as a recovering Nancy Drew-aholic I enjoyed them immensely. But as I said, it was only through luck that I found the Shattenburg sisters at all. What I wanted to know when I was done with Rabb's books was where a would-be Harriet the Spy was supposed to go next. If you don't want to read Nancy Drew (and really, is she all there is?), where's a girl to go?

I was hot on the case, geared up to go, racing around in my convertible looking for clues. Or, more honestly, I was sitting in front of the laptop dressed in ragged jeans and a Led Zepplin t-shirt trawling through a ton of useless web sites that popped up when I googled "girl detective."

Talk about missing persons!

Here's the thing: I grew up on Nancy Drew, I shamelessly adored her throughout much of my childhood. One blissful Christmas I actually received a different Nancy Drew mystery from pretty much every single member of my extended family. (One of the problems with divorce is that one side hardly ever consults with the other over presents.) By a major stroke of luck none of them were duplicates and I had over twenty books to keep me occupied during winter break. It was the closest I got to heaven for a long long time.

Which probably tells you way too much about how boring my early years were.

But the thing with Nancy is that she is a formula, a constant, reliable, predictable formula. That doesn't mean I can't appreciate her as a character (or icon for that matter) and I know the whole history of her syndicate birth and the critical part the formula played in the existence of the series but... there's more to life than Nancy Drew.

Really.

Every boy and girl goes through the phase where they want to solve a mystery, become embroiled in an adventure or build a rocket ship in the backyard shed. Mostly they just want something to happen, something that is bigger than they are, more interesting; something that matters.

Everything is just so boring when you're ten.

So here comes the exciting world of the girl detective (or boy detective). They gather the clues, tail the bad buys and figure out the mystery before anyone else catches on. They act, sometimes without thinking, sometimes a little foolishly, but at least they act. They aren't stuck in front of the television all summer, that's for sure. But the books aren't easy to find (unless they have Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys as part of their title), so you have to be crafty, even relentless in your search. You have to hunt these books down. Fortunately I learned how to crack a case from some of the best in literature, so I was up to the challenge.

Are you sick of the girl detective metaphors yet?

After more time then I care to admit going in circles on the web, I got a few decent hits, checked out some publishers and got lucky again. I came up with a decent little stack of books all containing a good mystery (or two). I even found a cd, Famous Girl Detective by Rechelle Malin (featuring the song "Whatever Happened to Nancy Drew"). So with Rechelle providing some folkie background music, I'm ready to give a brief survey of what's out there and a little hint of what's to come. (Actually Marin's CD is a cross between bluegrass, folk and country in a good way...if that makes any sense.)

For younger readers Hazel Green is a great place to start detecting. Hazel is all things critical for a girl detective, smart and spunky and bold as hell. What's particularly cool about her story though is the setting, an unnamed, vaguely familiar city that is still different enough to maintain an aura of exotic. (The main plot point in the first book is the parade celebrating the leader who brought peace during the "Silk Wars".) Don't worry about getting lost or overwhelmed by unfamiliar names however, author Odo Hirsch does an excellent job of keeping the plot zipping along and concentrating on Hazel and her friends (both child and adult). There is a stolen recipe with major ramifications for the local baker and also questions surrounding the construction of a Frogg Day parade float. Hazel ends up blamed for everything that goes wrong but manages to keep her head on straight and track down the true culprits. She also makes a friend, conquers a bully or two and proves that kids aren't stupid.

How cool is that?

Hazel Green is a very unique title for young readers, and the sequel, Something's Fishy, Hazel Green follows up nicely on the original's promise. The characters are very well drawn in both books and the plots are both relentless and exciting. In the first book, Hazel must prove herself again and again and must persuade the elusive Yakov (a friend, an enemy, a puzzle?) to help her. She can not give up! In the sequel, she follows codes and clues to catch a lobster-napper (really), but the bigger mystery surrounds the acute sadness of a friend and neighbor, Mr. Petrusca. What I particularly liked about this series is that the adults are fallible; they make mistakes and they need help. It's not as if the kids are perfect, there are the typical brats and bullies and teasers here, but they aren't stupid and they aren't fools. And Hazel is confident enough to understand that sometimes you don't have to cut an adult slack just because they are old; sometimes grown-ups screw-up too. It's impossible not to fall for Hazel's antics and her commitment to her friends and neighborhood. She is a great literary heroine and while her stories are not terribly complicated, Hirsch manages not to write down to his readers, in fact he lifts them up to a higher level. That's exactly what a good book should do and these fall solidly in that category.

Young readers will also enjoy Zodiac P.I., a manga girl detective. I have never read manga before, I've always been old-school when it comes to my comic reading, but I couldn't resist indulging in the adventures of Lili and her friend Hiromi. This series is flat out funny and Lili moves at such a rapid pace through every moment of her adventures that you can't help but rush along behind her laughing hysterically. First there is her father, the noble police detective, who completely has no clue what his daughter is all about. Then there is Hiromi who sees through Lili's attempt at maintaining a secret identity and proves to be indispensable on every adventure. The best part is Lili herself though, who uses astrology and a magical ring to get to the bottom of every mystery that comes her way. The ring makes this series a bit more of a fantasy then most in the genre, (Nancy after all could never call on the power of Spica to recite specific horoscopes for the dead or endangered and thus valuable collect clues), but the mystery is still the key to each story. Lili has to stay one step ahead of the bad guys while also making sure her father is none of the wiser to her extracurricular activities. Things rarely go as planned but she always gets her man (or woman) in the end, and does it with a lot of style and rapid-fire dialog.

There are several Zodiac P.I. stories to choose from, but to really understand the relationship between Lili and Hiromi you have to start at the beginning. They are young (Lili is only 13), but there is a lot of Tracy/Hepburn style exchanges between the two. Author Natsumi Ando clearly knows that kids like to talk each other up and down and Lili and Hiromi never take a break from trying to figure each other out, as well as the current case. And Hiromi has a personality! He has opinions! He is not Ned Nickerson!!! Yea! I also thought Ando's inclusion of astrology into the stories was brilliant as it brings in another whole aspect to the lives of her characters, plus it's just fun. So, manga girl detective, who would have thought it? Check out Zodiac P.I. for something different that still remains tied to its roots. (And yes, I know there is a manga Nancy Drew series, but the point was to find different girl detectives!)

Onward to mysteries for the twelve and up set and Peter Abrahams's excellent Down the Rabbit Hole. This book rocked! First, I completely missed the identity of the villain, even though I thought I had it all figured out. And Ingrid Levin-Hill, our hero, has to be one of the most engaging characters I have come across in fiction in a long time. That's all fiction, even the kind for grown-ups. Ingrid doesn't want to be part of a mystery, she would really rather try to figure out what is going on with her parents and her brother (all very well drawn supporting characters with real problems to ponder) and play some kick-ass soccer. But she makes an initial mistake that ends up blowing her nice little life out of the water and sucks her into events that she can not control, let alone hide from. On top of everything else she needs to study for her part in the town's production of Alice in Wonderland, and thus get in touch with her inner Alice (is Alice angry, scared, confused? What the heck was that girl thinking after she fell down that hole?)

So what's good in Down the Rabbit Hole? Ingrid and her love for Sherlock Holmes, her very smart determination to become a master detective and break the case, her friend Joey who is certainly no blockhead and his Dad, the Echo Falls Chief of Police, who is smart and capable and grills a great steak. Plus, there is Ingrid's grandfather who is too funny for words and her nice normal family that has a lot of their own secrets to hide. (And no, this is not an episode of Desperate Housewives, but every family has its own issues to deal with.) Throw in a bizarre reworking of Alice and I was hooked from start to finish. Ingrid will be back next year with Behind the Curtain and I can't wait to see what she does next. Even Stephen King loves Ingrid, calling the book "My all-time favorite, astonishing."

For a completely different take on the girl detective, Bennett Madison has written a breezy NY City-based mystery, Lulu Dark Can See Through Walls. Here's the take on Lulu: she's at a club to hear the new hot band who sports a very appealing lead singer (he might be interested in Lulu) along with her close friends and a few enemies. She loses her purse, which is tragedy enough, but then a lot very weird things begin to happen in Lulu's life. She gets odd phone calls, people see her in places she has never been and the guy who just might be something more than a friend suddenly gets very disappointed in her, when she hasn't done anything wrong.

Oh, and she's being followed. A lot.

Lulu sneaks up on you. It's a nice story, very light, very funny, lots of sarcastic comments and Paris Hiltonesque moments and then all of sudden Lulu is in very real trouble. The plot turns on a dime and it is a serious problem she has to deal with, an Alfred Hitchcock "I hear the music from the shower scene in Psycho" kind of problem. It's not all fun and games in Lulu's world anymore and nobody seems to believe her. So, of course, she just has to figure it all out herself which she really would rather not do, but there you go. Sometimes a girl detective is not born; she is made by the events that surround her. Sometimes, she really doesn't have a choice when it comes to solving mysteries. Lulu does such a good job with this one though that I hope she comes around again for a return engagement. She's the freshest blood this genre has seen for a long time and definitely livens things up.

All of these titles are good (actually really good), but none of them can answer the questions that Rechelle is asking about Nancy Drew in my CD player. "Does she still come home after a long day... Is she hiding behind a bookcase or on a high speed chase... Has she disappeared without a trace?"

"Whatever happened to Nancy Drew?"

Kelly Link knows, and it is totally not what you expected; not by a long shot.

In her short story collection Stranger Things Happen (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), Link has a mind blowing take on Nancy. In "The Girl Detective," the unnamed heroine takes on the mysterious case of a group of tap-dancing sisters and follows them down a long dark stairway, right into the underworld. In a nightclub with a sign advertising "Dance With Beautiful Girls" the girl detective boldly pursues her quarry, intent on revealing their secrets once and for all. But what she finds is someone called "Mom," the ultimate missing person in the girl detective's life and then she disappears forever... sort of. This is Kelly Link's work after all; don't expect easy answers to any of your questions. Expect to think, and expect to be dazzled. Mostly in "The Girl Detective" I was thrilled to finally see the issue of the missing mother addressed. At least I know I'm not the only one who wondered why Nancy never missed dear old Mom (I'd also like to know why at least one parent has to die in every single Walt Disney cartoon, but that's a whole other mystery). And Link's girl detective is very mysterious; she is a mystery all by herself. What does she eat, what does she think, where does she go all day? Why does she keep saving the world?

Who is the famous girl detective?

Kelly Link's story is the best thing written about Nancy Drew and all those who came after her in a long long time. It is the ultimate mystery, the biggest case to ever hit River Heights (or wherever the girl detective really lives). It is a riff on all the things good and bad about the genre and a stab in the dark at all the feminist analysis that Nancy still engenders. Who the hell knows after all who she is or why she does the things she does? Why did Lulu Dark forget her purse and Ingrid Levin-Hill forget something equally important? Why do the Shattenburg sisters spend their time hiding from the world by solving high profile mysteries and why is Lili's detective father so stupid or Hazel's friends so stubborn?

Why won't anyone accept that the girl detective knows the answers—she knows all of the answers to all of the questions; she knows it all.

Now you have your reading list, go read. There will be a chance to save the world (or town or neighborhood or your own sanity) very soon. You need to be ready.

All of the girl detectives must be ready.

 

For Further Reading (& Listening):

Famous Girl Detective
Rechelle Malin
cdbaby.com

Hazel Green & Something's Fishy, Hazel Green
Odo Hirsch
Bloomsbury 2003 & 2005
Ages 7 & up

Zodiac P.I. (multiple vols)
Natsumi Ando
Tokyo Pop
Ages 7 & Up

Down the Rabbit Hole: An Echo Falls Mystery
Peter Abrahams
Laura Geringer Books 2005
Ages 10 & Up

Lulu Dark Can See Through Walls
Bennett Madison
Razorbill 2005
Ages 12 & Up

Stranger Things Happen
Kelly Link
Small Beer Press 2001
Ages 15 & Up

 

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